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WHITE CHRISTMAS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes
Director:  Michael Curtiz
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  120 Minutes
Release Date:  November 3, 2009

"May your days be merry and bright...

And may all your Christmases be white!"

Film ***1/2

In Bob Hope's excellent autobiography, Don't Shoot, It's Only Me, he recalls listening to master composer Irving Berlin playing "White Christmas" for the first time.  He observed in his narrative that Mr. Berlin could only play the white keys on the piano, and had an instrument specially made with a pedal on it that he could use to transpose the notes into sharps and flats when he needed them.  "Irving never learned how to read music," Hope recalled.  "He was too busy writing it."

That song, with the unmistakable vocal by Bing Crosby, would go on to become the biggest selling single ever at the time, and would later serve as a title track for 1954's most popular movie, which of course, would star the popular crooner and feature him singing the song he helped make a holiday staple.  Historically, it would also introduce VistaVision to the world of cinema, one of the earliest widescreen experiments where the 1.85:1 image ran horizontally through a projector rather than vertically.  But the film holds much more importance for me than just its history.

I cherish White Christmas as one of my family's only real holiday traditions growing up.  It was a favorite of my mother's, and I can still remember the first year she brought it home on videotape and more or less forced me to watch it.  Hey, I was a kid.  I was into Star Wars, not watching some movie with a bunch of old people in it.  But you do what you have to do around Christmas time to be good and get that loot, so I begrudgingly sat down and watched it with my mom and dad, at first just hoping the thing would be over quickly.

But it didn't take long for my Grinch-like heart to warm up to the movie.  It starred ‘old' people all right, but I found both Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye to be hilarious in their banter.  The music, by Irving Berlin, was lively and fun, and the dancing was light and energetic.  When the two female co-stars entered the scene, I was even more entranced.  Rosemary Clooney?  I had seen her in a number of guest spots on variety TV shows, and always thought she was cool.  She was a big woman with a big voice, big laugh, and big smile.  And here she was...very young and very beautiful, but still with that unmistakable voice.  And in Vera-Ellen, I found the woman whom I still believe to this day is the female version of Fred Astaire.  Her dancing was astounding:  athletic, yet graceful, physical, yet beautiful.  I was pleased to learn in the retrospective on this disc that MGM had considered her the greatest female dancer they had.

And the story was winning, too, though it took me a little time to realize it.  I was complaining at the opening shot of a snow covered village that was obviously a flat painting.  Then the camera pulled back and revealed that it was meant to be just that...the backdrop for a simply produced army show where two song and dance men turned soldiers, Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) were bidding a musical goodbye to their commanding officer, General Waverly (Jagger). 

After the war, Wallace and Davis form a partnership that takes them to the top of the show biz world, where they eventually meet up with two sisters of an old army buddy, Betty and Judy Haynes (Clooney and Ellen).  As Phil and Judy begin an elaborate plan to link Bob and Betty romantically, their journey takes them to Vermont in time for Christmas.

However, there's an unusual weather problem there:  no snow.  And when it turns out the inn that booked the Haynes sisters is owned by none other than Bob and Phil's old friend General Waverly, the foursome realize they have to do something to help bring the tourists back despite the lack of snow.

That's the story in a nutshell, but the film is much more magical than just a plot.  Sure, the notion of Wallace and Davis staging a big production at the general's Vermont inn is just an excuse for several lavish production numbers that otherwise have no bearing on the story, but...come on!  Those numbers are fantastic!  From the opening minstrel number "Mandy" to the kooky spoof "Choreography", to the breathtaking "White Christmas" finale...can you really complain?  And peppered into the story are the songs that enhance the moods and move the tale forward, particularly the beautiful "Count Your Blessings" number, and the absolutely marvelous "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing", a dance number between Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen that's as good as any male-female dance to ever come out of Hollywood.

These are four stars doing what they do best.  For Mr. Crosby and Ms. Clooney, that's singing, and the film is smart to pair them up on the "Blessings" number.  Of course, Bing takes his solo on his famed "White Christmas" number, but thankfully, Rosemary gets to show off her pipes as well, with one of Irving Berlin's best tunes, "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me".  Her sultry, soulful rendition is a real show-stopper, as is her black velvet gown with the diamond broche on her backside designed by legendary costumer Edith Head.

