Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Yes, Virginia, this makes me cry every damn year...

In 1897, a little girl, Virginia O'Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun asking that terrible, inevitable question: "Is there a Santa Claus?" Francis Pharcellus Church, a former war correspondent, provided this famous answer.

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old. "Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. "Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.' "Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?"VIRGINIA O'HANLON."115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET."

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there.

Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Potpourri!

In honor of the first real snowfall of the year (seriously, outside it’s nearly like a picture print from Currier and Ives!!!), I’ve decided to return to my aforementioned Christmas devotional with some suggestions for how to make your Yuletide more Yule-tastic. I can vouch for all of them and highly recommend making them a part of your holiday.

Note: I’ve excluded any mention of Red Ryder guns, Charlie Brown trees, Rankin-Bass or angels named Clarence, not because I don’t love these things, but because they’re everywhere.

And I promise: no seven swans a-swimming….

1. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

This is one of my favorite short stories of all time and my Christmas season isn’t complete without it. First published in 1906, the now famous twist ending has been rehashed in everything from The Honeymooners to Sesame Street to 7th Heaven to Rugrats. It’s one of those stories that has become so much a part of American Christmas culture, you know it whether you’ve read it or not. Jim and Della Dillingham Young are a young couple living in a Manhattan tenement at the turn of the 20th century. They want to get each other something special for Christmas but there’s no money to spare. She has long, beautiful hair; he has a gold watch he inherited from his father. She really wants a set of valuable combs; he really wants a nice watch chain. The result is ironic, wrenching, darkly funny, and so romantic. By the story’s end, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry (Jim and Della do both and so do I usually) but it doesn’t matter because you love the characters as much as they each other. I’ve only read a handful of O. Henry’s stories but judging from those, he seemed to enjoy and care about his characters. And he clearly adored Jim and Della. This is a story that, while especially meaningful at Christmas, is a pleasure to read year-round. In fact, I recommend it for Valentine’s Day too. It’s one of my favorite love stories.

P.S. I also recommend Pete’s Tavern in Manhattan. It’s the oldest operating pub in New York City and has been carefully preserved over the decades. Walking into it is like going back in time. Best of all, it's where O. Henry wrote The Gift of the Magi; the booth he sat in while he wrote it is done up like a shrine and the effect is chill-inducing.

2. All I Want For Christmas Is You by Vince Vance and the Valiants

Make no mistake. This is not Mariah Carey’s classic of the same, nor is it another version of that song. It’s a whole other monster—a country song from 1989—with the same title. I love Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You but so does everybody. This song doesn’t get as much play or attention, but every time it comes on, I melt. The gist is the same as Mariah Carey’s with the female singer declaring that she would trade all the ornamentations and material benefits of Christmas if only the guy she’s in love with could love her back / be with her. It’s slower and more mournful than Mariah Carey’s but still hopeful and very romantic. LeAnn Rimes did a cover in 2004 worth checking out but my money’s on the original.

3. The Lion in Winter

Dysfunctional family movies are a dime a dozen especially around this time of year, but this one, released in 1968, just might be the Mack daddy of them all. And based on a true story at that. It’s Christmas 1183 and the royal family of England has gathered to celebrate and to try and resolve an important family quarrel. The eldest son has recently died and England is in need of an heir. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) wants the crown to go to her favorite, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), an accomplished soldier and the next in line. King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) wants it to go to his favorite, John (Nigel Terry) a spoiled teenaged brat. Standing in the background with no champion but himself is the middle child, Geoffrey (John Castle) who has been turned into a calculating, vengeful machine by a lifetime of neglect. Anybody with a passing knowledge of English history (or the story of Robin Hood) knows how it all turns out, but as always, the fun is in the journey. The cast is excellent and the movie has suspense, scandal, political intrigue, tragedy, and even romance. And it’s very funny. Throw in Henry’s young mistress / John’s fiancĂ©e (Jane Merrow), a very young Timothy Dalton as King Phillip of France, and one of the best scripts ever written and you’ve got yourself a Christmas party. It doesn’t give the same warm fuzzy as your standard Christmas faire but who can’t relate to a family just trying to get through the holidays without any betrayals, murders, or insurrections?

4. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

This book has been a Christmas tradition in my house since I was nine years old. It’s the story of the six Herdman kids considered “the worst kids in the history of the world” by their classmates. They’re mean, they curse, they smoke cigars, they steal, and do basically everything kids aren’t supposed to do. When they crash Sunday school in search of free sweets, they end up taking over the annual Christmas pageant, a tradition nobody in town has much feeling for anymore, and bring it to life. This is one of the funniest books I have ever read. The descriptions of Sunday school (CCD to us Catholic kids), grammar school, and suburban politics all vividly echo my own childhood experiences and give me a nostalgic rush every time I reread them. However, for all its humor (and there is a lot), the book also provides a subtle, powerful message about Christmas. As the Herdmans destroy the angelic pretenses of the Christmas pageant (calling Mary pregnant! burping the baby Jesus!) they accidentally restore humanity to the holier-than-thou proceedings. By daring to imply that maybe the baby Jesus cried and had colic like the rest of us, they remind their audience that “when Jesus said ‘suffer the little children to come unto me’, he meant all little children. Even the Herdmans.”

6. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann

The holiday season wouldn’t be complete without the classic love story of a seven-year-old girl and her favorite Christmas present. First published in 1816, it’s become a holiday tradition thanks to the beloved ballet, but unfortunately, the ballet only tells half the story. If you want the full dirt (and a happier ending) this is the road to take. On Christmas Eve, young Marie (yes, Marie—not Clara!!!) receives a special present from her godfather, Drosselmeyer. It’s a Nutcracker and it’s love at first sight which isn’t weird at all because he’s really a handsome prince under a spell. Of course, he is. And of course, there’s a horrific band of mice he must fight before he can change back. And of course, all the toys will come to life and help him so he can return to his fantasy land kingdom that, of course, needs a queen. We get to see the relationship between Marie and the Nutcracker Prince develop and grow into a real romance in which they are equal partners. It also tells us the back story of how he came to be a Nutcracker and why only Marie’s love could set him free. Hoffmann has a lot of fun messing with us here, blurring the line between fantasy and reality to the point where we have no idea what really happened and what Marie dreamed. If she dreamed any of it. This story is definitely the reason I became obsessed with nutcrackers as a kid and now have a huge collection of them headed by one special fellow who just refuses to turn into a prince. Ah well, a girl can dream.

7. Double Feature: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and A Christmas Carol (1984)

There are countless adaptations of Charles Dickens’s classic novel about an uncaring miser’s Christmas redemption and how he returns to humanity with the aid of three Spirits. The 1951 version, Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim is almost universally regarded as the best and it is great, but my heart belongs to The Muppet Christmas Carol above all. There are those who would challenge me, call it a generational thing, say I have no idea what I’m talking about and to those naysayers, I would simply have to hum a few bars of any song in this unsung masterpiece to feel I had made my point. Michael Caine is hands-down my favorite Scrooge, making his character’s transformation real and emotionally wrenching. It’s slow, it takes time, and it’s so real. More than any other Scrooge, Caine shows us the good person underneath all along, done in by bitterness and neglect. To say nothing of the fact that he acts alongside the Muppets as well as if they were human actors. And I don’t think human actors could have done a better job than Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Robin as Tiny Tim, Miss Piggy as Mrs. Emily Cratchit, Statler and Waldorf as Marley and Marley (avarice and greed!) and of course, Gonzo as “a blue-faced Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat” (as in Rizzo the). When I read the book, I imagine the characters to look like the Muppets. And the music…I dare you not to cry during When Love is Gone or Bless Us All. Or get all warm inside when the Hagrid-like Ghost of Christmas Present leads all of London in It Feels Like Christmas. I’ve seen this countless times and yet every time I still laugh and cry and want to be a better person. Beautiful.

However, if you’re in the mood for something a little darker and more unsettling (which is saying something considering the Muppets version scared the bejeezus out of me way back when), there’s always the 1984 British TV version starring George C. Scott as Scrooge. Though A Christmas Carol is ultimately life-affirming and joyful, it presents a terribly dark and dismal journey. After all, it centers around a man who must revisit the most painful moments of his life, witness his mistakes, and face the prospect of his death and the death of an innocent child he could have helped if only he had cared enough. Scott makes a great Scrooge, even though he stays gruff a little too long, in my opinion. Scrooge needs to melt slowly (something Caine did wonderfully). But Scott does a fantastic job with Scrooge at his meanest and at his most joyful, bringing me to tears when he realizes he still has time to change and drawing belly-laughter when he scares Bob Cratchit to death with his kindness. And speaking of Bob Cratchit, he’s played by the one and only David Warner (Gregory Peck’s unfortunate sidekick in The Omen) who is wonderful. But of course, I’ll watch him in anything. The three Spirits (Angela Pleasence, Edward Woodward, and Michael Carter) are morbid, sarcastic, frightening and don’t seem to like Scrooge very much, something I found oddly refreshing. Never has the Ghost of Christmas Present’s speech about Scrooge’s ambivalence towards “the surplus population” haunted me so much. To add to the horror, Ignorance and Want show up in all their terrifying glory. The sight of these two proved to be one of the my most powerful movie experiences as a kid and marked the first time a movie ever truly disturbed me. This version also includes the relationship between Scrooge and his beloved sister, Fan (Joanne Whalley) and shows how her early death led to his cruel treatment of her son, his nephew, Fred (Roger Rees) who loves him anyway. If I have one problem with the Muppet version, it’s that they cut Fan out, choosing to focus on Scrooge’s forsaken love, Belle instead. Watch the Muppets for Belle and this one for Fan. Either way, your heart will break.

I highly recommend watching these two as a double feature. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that lends itself to being retold. You don’t have to pick just one if you don’t want to. These are two great, very different interpretations and both are worth watching.

Until we meet again, my pickles.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Whiff of a Renaissance: A Look at The Princess and The Frog

Already, I’m breaking my commitment to the coming Yule, but how could I let this go by without a word?

