White Christmas

White ChristmasSynopsis: White Christmas is a treasury of Irving Berlin classics, among them “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”, “Sisters”, “Mandy”, and the beloved holiday song, “White Christmas.”

Two talented song-and-dance men (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) team up after the war to become one of the hottest acts in show business. One winter, they join forces with a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) and trek to Vermont for a white Christmas. Of course, there’s the requisite fun with the ladies, but the real adventure starts when Crosby & Kaye discover that the inn is run by their old army general who’s now in financial trouble. And the result is the stuff dreams are made of.

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White Christmas 7.25

eyelights: Bing Crosby. Rosemary Clooney. the talent of the musical performers.
eyesores: the horrible musical number “Snow”. the unrealistic sets. the run-of-the-mill plot.

Phil Davis: “I don’t know what he’s up to, but he’s got that Rodgers and Hammerstein look again.”
Betty Haynes: “Is that bad?”
Phil Davis: “Not bad, but always expensive.”

‘White Christmas’ is omnipresent in North American culture, particularly during the holiday season. As the box-office smash hit of 1954, by far the biggest grossing film of the year, and being based on the world’s biggest-selling single of all-time, Bing Crosby’s 1942 rendition, it’s no wonder that many/most of us have heard of it at some point.

I knew of it, of course, but being a musical I had a major aversion to ‘White Christmas’. Irrespective of the fact that it’s a classic, the mere notion of watching 1950s adult Caucasians singing and dancing made me want to impale my ears with a pitchfork. Or two, ideally. Bing Crosby’s smooth crooning of the title track couldn’t do anything to overcome this.

Recently, however, as I was preparing my holiday season slate for The Critical Eye, I realized that I was missing a classic to bridge the gap between ‘Miracle on 34th Street‘ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’. I decided to dig up ‘White Christmas’, to give it a chance, if only because it was also based on a classic Christmas tune.

Then I braced myself.

I don’t know why, but I was expecting ‘White Christmas’ to be something along the lines of the Christmas equivalent of ‘The Sound of Music’. Perhaps it was that omnipresent image of Bing Crosby surrounded by what looked (to me) like a large family dressed in red and white costumes that made me think there would be similarities.

I was wrong.

What I didn’t know was that it revolved around two Broadway song-and-dance artists who are staging their comeback following their return from the war. After much work, they have become a sensation, attracting much attention from the public. And that’s when they cross paths with an up-and-coming pair of sisters, with whom they would become intertwined.

The thing that surprised me was that it had an omnipresent World War II theme. I suppose that this would be natural a decade after the big one, given the impact that it had had on American lives, but I really didn’t expect it – I thought that this was going to be a warm and fuzzy family film, something to watch by the light of an open fire.

I also didn’t expect it to be a pseudo-romantic comedy (I say “pseudo” because I didn’t find it all that funny. And not especially romantic, although there are hints of romance). Again, I expected a family film, not the story of two single guys (one playing the field, the other a busy-body) who end up romancing a couple of dancin’ dames.

Thirdly, I was surprised by the picture’s initial restraint. Although it begins with a song-and-dance number, ‘White Christmas’, actually takes 27 minutes before the first traditional (and stomach-churning) musical number takes place – before that point, each song took place on stage or made sense contextually – not unlike ‘Star!’.

It’s only at the picture’s quarter-mark that Danny Kayes and Vera-Allen “finally” go outside for a choreographed dance piece by the creek. It’s a fantastic number, and perhaps even the most impressive of the picture, but it’s all so very artificial. In short, it’s a veritably traditional musical number. Urgh. But, as a performance piece, it’s brilliant.

Then the lid was off the can. In all sincerity, it was bearable. However, the song “Snow” made me want to wretch. Not only did it have no place contextually (oh, sure, people spontaneously sing as a group – and even though it’s improvised, it works beautifully!), but the lyrics were absolutely nauseating:

“I’ll soon be there with snow
I’ll wash my hair with snow
And with a spade of snow
I’ll build a man that’s made of snow
I’d love to stay up with you but I recommend a little shuteye
Go to sleep
And dream
Of snow”

KILL ME NOW!!!

As a side-note, the song was originally composed and recorded by Irving Berlin under the title “Free”, with entirely different lyrics:

“Free – the only thing worth fighting for is to be free.
Free – a different world you’d see if it were left to me.”

