Monday, April 2, 2007

Easter Films - Sacred vs Silly

With Easter approaching and this week, Holy Week, the most important in the Christian calendar, it’s interesting to take a look at Americans’ ability to walk that line between the sacred and the silly. Obviously jelly beans and chocolate bunnies have nothing to do with liturgy, yet they are now part and parcel of Easter.

Movies have not grasped the holiday and wrung it to bits the way they’ve commandeered Christmas, but two Easter films we’ll be dealing with this week are stamped with that genuine American attitude of compromise. The Passion of Christ cannot, for most of us, be reduced to a lighthearted musical review of songs and dances. But, the secular aspects of any religious holiday are more comfortably shared, celebrated, and kidded. Thus the sacred and the silly are separated, but not necessarily opposing.

By the way, we’re talking “old” movies (see Intro in archives), so “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” despite their merits as musicals, are not the issue here. Nor will either help us to understand that American invention of the secular persona for a sacred holiday.

The two films are “Easter Parade” and “My Dream is Yours,” from 1948 and 1949. These postwar years play a big a part in the character of these films. The post-war years had a strange duality to them. On the one hand, the GI Bill of Rights provided the resources for a generation of young men to pursue education, business, and a suburban tract home. On the other hand, despite this drive to a seek out a wonderful future, there was a kind of fatigue after the horrors of war and a yearning to turn back the mind, if not the clock, to a happier time and place. That’s generally called nostalgia, and it’s usually mostly made up.

There was the bewildered realization that after victory in the war and especially with the invention of the atom bomb, America was now the most powerful nation on earth, an aspect of our lives with which Americans still struggle. Yet, there was a naiveté about our power and our bomb, that led Doris Day, in “My Dream Is Yours” to sing a novelty tune called “The Geiger Counter Song” with a “tick-tick-tick” syncopation to “give me a radioactive kick.”

“Easter Parade” eschewed the modern times and sent us back to 1911-1912, where modernity was represented in large plumed hats and ragtime, a more comfortable spot for us to be, evidently. The film was intended to be a showcase for a variety of Tin Pan Alley Irving Berlin tunes. Ironically, the song “Easter Parade” was not from this era, but was written by Berlin for the musical review “As Thousands Cheer” in 1932. It’s always been hard to film a movie about the past and not get slapped in the head by unruly anachronisms. That is because we want the past to be what we want it to be, and not what it was.

More tomorrow on these Easter films.

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