It’s back. I knew it couldn’t and wouldn’t stay away long. Hand-drawn animation. Anybody who knows me knows I am a huge Disney fan, particularly of the animated movies. I’ve been fascinated by the animation process since I saw my very first Behind the Scenes documentary at the ripe old age of four. When I first heard back in the early 00’s, that Disney—in a move driven by Pixar-envy, defeatism, and all-out stupidity—had decided to shut down its hand-drawn animation studio, I was devastated. They figured that since Pixar’s movies were so successful, it could have nothing to do with story or characters. It had to be the computer animation. It apparently wasn’t enough that the Disney channel had to devolve from a groundbreaking blend of The Wonderful World of Disney, PBS, and Turner Classic Movies to a mini-American Idol factory; that my beloved princesses had to be plasticized and repackaged as new age Barbies; that a new straight to DVD sequel kept bouncing off the conveyor belt every six months. Nope, now they had to axe hand-drawn animation, the art form that gave birth not only to the Disney studios and corporation but animation as we know it today, computer generated or not. Once I had cried my tears and swept up the salt, I told myself that this was probably just a phase and that it wouldn’t be long before wiser heads prevailed. At the time, this might have just been my characteristic denial talking, but in typical Disney fashion, my wish came true. And now we have The Princess and the Frog.

I have done my best not to include spoilers.

I was so excited and so nervous when I arrived at the theater last Friday night. The Princess and the Frog did not have an easy birth and has been fraught with controversy since the studio announced that it would feature their first African-American princess (read: heroine) after almost 75 years of primarily white characters. I hoped against hope they would do a good job not only with their leading lady but with everything—the songs, the animation, and of course, the story, a twisted take on the Grimm Brothers’ The Frog Prince (actually titled The Frog King or Iron Heinrich), largely inspired by E.D. Baker’s novel The Frog Princess. I grew up in the 90’s during what is now known as the Disney Renaissance—a period when movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King were practically an annual guarantee. During the last ten years, however, they broke with their traditional “fairy tale musical” formula and though this led to some great things (why oh why haven’t more people seen The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo and Stitch, or Treasure Planet?!?!?!?!?) it made me homesick for fairy tales. And I know I’m not the only one. So when the lights went dark and that new-fangled Disney logo appeared, I held my breath and waited.

Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements (who also directed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) and set in New Orleans in the 1920s, the story follows a young woman named Tiana who has wanted to own her own restaurant since she was a very little girl. Her dream is a continuation of her father’s who died (in World War One) before he could make that dream come true. In a heart-warming prologue, her father tells her that while wishing is important—everything starts with a wish, after all—it will only get you so far. You’ve got to work hard to make your dreams come true. It’s a lesson Tiana takes to heart and one that pushes her to work two jobs and save every penny, even while her friends are out having fun. Meanwhile, a prince has come to visit New Orleans. Prince Naveen of Maldonia (which I cannot for the life of me find in my atlas) is a ukulele playing, free-loading, fun-loving ladies man who has been recently cut off by his royal parents and must marry a wealthy young woman in order to continue living his desired lifestyle. The lady Naveen has his eye on is Charlotte, Tiana’s friend and the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the city, who wants nothing more than to marry a prince so she can be a princess. Overseeing all is the dastardly, charismatic voodoo practitioner, Dr. Facilier (also known as the Shadow Man) who sees Naveen’s arrival as the key to gaining control of New Orleans. Long story short, Naveen gets turned into a frog, one misunderstanding after another sends him to Tiana for help, she turns into a frog too (it makes sense in context) and they set off through the Louisiana bayous in search of a spell to make them human again.

The characters were the highlight for me. I loved Tiana. I related to her very much. Anybody who has ever worked hard to achieve a goal can relate to her. There’s never been an entrepreneur Disney princess before and now we have one. Her song Almost There gave me happy goose bumps and her relationship with her father is very moving. She’s beautiful but she doesn’t define herself by her beauty and neither does anybody else. She can sing but only because this is a musical and everybody can sing. Nobody falls in love with her at the sound of her voice. She teaches the prince a thing or two but is also open to change in her own life. And she can make a better gumbo than anybody else in the dang movie. Luckily, this movie broke the current trend of casting a name celebrity in every role. Tony winner Anika Noni Rose provides Tiana’s voice and she does a stupendous job. Her singing and acting are both spot on and she brings a real heart and soul to the character that made me love her all the more.

As for his highness, Prince Naveen tickled me to the core. Imagine if Prince Phillip from Sleeping Beauty and Dmitri from Don Bluth’s Anastasia had a love child, raised him in Brazil, and occasionally let Gaston from Beauty and the Beast baby-sit. That child would grow up to be Prince Naveen. And, like his fathers, he’s a hunk. Even as a frog. Like Tiana, he has an arc and develops as a character. He is arrogant without being off-putting, charming but not slimy (except for when he's secreting mucus, that is), and overall, lovable. I’ve decided that Bruno Campos (who provided Naveen’s voice) must be in more movies, animated or otherwise. His performance had me cracking up through out.

Charlotte, Tiana’s friend, is a hoot and gets some of the best lines. For example, “I’m sweatin’ like a sinner in church.” I did not expect to like her fearing that she would be the archetypal spoiled rich girl who treats Our Heroine like dirt. She is spoiled to be sure, but she is not mean and she genuinely cares for Tiana. She is also a very subtle parody of Disney princesses of yore. More than anything else, she wants to marry a prince. And it’s pretty much all she talks about. Jennifer Cody (who performed in Broadway’s Urinetown) must also be in more for the same reason as Bruno Campos.

