The holidays are upon us, and it is time for the Siren's annual rituals. These include, but are not limited to:
1. Preparing to bake, the Siren's annual substitute for baking.
2. Cleaning out rooms in a frenzy that would do the Clean House crowd proud.
3. Forgetting one key Christmas present until the very last minute.
4. Tuning in to TCM to watching holiday movies that she's already seen. This year's selections include The Man Who Came to Dinner, because Ann Sheridan steals a couple of scenes from Bette Davis, and people stole scenes from Davis about once every leap year; It Happened on Fifth Avenue, because of all the character actors and the post-war jokes about not being able to find an apartment in New York; and the really not-very-good-at-all MGM Christmas Carol, viewed because
5. Charles Dickens is the Siren's favorite novelist and everything he ever touched spells Christmas to her, a fact that TCM is acknowledging this month, although technically their tribute is tied to his birthday.
6. Getting weepy over Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which makes the Siren think of people listening to it during World War II.
That last has particular force this year due to the Siren's new Twitter addiction, which dependency she happily passes on to you: Real Time World War II, tweets from an Oxford history graduate, Alwyn Collinson, about what was happening on that day in World War II. (You don't have to join Twitter to read it, by the way, although it's worth the trouble.) The feed made its debut on Aug. 31, on the eve of the war's beginning, so we are in 1939. In the past months, the Siren has learned about Bernard Montgomery's short-lived campaign to get his men to use condoms with hookers, an idea that did not sit well with his superiors; the birth of the Molotov cocktail during the Soviet invasion of Finland; and that the most popular Christmas dolls in London in 1939 were Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. Though there's the occasional bit of comic relief, most of the tweets are as dark as you'd expect.
Still, given that the Siren loves movies from that era so much, it's an incredible thing to see the onslaught of news that was accompanying what some say was the greatest year in Hollywood history, Gone With the Wind premiering in Atlanta even as Finland fought desperately for its life.
Naturally, all this is leading up to an anecdote, from Rosalind Russell's autobiography, Life Is a Banquet. As Christmas 1942 approached, Russell was about five months pregnant with her only child, Lance. Her brother George was in California, training to drive tanks with George S. Patton's Sixth Armored Division. Russell went to visit him earlier that month and found him eating a mixture of meat, grease and blowing sand as he sat on the ground in the freezing desert wind. Instead of indulging in the Siren's routine at five months into a pregnancy, which included strenuous activities such as reheating leftovers and elevating her feet, Russell went to her brother's commanding officer and said she wanted to organize a Christmas party for the men. She went back to RKO, where she was making Flight for Freedom, and got the money from the studio.
When I think of the logistics involved in that party, I shudder. I was even more nuts than I generally am, because you are more nuts when you're carrying a child. I hired buses. I enlisted hundreds of women--starlets, secretaries, stenographers, pals.
We had a meeting on an RKO sound stage, and I told the girls what I wanted them to wear. Flat heels and warm clothes. Not one of them paid any attention; they came with the tall spike heels and the short flimsy dresses and nearly froze to death.
We had to figure out where the buses could stop so the girls could use the facilities, and we loaded the buses with coffee and Danish pastries. We sent a truck ahead with a portable dance floor and a Christmas tree. We took a whole show with us, orchestra and all. (Red Skelton came and played Santa Claus.)
The Siren pauses to let everyone digest that last image. Informed by George's CO that she couldn't invite one division and just leave out the other, Russell found herself arranging a Christmas party for two armored divisions. George, meanwhile, had been persuaded to go to officers' training camp and departed already. The Siren ponders the fact that it's Dec. 21 and she still hasn't decided what we're having for Christmas dinner, and continues.
Arriving at the base, we got out of our buses and beheld an astonishing sight. The dance floor had been put down, and it was surrounded by great M-4 tanks. The soldiers were studded on the tanks like flies on flypaper…
We roped off the dance floor and gave the boys tickets, like movie tickets. Each fellow had four or five, good for a dance apiece. The girls all stood in the middle of the dance floor, and three or four hundred soldiers were allowed on at one time, and they and the girls jitterbugged together. Then those boys would go off and three or four hundred more boys would come on. The girls really had to dance, and they were absolutely wonderful. The boys were, too. We didn't have a single untoward incident. I'd been very worried that if we got some dingalings in there, we'd be hearing screams from underneath the cactuses, but nothing like that happened….
I was the M.C. (I wore a fur coat, party because it got so cold in the desert at night, partly because I was trying to cover my pregnancy.) We had brought spotlights with us, and in the spillover from the lights you could pick out boys sitting all over the dance floor, and other boys piled up on those tanks. Some chairs had been set down in front for the brass, and before General Woods took his, he called for a lot of the soldiers who were stuck way in back to come closer. I remember a boy plumped down right in front of him. There was the general sitting, watching the show, and this kid leaned his head right back against the general's knees. It was very sweet, and I thought, only in the good old U.S.A. A kid couldn't lean against Hermann Goering's knees in Nazi Germany, he'd get killed.