For Mr. Kaye and Ms. Ellen, it's the dancing, which makes "The Best Things" such a treat.  And not enough can be said about Vera-Ellen, who made only a few pictures and just one more after this one before choosing to retire.  She is by far the best female dancer I've ever seen on screen, and has the tiniest waistline I've ever seen, to boot. 

So, you put it all together, and what is there to complain about?  That the story is threadbare?  Yes, that's true, but it's such a modest, sweet story in the best spirit of the holiday season:  how a couple of entertainers get to help out their old commander by doing what they do best, as well as fall in love along the way, naturally.  Leonard Maltin has called "What Can You Do With a General" the least memorable of Irving Berlin's songs.  Probably true, but isn't "White Christmas" the most memorable?  And let's not forget the treasure trove of other Berlin classics, like some of the aforementioned numbers, "Heat Wave", "Snow" and others. 

The fact is, White Christmas holds a special and sentimental place in my heart as a holiday tradition that takes me back to my youth.  Laughing with my family, singing along to the songs once I knew them all by heart, applauding the snow that finally falls at the end...I guess everybody has one special movie that brings their childhood back to them.  For me, it's this one, and for better or worse, no one will ever convince me it's not one of the great ones. 

Video 1/2*

Considering this was the first ever VistaVision motion picture, the folks at Paramount "didn't do right" by this holiday classic.  This could very well be the worst looking DVD presentation I've ever seen...or if not the worst, easily the most disappointing.  The film is so grainy it's almost hard to watch; it looks as though millions of tiny black ants are swarming all over the frames.  Colors bleed so bad that in one shot of a backstage dance, it looks like her blue eye shadow is down on her cheek bones.  Other times, colors are either flat and lifeless or completely unnatural looking, like when Rosemary's blue dress comes across like an effect from Sin City.  I had hoped for this anniversary re-release that fans would get something better, but given even the appearance of strange horizontal lines from time to time, you'd think this was transferred from a videotape source.  Dreadful, and inexcusable.

Audio **

For audio, you have a choice of restored mono or new 5.1 mix.  The 5.1 mix sounds a little fuller, but like most new mixes of older soundtracks, doesn't really venture into discreet channel usage much.  In fact, I didn't notice any action from the rear stage at all, nor much in the way of even stereo action from the front one.  The .1 channel carries a bit of the bottom end from both Bing Crosby's and Danny Kaye's lower registers, as well as some of the bass from the music.  All in all, a good enough listen, particularly for a film that was originally in mono...just not particularly adventurous for a new surround mix.

Features ***1/2

The treat on this two disc set is Rosemary Clooney's commentary track, which is the most personable I've yet heard on a DVD.  It really feels like she's sitting beside you on your couch, watching the movie with you and sharing her stories.  There are moments when she's quiet and lets you enjoy a musical number...I love, for example, how she stayed quiet in the opening while Bing sang "White Christmas".  "Perfect," she muses afterwards.  "Just perfect."  Her sense of humor and self-depreciation is a treat, too.  Sometimes, she shouts advice at herself on screen:  "Nice hair, Rosemary!", with a laugh.  It's clear she had great love for her cast mates and a lot of fun making the picture, but the warm homey style she brings to this track is winning.  You almost expect to feel her reach over and tap you on the knee while she makes a point!  At one point, she even sings a couple of lines along with the movie, and laughs about it.  Some tracks are better than others, and this one earns the disc an extra ˝ star in this department.

The second disc contains the remaining features.  In addition to two trailers, there was a nice retrospective on the film featuring new interviews with Rosemary Clooney, and new featurettes "Backstage Stories", "Rosemary's Old Kentucky Home", "Bing Crosby: Christmas Crooner", "Danny Kaye: Joy to the World", "Irving Berlin's White Christmas", and "From Page to Stage".

Summary:

White Christmas is a fun, musical sprinkling of holiday cheer that for me, never loses its appeal.  It boasts great songs, great production numbers, and great stars doing what they do best.  For me, Christmas has never been complete without it, but my holiday wish is to finally be able to see this movie restored and up to Paramount's usual quality.  The features are nice, but the quality here is horrific...at best, it's an off-white Christmas.

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