Dr. Facilier is a great villain—funny, charismatic, genuinely menacing, prone to bending others to his will by tempting them with their fiercest desires. All that good stuff. And his shadow minions are terrifying. I used to have nightmares about shadows that looked exactly like that. In the tradition of great Disney villains, he gets a great song, Friends On the Other Side. This scene might be my favorite in the film. Keith David’s vocal performance is wonderful and the animation is jaw-dropping. We get to see the transformation from Naveen’s point of view as he changes from human to frog. In song! Talk about ideal for animation. This moment cried out to me on so many levels—as an animation fan, as a fairy tale scholar, and as a writer who has written the same scene in her own version of The Frog Prince. In the fairy tale, it’s never revealed why he was turned so it’s up to the imagination of every reader and interpreter. And this one’s good. It’s fantastic. A fantastic song and scene. And a great villain.

There are many more great characters but they should really be met on their own, not spoiled by me in a fangirl rush. One is further proof that Jim Cummings is a truly great vocal performer.
Can I ask for three cheers in honor of the fact that Disney has reacquainted itself with sexual innuendo? I am happy to report that it abounds in this movie. Not in an obnoxious dick and fart joke way either. Just a few good adult laughs.

The songs by Randy Newman are very good, though not quite up to the standard set by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. This is an unfair complaint though. Menken and Ashman’s songs were so instrumental to the success of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin that anybody who has written a song for a Disney movie since has been compared to them (usually unfavorably). I did love the music here. I’ve been listening to Down in New Orleans, Almost There, and Friends on the Other Side almost non-stop since I saw it. But there’s no Part of Your World. Of course, this could also be nostalgia talking. Ask me again when I have 20 years of memories connected to these songs.

The movie isn’t perfect. The third act gets a little convoluted (and dark even though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing). I’ve seen the thing twice now and I’m still not exactly sure what Dr. Facilier was trying to accomplish by turning Prince Naveen into a frog (suggestions are welcome). Also the character of the prince’s downtrodden manservant, Lawrence could have used a little more development. Not only did I resent that he was all that remained of Iron Heinrich (the frog prince’s best friend and faithful servant in the fairy tale) but I felt this could have been a potentially complex character who instead had to serve as comic relief. The ending lacks a certain something, even though it features one of the best, hilariously inappropriate lines (courtesy of Charlotte). But I wasn’t crying and I was pissed off that I wasn’t crying. It should be noted that I choked up several times during the movie, but not at the fricking end! The hell, Disney?

I wish that Tiana didn’t have to spend most of the movie as a frog. I’m not alone here, I know. She’s such a cool character and so revolutionary in terms of both race and gender that it felt almost like a waste for her to be written off as an “animal” character. Of course, this is still an improvement over some of the past heroines. Consider that Tiana is human in her movie longer than Aurora is awake in hers. I can see the moviemakers’ dilemma. The fairy tale can be potentially difficult to adapt faithfully. The princess is a brat, the frog’s behavior borders on sexual harassment, and she turns him back to a prince not by kissing him but by chucking him angrily against the wall. Also it requires a lot of padding. Add in the factor that it is basically a Beauty and the Beast story. Girl meets animal. Girl falls in love with/gets passionately pissed at animal. Animal turns out to be a boy. Girl and boy live happily ever after. And they made that movie two decades ago. Too well to do it again. Some kind of twist was necessary. But still…

Growing up, I didn’t have to look far to find a Disney princess with my color hair, eyes, and skin. It was something I was able to take for granted. Princesses are not all sparkly dresses and rosy cheeks. They represent something to the little girls who latch onto them, something primal and important. I was by no means a girly girl during my childhood but I still clung to the princesses like nobody’s business. I felt like a misfit a lot of the time growing up, as I’m sure everybody does. I looked to Belle, also bookish and solitary, as a kind of role model. I too wanted “adventure in the great, wide somewhere” and somebody to share it with. And it didn’t hurt that I often wore my light brown hair up in a ponytail. They aren’t characters to be written off as stupid plastic dolls who occasionally sing and marry the prince in the third reel. Tiana is a great role model for girls of all skin colors but she also represents growing diversity and provides African-American girls with a princess who looks like them. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction that won’t be soon forgotten.

Last but not least, the animation. I did not give enough credit to the animation. Did I mention it’s old-school hand-drawn animation? Because it is. I had forgotten how beautiful hand-drawn animation looked on the big screen. It’s magical. I don’t mean to take anything away from computer generated animation. Pixar deserves all its praise. Hell, I went to see Up in the theater three times. But I have always been partial to hand-drawn, and I've always thought they could peacefully coexist. Apart from the transformation, I really loved a shot where Tiana is describing what she wants her restaurant to look like to her mother. And as she sings (of course, sings) it comes to life around her in the dilapidated old building she hopes will be her location. And then when the song ends, we return to reality and the golden roof disappears beam by beam and turns back into shafts of sunlight pouring through the holes in the roof. It’s such a moving moment—hopeful and sad at the same time—and beautifully animated.

