|Irving Berlin's White Christmas|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 November 2000|
With these four stars, direction by Michael Curtiz and songs by Irving Berlin, 'White Christmas' should have been a genuine classic instead of just seeming like one. It was a major hit at the time, and has lots of good songs and some excellent dance numbers, but the story is routine, the pacing too slow, and the crises artificial.
No, this isn't the movie that introduced Bing Crosby's rendition of the all-time favorite song that gives the movie its title; the movie, in fact, was pretty much based on the popularity of the song, which is sung twice in the film. One rendition, Bing's solo, is right off the bat, so audiences didn't have to sit through the entire film waiting for this great song, sung perfectly by Crosby.
Although his role is hardly demanding -- Crosby is more or less playing the same guy he did in all his musicals (and the guy we wrongly presumed him to be off-screen) -- Bing is the real heart and soul of 'White Christmas.' It's paced to his easy, genial style, slightly hip but comforting, and, of course, there's his voice, as rich, warm and relaxing as hot buttered rum, and as familiar as your father's. When Frank Sinatra died, he was acclaimed as the greatest "saloon singer" of all time, but it's likely he would have handed that crown to Crosby. Bing wasn't really a saloon singer, of course; instead, he could do everything and anything in pop music except heavy-metal rock, and eventually did. His mellow voice had a very broad range; not only could he sing in any style, but he could sing duets with anyone who could carry a tune, and made his partners always sound better. He's probably the greatest singer in movie history; Sinatra was a better singer in general, but didn’t have Crosby’s range – or appeal.
Of course, he didn't always choose the best properties, but 'White Christmas' was built around him. Fred Astaire was originally penciled in as the costar, which makes sense, as they'd already done 'Holiday Inn' (1942) -- which is where the song "White Christmas" originated -- and 'Blue Skies' together. Astaire couldn't do it, so the second lead was offered to Donald O'Connor, who'd been with Crosby in 'Sing You Sinners' already and would appear with him again in 'Anything Goes.' But he couldn't do it either, so the role went to Paramount's Danny Kaye.
Who turns out to be a genial, acceptable substitute for Astaire and/or O'Connor, but who gives the least Kaye-like musical performance of his career. Here, he's just a nice guy who can dance and sing; never once does he sing a patter song, never once does he do his flustered, flibbertigibit comedy. One suspects that his participation came very late in the production, otherwise Kaye-like material would have been included. Even in "Choreography," a spoof of Martha Graham-style dancing, Kaye is bereft of Kaye-isms; Astaire or O'Connor would have done the number much the same way although, of course, it's safe to say Astaire would have done it best.
The screenplay by Melvin Frank, Norman Panama and Norman Krasna is smooth and simple, going just where we expect it to. In 1944, Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) are in the Army in Europe together; both are fond of outgoing General Waverly (Dean Jagger). When Phil saves Bob's life, he uses the event as leverage in getting Bob, a famous entertainer, to team up with him as a dual act.
After the war, they're huge successes, although we never see them do anything more than sing duets. In Florida, they meet sister act Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen), and later all four go to Vermont for Christmas. Retired from the Army, Waverly now runs an inn, but it's in financial trouble because despite being winter, it has yet to snow in Vermont.
Phil and Bob decide to help Waverly, while Phil and Judy to promote a romance between Bob and Betty. Despite predictable setbacks, everything ends happily (and just as predictably).
'White Christmas' is a smoothly made movie; it may be no classic, but it's fun to watch, partly because they really don't make them like that any more. This was the first movie in VistaVision, the unusual process Paramount backed in an effort to compete with CinemaScope. VistaVision produced far greater clarity than standard 35mm processes, and it still does on this handsome DVD: the images are crisp and detailed, more so than other movies of the era.
The art direction by Roland Anderson and Hal Pereira is vividly colorful, with the costumes by Edith Head keyed to the colors chosen for the sets. When Kaye and Vera-Ellen (one of the greatest of all movie dancers) elegantly glide around a Florida pool to the tune of "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," Kaye is clad in a sleek gray suit; even his shoes match. The "Mandy" number later on is in startling red, black and green (and is the best production number in the movie). Clooney is stunning in a glittery black gown, singing "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" -- one of the dancers is an unbilled George Chakiris. On the other hand, Vera-Ellen's best number, the dazzling "Abraham," is done in rehearsal clothes. All four leads turn up in Army clothes for "Gee, I Wish I was Back in the Army" (and gee, Vera-Ellen sure looks cute in her Army duds).
In this period, Hollywood was playing creatively with stereo sound, and fortunately Paramount Home Video dug out the original tracks (for the laserdisc release this DVD is derived from). Your side speakers will get a cheerful workout during many of the numbers in 'White Christmas.'
The disc includes an interview with Rosemary Clooney, the only survivor of the cast now; she's salty, funny and nostalgic about the movie, which provided her with one of her few starring roles. She also provides the commentary track; she's not especially informative, but her memories of working with this great cast are clear, and very, very fond, especially concerning the hard-to-get-to-know Crosby.
'White Christmas' comes back every year around this time, naturally enough; after all, there aren't that many major musicals with Christmas themes. Though pokey and somewhat lifeless, with a story that never rises above the routine, the movie is welcome every year. This DVD enables you to schedule your own Christmas showings.