Friday, December 24, 2010

White Christmas

The movie world is a very different place now than it was in 1954, when White Christmas was released theatrically.  Want proof?  It was the year's top grossing movie (yes, a Christmas movie was the year's big earner), with around $12 million earned.  To put that in perspective, that is less than Sharon Stone earned for Basic Instinct 2, one of the biggest flops of all time.

Back in the good ol' days of World War II, on Christmas Eve 1944, the men under the command of Major General Thomas Waverly (Dean Jagger) are treated to a show, unbeknownst to the Major General.  You see, a famous Broadway singer, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) is in the troop, and a low-level solider, Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), managed to convince his superiors to let Bob sing to everyone.  Sure, they're surrounded by mortar fire and unprotected, but it's Christmas Eve, sir...!  Well, after General Waverly announces his presence to the crowd, Bob and Phil give him a farewell tribute song, because the Major General is being relieved of his command.  The song ("The Old Man") explains that these men will follow Waverly wherever he wants to go (except toward battle) because "we love him."  That might seem like an odd lyric to repeat during a military tribute song, but you have to remember that Don't Ask Don't Tell wasn't in effect until 1993 --- side note: thank goodness that nonsense has finally been repealed.  Anyway, some mortar rounds finally reach the group and everyone scatters; Phil saves Bob's life and takes a small arm wound in the bargain.  That's okay, though, because Phil takes this life debt and turns it into a successful Broadway partnership with Bob when they get back from the war.

Fast forward a few years, and the fabulous team of Wallace and Davis are getting boffo reviews on Broadway, thanks to a montage where the characters don't appear to age a day.  Success is great, but Phil is getting tired of the grind; he keeps trying to find Bob a woman so he'll slow his professional life down, if just by a little.  Enter the Haynes Sisters; Judy (Vera-Ellen) and Betty (Rosemary Clooney).  They are the kid sisters of "Freckle-Faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy" (actually, the grown-up Little Rascal, Alfalfa), they have a song-and-dance act, and they want advice from the famous Wallace and Davis team.  Judy and Phil notice (while they are dancing) that Bob and Betty seem to be getting along (they're actually arguing), so Phil connives a way to get himself and Bob up to Vermont the next night, where the Haynes sisters will be featured performers at a ski lodge.  That particular ski lodge happens to be owned by former Major General Waverly, and it is in major financial trouble, thanks to unseasonably warm weather.  Who wants to ski on green grass?  Dirty hippies, that's who.  And they won't even exist for another thirteen years, so that's a bust.  Can Wallace and Davis help save General Waverly's business?  Will Bob ever fall in love?  Those questions and more will be answered by the end of this gripping mystery/thriller/peyote-influenced art film musical.

How does this former blockbuster stand up to the test of time?  It helps that the fim knows its strengths.  Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney have powerful voices, and their scenes are obviously catered to that.  Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen are talented dancers (her more than him), and their scenes cater to their talents, as well.  I also appreciate that this musical confines the songs mostly to performances and leaves the plot development to the dialogue --- that also means that the songs take place in reality and everyone around knows that they're supposed to be singing (for the most part).  Nothing drives me battier than watching a musical where everyone in a scene is suddenly a professional singer and dancer and then, when the scene is over, they all continue on with their lives.  Yes, I'm a crotchety old man when it comes to musicals.  And while this isn't the first use of "White Christmas" in a film (that honor goes to Holiday Inn), its inclusion here is the obvious highlight of the soundtrack; the rest of the Irving Berlin-written songs are pretty solid, too, especially "Snow" and "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep."  Heck, even the trite "Sisters" is entertaining when Crosby and Kaye perform it.

The performances are decent, but nothing special.  Honestly, I expected more out of Michael Curtiz (director of Casablanca), but I suppose that directing a musical is a very different experience than directing a drama; like I mentioned before, the movie plays to its strengths, and that is largely because of Curtiz.  Rosemary Clooney probably does the best job expressing emotions, but her character is ridiculously fickle when it comes to those same emotions.  Bing Crosby doesn't have much range, but he's there to provide a voice.  His character is more or less pushed through the film by Danny Kaye, who shoulders most of the comedic burden, even as he propels the plot forward; I don't particularly like Danny Kaye, but his overacting fits well in this setting.  Vera-Ellen is definitely the acting lightweight in this movie; while she is a talented dancer, it looks like she is never dancing in character, and since dancing is her focal point here, that's a problem.  You might also look at Vera-Ellen and notice how ridiculously thin she is --- she can't have more than twelve pounds of flesh and organs on that frame --- and wonder why she always has something covering her neck in this movie.  If you're curious, check this out.

You would think that the primary parts of this film that age poorly would be the singing and dancing (well, that's what I would assume, anyway), but that's not the case here --- except when Rosemary Clooney sings "I wash my hair with snow," because that's damned unlikely.  The plot definitely proves itself as the weakest link in this story.  How much of this movie would have been cut if characters had just stopped acting on half-bits of information?  Two of the biggest plot points in the film are based upon a character misconstruing the facts and not bothering to explain themselves to Bing Crosby.  The acting is mostly acceptable for a musical, but Vera-Ellen makes a point to look directly at the camera whenever she dances, which just bugs me.  This isn't porn, Vera, you don't have to gaze at the viewer like that...pay attention to the other people in your scenes! 

Overall, though, White Christmas gets the job done.  It's pretty entertaining, the songs are pretty good, and the people doing the singing and dancing are obviously good at what they do.  The movie even manages to pull on the ol' heartstrings when General Waverly makes his uniformed appearance near the end of the movie.  I don't know if this deserved to be the clear number one hit of 1954, but it stands the test of time as a good musical and a pretty solid Christmas movie.

2 comments:

  1. The thing you have failed to mention is the baffling "Choreography" song/dance number, which is disturbing and surreal enough to either add a star, or remove one.

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  2. I left it out because everyone should have at least one unmentioned Christmas nightmare.

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