Something I especially loved about this movie was how it portrayed New Orleans. It is very much a love letter to New Orleans and the Louisiana bayous. The movie introduces its setting with “in the South land, there’s a city, way down on the river,” making it sound as mystical and magical as any storybook land. Disney fairy tales usually take place in fairy tale worlds. Even Beauty and the Beast, which takes place in France, still has an enchanted castle sitting at the top of a mountain. But New Orleans is a real place. A real American city with a very raw recent history. It's romanticized here but hopefully that will make viewers want to get to know it better.

Go see this movie. Please. It’s a good movie. A very good movie. Fun and flawed. The whiff of another Renaissance, perhaps? Hopefully.

And no more sequels, Disney. Please.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Behind the Music: A Look at The Thirteen Days of Christmas by Jenny Overton

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me A Partridge in a Pear Tree.”
--The Twelve Days of Christmas, Traditional

“When Prudence Kitson asked her father what he would like for Christmas, he sighed and said, ‘A husband for your sister.’” –The Thirteen Days of Christmas, Jenny Overton

Oh boy, it’s that time of year again. How? Why? Wasn’t Halloween last weekend? No?

Okay, I’ll bite. Luckily, it’s early enough in December to see Christmas gleaming on the horizon without panicking too much so to honor the coming craziness, I thought I’d devote a few entries to things of a Yuletide nature. And to start with we have…

The Thirteen Days of Christmas by Jenny Overton based on that inevitable holiday favorite The Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve always considered The Twelve Days of Christmas the It’s a Small World After All of Christmas carols. It shows up year after year usually to the chagrin of at least one audience member; it features one refrain that repeats over and over with slightly different lyrics; it’s been parodied endlessly; and once you get in your head, it will not leave. If you ever attend a Christmas concert at an elementary, middle, or high school and the program tells you to stay afterwards for a “Special Sing-Along” this will probably be the song they make you sing. What’s more you will probably be made to sing it while holding a giant poster-board with SEVEN SWANS A-SWIMMING in huge letters over your head and shouting your given lyric at the appropriate time. Trust me, I speak of what I know.

That said, I’ve always enjoyed it, in spite of myself and the world. It’s a fun song and I always thought there had to be an interesting story behind it. Who was this true love who had the power to send not only enough birds accommodate an Alfred Hitchcock film, but also actual people dancing and milking and leaping and performing on command? Was he in the slave trade? Was he a god of some kind? And where did his lady keep all her gifts? Was she too in possession of some superhuman abilities? And what was the reason for all this crazy gift-giving? Finally, Overton’s book provides answers.

The Thirteen Days of Christmas takes place in England many years ago when Christmas lasted twelve days (Dec. 25-Jan. 5). Thirteen if you count the Epiphany (Jan. 6). Each day was its own holiday with its own customs. A specific year is never given. I figure it’s pre-18th century since that’s when the song was first printed after spending some time in the oral tradition and it looks like the 15th or 16th judging from the illustrations. Our heroine, the receiver of the gifts, is Annaple Kitson. Since her mother’s death, she has been in charge of the household, much to the chagrin of her father, younger sister and two younger brothers. She’s a lousy cook, a stern taskmaster in all other respects, and her overactive imagination often makes her impossible to live with. She’s being courted by a very sweet, very, very wealthy young man named Francis who is completely crazy about her. When her family decides that the time has come to get Annaple married and out of the house, Francis seems perfect for the job. Unfortunately, Annaple wants nothing to do with Francis. She thinks he’s too boring and unromantic. Of course, anybody would seem boring and unromantic when you have visions of fairy tale princes and passionate shepherds dancing in your head (again, I speak of what I know). In desperation, Annaple’s siblings corner Francis and tell him that in order to win Annaple’s heart he should give her something romantic and inventive for Christmas. She likes to imagine herself as a goose girl in the country so why not some geese? She finds birds romantic so why not a bird? She loves fairy tales so why not a swan or a pipe to remind her of one of her favorites? Francis takes the advice to heart and nobody, least of all Annaple, is prepared for what he actually sends.

Of course, you know the song so you know what he sends. What starts out simply and sweetly enough—a partridge in a pear tree, followed the next day by a pair of turtle doves—quickly turns wild, unpredictable, and hilarious as Francis starts sending over more animals than the house can hold, more milk than the family can drink, and enough hired dancers and drummers to draw crowds from all over town. Annaple’s casual fancies and passing whims turn into extravagant (usually living) presents. Also Overton takes the song literally, meaning that on the fifth day, Francis not only sends five gold rings, but also four more calling birds, three more French hens, two more turtle doves, and of course, another partridge in another pear tree. The end total amounts to 364 individual presents. Spectators start lining up each the morning to see the new batches be delivered and place bets about what he’ll give next. By the third day, Annaple is annoyed, by the sixth, she’s furious, and by the twelfth, she’s in love. I won’t spoil what finally tips her over the edge but it’s very romantic indeed. I probably would have said yes too.