But I suppose that the producers were intent on fashioning a Christmas vibe for the picture, and decided that snow was more appropriate. To that end, the picture begins in 1944, on the battlefield, with Crosby and Kaye doing a show for the troops at Christmas time. Without fail, Crosby soon kicked into “White Christmas”.

..which he sang in two prior films, ‘Holiday Inn’ and ‘Blue Skies’ (and which won an Oscar for Best Original Song in 1942) . I suppose that you just can’t get enough of a good thing, and even a dozen years later, massively exposed as it had been, the producers had no qualms abusing it for the sake of taking a shortcut to their audiences hearts.

The sad thing is that it worked. All too well.

Coincidentally enough, ‘White Christmas’ was originally intended to reunite Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, stars of ‘Holiday Inn’ and ‘Blue Skies’, which were huge hits at the time, in an effort to replicate their success. Fred Astaire had retired in 1953, so he did not return for this production – but they went ahead without him anyway.

The cast was alright for the time and the genre:

  • Bing Crosby surprised me because I thought that he was mostly a stuffy crooner, not realizing that he had been in dozens of pictures. I had expected him to be a mediocre actor but decent singer, and it turned out that he was a decent actor, and an even better song-and-dance man.
  • I knew nothing of Danny Kaye, although the name seems vaguely familiar, but he often annoyed me, overdoing the comedy. He was fairly skilled as a song-and-dance man, but it was hard to say to what degree, because he seemed to purposely let Crosby outdo him in their paired numbers.
  • I rather enjoyed Rosemary Clooney, even though she was a relatively average talent. In particular, I enjoyed that she wasn’t a glamour girl – that she was rather attractive, but in a non-glamourous way. This gave her a presence and even a credibility that  she would otherwise not have had.
  • Vera-Ellen was a curiosity: for one, she was disturbingly thin (she had the now-infamous thigh gap), but she sure had moves. In fact, I wondered how she could keep up given that couldn’t possibly have the musculature, energy or stamina. But she mastered many styles of dance and delivered all of them with skill and vigour.

(Upon reading about her, I discovered that she apparently suffered from anorexia throughout the ’50s, if not longer. This explains a lot. The sad thing is that this disease seems to have contributed to her downfall in Hollywood, given that it eventually aged her beyond her years. That and the death of musical.)

  • Dean Jagger was also pretty good, all things considered, as the now-retired Major General. His style of acting wouldn’t hold up today, but he was actually able to cry during the final scene – which is something one can’t always take for granted. He had won an Academy Award five years prior for ‘Twelve O’Clock High’.

The writing, unfortunately, isn’t stellar. It’s hardly surprising, given that musicals hinge on musical numbers, but it’s a pretty basic plot: following their comeback, Crosby and Kaye end up in Alaska, visiting their former Major General, and the two sisters happen to be going there too. Love blossoms there and they also contrive an event to help their old boss with his business.

As one can expect, clichés abound. For example, Kaye keeps bringing up his war wound and the fact that he saved Crosby’s life to get him to do a bunch of things he would otherwise not want to do, and there’s of course, a misunderstanding between Crosby and Clooney, to create false conflict, …et cetera, et cetera.

From a technical standpoint, this is where the film really suffers: the sets look like real sets. They don’t look real – they really look like sets. At no point is it possible to believe that these people are in a real location. I suppose that filming on soundstages was essential for this type of production, but at least you’d think that they would make an effort to be convincing.

Similarly, the audio was problematic. For a film of this age, it’s not surprising that it is front heavy and only fills in a bit when there are musical numbers – but each song sounds like a studio-recorded song, and it actually doesn’t blend with the rest of the audio, giving those moments (and especially the transitions) an added layer of artificiality.

But, as far as musicals go, ‘White Christmas’ is watchable. There’s obvious skill involved, and it’s not too hokey that it makes you want to sandblast your eyes. I can’t say that it’s my kind of Christmas movie, if only because it’s more about the Army and about romance than about being jolly, but its heart remains, in the end, in the right place.

Phil Davis, Bob Wallace, Betty Haynes, Judy Haynes: “May all your Christmases be white. MERRY CHRISTMAS!”

Date of viewing: December 5, 2013

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