Later Santa Claus handed out surprises, and there was more music. It was a great party.
On the way home we fed the girls again, at about three o'clock in the morning, in Palm Springs. They'd worked for forty-eight hours without an ounce of sleep. And those boys had been so glad to see something dainty and pretty. They were on their way overseas, and one knew some of them would never come home again.
(In 1974, I was named 'Sweetheart of the Super Sixth' and invited to a reunion that was being held down in Disneyland. I went, and there in the convention hall I looked around at all the men with their bald heads and their paunches and their wives, and it struck me with a shock that the Christmas party had been thirty years ago. If a young man had gone into the army at thirty, he'd be sixty now; if he'd gone in at twenty-five, he'd be fifty-five…
Now the children of Patton's army smiled up at me with their shiny, untroubled faces. I told them that they must think about some of the men who hadn't come back, but I knew there was no way for them to feel what I was feeling.)
In the holiday spirit of gift-giving, the Siren now shares some of what she's been reading about the blogosphere lately.
David Cairns' Late Films blogathon was splendid, and you should read the full lineup. But the Siren is going to point out two in particular, starting with David's analysis of Roscoe Arbuckle's last film. Then, to get all the Christmas weepies out of the way, do read this beautiful post at a blog that is new to the Siren, Robert Donat, written by Gill Fraser Lee. The post is about the great actor's last role, in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
Now that she has reduced everyone's stash of Kleenex by a factor of five, the Siren turns to more cheery links...or, er, OK, this could be cheery, depending on your mood. One of Kim Morgan's festive obsessions this month is the original (in the Siren's mind, at least) madman-in-a-sorority-house epic, Black Christmas. The Siren has seen and very much liked Black Christmas, and while it doesn't exactly make you want to run out and sing Christmas carols to strangers, it could be a real pick-me-up for the day when you've been at the mall, you heard Wings' "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" for the 217th time and you have some serious aggression to work out.
Once you are feeling better, catch up with the TCM festival coverage of the dauntless Dennis Cozzalio, at Slant Magazine's House Next Door blog. If you missed the fest, you won't feel as though you did after you read Dennis' epic tribute.
In preparation for holiday dissipation, Peter Nelhaus, at the Siren's request, posted his reminiscences about the Night He Got Drunk With Nicholas Ray. You will definitely want to read.
Raquelle of Out of the Past has a review of Piper Laurie's new autobiography that makes the Siren want to read the book, even if Ms Laurie, oddly, does not seem to hold Son of Ali Baba in the same fond regard as does the Siren.
At Silent Volume, Chris Edwards has The Wildcat (1921), from Ernst Lubitsch. Not exactly a Christmas movie, evidently, but it has snowmen, and Pola Negri, so, good enough. The Siren particularly loves Chris' description of Paul Heidemann's peculiar smile: "Think of the smile you might put on if your wife ran into your girlfriend at the king’s dinner party, and no one could really afford to look bad, and so things are a little strained, but really, you suspect, you’ll be scoring a three-way out of it later." Ah yes, we all need a specific smile for an occasion like that.
The Siren's eternal favorite screen-cap blog (and she loves them all, as a general rule) continues to be Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, from which this year's Christmas banner (any guesses as to the movie?) is shamelessly borrowed. Want some snow scenes? You got 'em.
Rachel, who graces the comments section here from time to time, has a great blog: The Girl With the White Parasol, which title alone the Siren loves for reasons she need not explain to her patient readers. Latest post is on The Wicked Lady, the number-one box office hit in 1946 Britain, because it gave the people what they wanted: "...kinky sex. Lots of kink. They wanted to see Margaret Lockwood in corsets so tight they had to be censored for U.S. audiences. They wanted to watch her do wicked, awful things like shooting people and poisoning them and sleeping with James Mason outside on the grass. They wanted to see Patricia Roc and Margaret Lockwood get into a slap-fight. They wanted to see cross-dressing and secret passages and noblewomen seducing robbers." Wait, what? Surely the great British public still wants all that? Well, the Siren does, in any event.
The delightful Caftan Woman's choice for Christmas Eve viewing is the same as the Siren's.
Finally, should you be interested, the Siren contributed a year-end Top Ten list to Indiewire. Her list is right here and the full lists from 162 critics are here.
Now, a Christmas gospel interlude, because the Siren doesn't know when her next opportunity to bring up Mahalia Jackson will arise.
This marks the Siren's sixth Christmas at her old building-and-loan-blog. May the Siren's patient readers all have a holiday season that is even merrier, and brighter, than Technicolor.