This was one of the most delightful books I’ve read in awhile. That’s a slightly archaic word delightful, used ironically a lot of the time these days (damn these days!) but I mean it sincerely. It was a lot of fun to read and it made me feel good. Even though you know how the song goes, Overton manages to keep the story fresh day after day. The question isn’t what will he bring, it’s how will he bring it, how will Annaple react, and where will the family put it? Some of the funniest passages describe the birds hissing at each other all night and the family having to bathe in milk because there’s just too much.

There’s a very subtle Taming of the Shrew vibe to the entire story. At the start of the book, Annaple is borderline unlikable. Nothing and nobody is good enough for her. She goes on about how perfect farm life must be and what idyllic lives goose girls must lead, completely ignoring how farmers and goose girls actually live. On the sixth day, when Francis sends six geese a-laying, Annaple initially refuses to accept them. The goose girl points out that she won’t get paid if Annaple doesn’t take the geese and Annaple, noticing the girl’s bare feet, decides she can’t let the girl suffer and accepts the presents. By the end, she’s been spoon fed a bit of reality without having to totally give up her imaginative ways.

Francis has an arc of his own, changing from a stuffy, boring type (though I could not for the life of me see what was so boring about him in the beginning) to a fun, imaginative suitor willing to do anything and spend anything (seriously, the guy must have one of those money growing trees I keep hearing about) to win over his ladylove. By the end, I wanted to marry him. Sure, there’s something innately off-putting about the whole “I’m going to bug you until you love me” tactic and I would have liked a little more development between Annaple and Francis but it’s a fun love story meant to be taken with a grain of salt. Overton’s writing crackles with humor and honesty. She captures family relationships wonderfully, mixing together just the right amount of tenderness, love, and tension. Especially scrumptious are the historical details peppered throughout. I learned so much about how Christmas used to be celebrated without even realizing it.

Something I especially liked about the book was how it showed the evolution of the song. With each passing day, the crowd of spectators grows bigger and bigger and they start chanting about the growing amount and variety of presents as they are brought to Annaple’s house. This chant (on the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me…) turns into a song. Overton makes you believe that the song really could have originated this way and then gone on to thrive in oral tradition until somebody (James O. Halliwell, savior of so many English nursery rhymes) wrote it down. It makes the whole story so poignant to think of the courtship of this one couple during this one holiday season being commemorated forever in song, even after many of the traditions they value so much have vanished. It’s astonishing to think of a time when Christmas actually lasted twelve days and every day had its own rituals and customs. It upsets me that so many of those customs have gone by the wayside and makes me wonder how we’ll celebrate Christmas 400 or 500 years from now. At least, these customs haven’t been forgotten even though they are no longer performed that often (at least not in my neighborhood). Overton’s book is proof of that, as is the song that inspired it.

I highly recommend The Thirteen Days of Christmas. Unfortunately, though it’s still alive and well in the UK where it was first published in 1972, it’s no longer in print here in the US. If you’re interested, your local library may have it or they could get it for you—worked for me. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been listening to The Twelve Days of Christmas on loop for the past hour. I think I’m going to go listen to It’s a Small World After All three times at a loud volume and hopefully pass out. Thank you.

In case you're in the mood to listen to the song after all this dissection here's one of my favorite versions....John Denver and the Muppets!


And if not, here are the lyrics written out. It's not like you don't know the tune.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Daughter of the Air: A Look at The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen

“Oh, if only he knew that to be with him, I had to give up my voice for all eternity!" -The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Tiina Nunally

(spoilers for The Little Mermaid book and movie)

This November, Disney's version of The Little Mermaid turned 20 years old. It's hard for me to admit or believe that any movie that came out during my lifetime could be that old, but that's how it is. Being only two years older, I've known The Little Mermaid pretty much all my life. It was one of my favorites as a kid. There's an old home movie of my third birthday party with me standing in front of a huge TLM poster tacked to the garage and proudly announcing it as my favorite movie. It's the reason I once brushed my hair with a fork (not to be confused with a dingle hopper) and why I was initially so reluctant to try flounder (even though I am really glad I did). I acted out that scene (and you know which scene I'm talking about) in the bathtub more times than I can say and still know all the words to Part of Your World. Many girls my age can probably say the same.

The Little Mermaid, as told by Disney, is the story of a headstrong young sea maiden named Ariel who dreams of exploring the human world. After she saves a prince from drowning, she finds herself in love and more desperate than ever to become human. She trades her beautiful voice to the local sea witch, Ursula, in exchange for a three day excursion on land during which she must earn the love of (read: seduce) her prince so that he will kiss her by the final sundown. If she succeeds, everything's hunky dory. If she fails, she must return to the sea and be the witch's prisoner forever. Of course, though trials arise and monsters appear, all's well that ends well and Ariel and her prince live happily ever after as humans.

I still love watching The Little Mermaid. The music by Alan Menken and the late great Howard Ashman never fails to give me goose bumps, the voice cast and animation are fantastic, and the story packs a punch. However, it's not the story Hans Christian Andersen originally wrote in 1837. Unlike the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Andersen wrote literary fairy tales, meaning that although many were inspired by folklore, they were still his own invention. The Little Mermaid as Andersen wrote it, is a tragedy. In his story, the nameless Mermaid, knowing she must either marry him or die, is forced to watch her prince love another woman. On his wedding night, her five elder sisters appear with a knife, saying they have made their own pact with the Sea Witch. If she kills the prince, she'll be allowed to turn back into a mermaid and return home. But the Mermaid loves him too much to kill him, throws the knife out to sea, and jumps off the ship to await her death.

It's easy to see why Disney changed the ending. The 80's saw the release of both The Fox and the Hound (which arguably has the saddest ending of any Disney movie) in 1981 and The Black Cauldron (a genuine zombie movie) in 1985. When production on The Little Mermaid began in the mid-80's, they probably used these movies as examples of what they wanted to get away from. A return to the fairy tale meant the return of iconic Disney images: a princess dreaming of love and happiness, a dashing prince, a dastardly villain, a hefty dose of magic, and, of course, a happy ending. Also as far as sad stories go, The Little Mermaid is a doozy. She doesn't just die at the end: her suffering, loneliness, and longing is evident on almost every page of the tale. As a mermaid who wants so much to be a part of the human world, she is in a constant state of alienation, even before she meets the prince. Her transformation is so painful Andersen likens it to a sword being driven through her, cutting her in half. With every step comes agonizing pain; she sometimes leaves behind bloody footprints. She can't even cry for her prince because mermaids have no tears and this goes on to affect her as a human making her suffering even more painful. Disney has brought to life its fair share of sad moments (Bambi's mother, the murder of Mufasa) but perhaps, a version of The Little Mermaid with its heroine and ending in tact would have been too sad. Imagine if Dumbo had ended, not with the little elephant flying, but falling to his death after trying to.

However, watching the end of Disney's version, it's hard not to compare it to the original especially in light of the life of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen once said, "the history of my life will be the best commentary on my work." Read in this way, The Little Mermaid comes across not only as a tragic fairy tale but also as the powerful psychological memoir of a complex artist. Andersen was a master at making his characters suffer. Whether they eventually find happiness or not (the Mermaid is not the only character in his work to meet a tragic end), so many heroes from the Ugly Duckling to Thumbelina to Gerda and Kai of The Snow Queen have to suffer at least a little bit. Andersen himself was no stranger to suffering. The son of impoverished parents, Andersen grew up gawky and alienated. He was a constant target for neighborhood bullies and dreamed from an early age of leaving his native city (Odense) and making a name for himself in Copenhagen. He picked up many of the tales that inspired his own stories as a child while working alongside his grandmother in an insane asylum. Though he eventually made it to Copenhagen and enjoyed fame and success in his own lifetime, he could never get past his humble beginnings and despite years of travel, he never found a place where he felt he fit in. These same feelings of isolation plague the Little Mermaid. As the youngest of her sisters, she must wait the longest for her turn to go up to the surface (a privilege granted on a mermaid's 15th birthday) even though she wants it more than any of them. Years before she sees it, she arranges the flowers in her garden to look like the sun, and decorates it with a statue of a handsome human boy years before she discovers the real article. Her loneliness is also very prevalent. Her father, the Sea King, is almost a non-presence in this story, and though her grandmother tells her stories of the human world and her older sisters pity her, none of them understand why she so badly wants to be human. Even the Sea Witch calls her stupid for making the trade.

The Mermaid's having to sacrifice her voice in order to achieve her dream also has a basis in Andersen's life. As a young boy, Andersen had a beautiful, highly acclaimed singing voice and traveled to Copenhagen at 14 to perform onstage. Then he hit puberty, his voice changed and he found he could no longer sing. Ultimately, he had to give up his acting aspirations and turned to writing. No doubt, he understood all too well how it felt to be deprived of your voice when you needed it most. For Andersen, the desire to be human may have represented his desire to escape his impoverished childhood. However, like the Mermaid, once he achieved his goal, true happiness still eluded him.

The Little Mermaid is very much a meditation on unrequited love. For the Mermaid, the Prince is unattainable in every way. First of all, they are literally from two different worlds and they do not have the "right" bodies to be together (sexually and physically). When her grandmother and the Sea Witch tell her she must trade her tail for legs, it's implicitly understood that she also needs what's between them. Then even after changing herself irrevocably, giving up her home, family, and beautiful voice, she still can't win his love. Plagued by crippling insecurity and a lifelong fear of sex, Andersen had many unfortunate love experiences with both men and women. He proposed to two different women and was refused by both and suffered from a doomed love affair with acclaimed singer Jenny Lind (the inspiration for another of his classic stories, The Nightingale). However, the chief inspiration for the Prince in The Little Mermaid was very likely Edvard Collin, the son of Andersen's benefactor. Like the Prince, Collin was from a high social class and represented the world that Andersen so longed to be a part of. Andersen wrote passionate letters expressing his love for Collin (some of which were never sent) and even went so far as to court his sister (unsuccessfully) just to stay close to him. Collin had no romantic or erotic feelings for Andersen and their relationship remained platonic. At the time that he was writing The Little Mermaid, the 32-year-old Andersen escaped from Copenhagen to the island of Fyn to avoid Collin's wedding making the fact that the Mermaid must attend the Prince's wedding and smile through it despite her pain all the more poignant. Andersen also makes you feel the Mermaid's frustration (and his own I'm sure) when describing her life with the Prince.

Disney's Prince Eric was never a favorite of mine (give me Prince Phillip or the Beast any day) but every time I reread the story, I find myself hating the Prince to my core. He and the Mermaid share a strange relationship. He calls her "my little foundling" (ugh) and has her sleep on a pillow outside his closed bedroom door--you know, like a dog. He dresses her in men's clothing and takes her riding. He turns her into a confidante, telling her how much he how would like to marry her, but he must marry the girl who saved him from drowning because she is the only one he could ever love. The girl he's referring to is a girl from a convent on the beach where the Mermaid left him who sheltered him and saw him home. And wouldn't you know, she turns out to be the foreign princess his parents want him to marry. When he discovers this and tells the Mermaid "Oh, I am much too happy...the best thing of all, what I never dared hope for, has been granted to me. You'll rejoice at my happiness, since you are more fond of me than all the others" the sense of injustice and cruel irony is almost overwhelming. He never finds out it was the Mermaid who actually saved him and marries the princess happily. I don't know how Andersen wants us to feel about the Prince as a character. He comes across as so cruel and so thoughtless that the bulk of my sadness for the heroine comes not just from her suffering but from the fact that she's suffering over a guy who is so not worth it. Perhaps Andersen painted Collin like this as a way of venting his own frustration. Either way, the story acts as an allegory of this painful relationship. Like the Mermaid, Andersen didn't have the "right" body to be with the one he loved and no amount of change or self-advancement could earn reciprocation. As he wrote Collin, "If you looked down to the bottom of my soul, you would understand fully the source of my longing and--pity me. Even the open transparent lake has its unknown depths which no divers know." Matching the Mermaid's longing and despair, this sounds like something Andersen's heroine would tell her prince if only she could speak.

Lastly, a vital part of Andersen's tale is missing from the Disney movie. In the story, the Mermaid's longing to be a human and to marry the prince are both inexorably tied to her longing for an immortal soul. Mermaids, her grandmother explains, live for 300 years but when they die, they dissolve into sea foam and that is the end of them. Humans, however, go on to another never-ending life of eternal joy in Paradise because they have immortal souls. For a mermaid to gain an immortal soul, her grandmother says "Only if a human were to love you so much that you were dearer to him than his father or mother. If he clung to you with all his thoughts and love and had the priest put his right hand in yours, promising faithfulness now and for all eternity, then his soul would fly into your body, and you too would share in the happiness of humans. He would give you a soul and yet keep his own. But that will never happen!" This makes the Mermaid long more than ever to be human, "I would give all three hundred years of my life to be human for just one day and then have a share in the heavenly world." She never thinks about her desire for the Prince without also mentioning her desire for an immortal soul, and when she sees the Prince marry another, she grieves not only for her love but also for her chance to know Heaven.

This one element of the story saves it from being a complete tragedy. When the Mermaid dies, she does dissolve sea foam but as Andersen describes, "she does not feel death." Instead she sees the radiant Daughters of the Air, lovely spirits with beautiful voices who raise her up and take her out of the ocean. They tell her they are beings who are working to earn immortal souls by doing good deeds and that "you've suffered and endured, raising yourself up to the world of the syphs. Now, through good deeds, you too can create an immortal soul for yourself at the end of 300 years." Though her prince and a life on land were denied her, the Little Mermaid's wish to see Paradise will be granted and one day she'll live an endless life of eternal joy. Unlike her family and the Prince, the Daughters of the Air are kind and understanding. Also her voice is restored to her so beautiful now "no earthly music could reproduce it." There's a wonderful sense of joy and poignancy in the line "the little mermaid raised her clear arms towards God's sun, and for the first time she felt tears." Legend has it that when Disney briefly attempted to adapt The Little Mermaid as a short animated film in the 1940's, they planned to retain her death but nix the Daughters of the Air. Thankfully, that never came to fruition. I've heard many people complain that The Little Mermaid is too sad, but never that it isn't sad enough. Walt Disney and the story artists obviously disagreed. The omission of the desire for an immortal soul strips the story of what is ultimately its emotional core. Being human and marrying a prince are both desirable but they are both extensions of the heroine's desire for an immortal soul. Her arc is tragic but the ending is, in its way, a happy one.

Maria Tatar of The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen claims Andersen saw suffering as the key to spiritual superiority, perhaps as a tonic to guide him through his own suffering. The Little Mermaid gets her final, perhaps greatest wish because she has suffered so greatly and yet still acted unselfishly. Perhaps, this bittersweet ending reflected Andersen's own hope for joy in the afterlife or simply for the joy and emotional compensation provided by his successful literary career despite all personal failures. Either way, I can't help wondering what he might have thought of Disney's interpretation of his story. The writer in me naturally assumes that he would be horrified to see such a personal story changed so completely, but I can't help thinking that part of him--perhaps only a fleeting, ship-in-the-night part of him--would like seeing his little mermaid get everything she wanted in the end. If she was serving as his alter ego, it might have eased his pain to transfer her success onto himself. But then who knows? That could just be the Disney fan in me talking.
Below is a link to The Little Mermaid complete with annotations (not mine) provided by the lovely SurLaLune.