Ah yes, time for another non-controversial choice for a movie selection! But first if you’re just jumping into this series by accident or by direction of a court order, all the best of the season to you and yours! This slew of postings started with A Charlie Brown Christmas and then National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And now, thanks to my wife’s journey to the library to gather up a film that I don’t own (yes, dear reader, they do exist!), I unexpectedly decided to write about White Christmas.
White Christmas is a film that really has never been on my Christmas holiday must watch list. Given the limited knowledge that I have about this movie, rest assured that I’ve never let something as silly as knowledge or research get in my way before, so I’m not starting now! Yes, dear readers, I know you’re welcome.
I believe the first time I ever saw White Christmas, I was in my mid-20s at a revival movie theater in Milwaukee with my father. Why he wanted to go is also a mystery as this film wasn’t in his holiday watching pattern either. But we did see it in an actual theater that projected actual battle worn film reels in all its actual VistaVision glory! At least I had a movie theater bonding experience with my dad and that was a wonderfully syrupy moment in retrospect.
So once again, my thoughts will be all over the place. I’m also assuming that the idea of spoiler alerts for a film that’s over 60 years old is just as silly to you as well. If you haven’t seen White Christmas, be sure to have my wife check on it for you at your local library.
- Ah, the glories of the 1950s when studios were trying to do what they could to smush the competition from that evil television! Hey, look at the color! Hey, look at this 3-D thing! Hey, look at how your dinky TV screens cannot compete with our Cinerama and Cinemascope! And Paramount was not to be outdone and thus VistaVision was born. White Christmas was the first VistaVision film and it proved quite successful. (Alfred Hitchcock filmed several pictures in VistaVision as well, because frankly seeing even more of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant on the screen is always a good thing.)
- Now, White Christmas is considered a holiday movie, however very little of the two-hour runtime is taken up with Christmas. This is odd for a film that takes place during the weeks leading up to Christmas and has the word Christmas in the title. Even the show that is being put on has very little to do with Christmas, beyond having the four leads in red and white Santa-ish gear at the very end in front of a decorated tree singing the title song in harmony. This scene literally happens in the last ten minutes and aside from Bing crooning “White Christmas” in the World War II scene at the beginning, Christmas has no real bearing on this story. Overall, there’s about ten minutes of actual holiday-related material and that comes from singing the title song twice.
- Of course, this could be a boon for those who get tired of the plot contrivances that come when placing a film during the Christmas holiday. There’s no supernatural Christmas-related miracle. No seasonal trappings that are entangled in the plot. No group of needy children who just need some Santa magic to make their lives better. None of that stuff at all. At its heart, White Christmas comes down to helping an old army buddy with showtunes and making sure that Bing and Danny get together with Rosemary and Vera-Ellen respectively. That’s about it. So, if you love having your expectations of what makes a holiday-themed movie thrown out the window, then White Christmas might be the holiday movie for you!
- The marketing for White Christmas does prey a bit upon those preconceived notions. For example, the movie posters and DVD covers have Bing and company in the full red and white regalia, but don’t be deceived! If you go in thinking that this is a full-fledged holiday film that is chock full of Christmas songs from wall to ceiling as far as you can see using your VistaVision, you will be disappointed. Just be aware that apparently Michael Curtiz was the Rian Johnson of his day!
- Well, that’s not exactly true, but let’s look at director Michael Curtiz for a moment. He’s never associated with being an auteur director like his contemporaries Hitchcock, Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, or Cecil B. DeMille to name a few. Curtiz knew how to tell some great stories and not get in the way of them. Allow me to demonstrate. Here’s a small piece of his filmography where you get to say, “He directed that?!”: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, Captain Blood, and yes, Casablanca. As you can see, Curtiz has quite the track record for success, so he was a good choice here.
- Speaking of good choices, look at this cast! Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and Dean Jagger headline White Christmas and all do rather well. Bing croons beautifully and acts with a light touch. Kaye does some dancing and is funny but not overwhelmingly hammy. Clooney is lovely and sings lovely. Vera-Ellen dances like mad. Dean Jagger is warm as the beloved elderly general. I’d say there’s no one phoning their performances in here. In fact, my real gripe with the cast is that these characters need a bit more depth. This ultimately isn’t their fault as they are working with what they’ve got in the script. Frankly, in the interests of adding more dialogue, I would have cut a musical number or two. (Yes, I’m looking right at you, that Danny Kaye in beret/anti-choreography number, whatever your title is that I didn’t bother to look up!)
- Let me show you what I mean regarding some needed character development. We hear about how Jagger’s general is beloved at the beginning and obviously he’s the impetus for such glowing tributes leading to the film’s finale. My only question is: what exactly did Jagger do to earn this love? Yes, Bing talks and sings about the general, but there is no moment in the film where he is shown standing up for his men to the visiting army brass or making battlefield decisions that keep the safety of his battalion at the forefront. Our introduction to Jagger is when we see him leave the WW2 front in Europe. We next see him a decade later in the film, owning an inn that is doing poorly because of the unseasonably warm weather in Vermont. (Perhaps hiring Larry, Darryl, and Darryl would be advisable?) Then he’s in a uniform, gets all verklempt at the surprise tribute, and that’s about it. Jagger doesn’t really have an arc, beyond getting grayer hair that doesn’t always match his toupee and knowing that his men loved him because…reasons.
- Speaking of grayer hair and toupees, Jagger is referred to as “The Old Man”, which makes sense because he’s understandably portraying an older retiree. What doesn’t make sense is that Bing Crosby in real life was six months older than Dean Jagger! And if we dive deeper into age discrepancies, Bing Crosby was born in 1903. His love interest, Rosemary Clooney, was born in…1928. Yes folks, an age difference of 25 years. This is typical studio wrangling which shows nothing has changed in the intervening years. As a response to this, being an enlightened follow as I am, rest assured that I would never say, “Way to go, Bing!” out loud.
- Danny Kaye isn’t necessarily my cup of Earl Grey, but I don’t really mind him in this film. He can dance, has a way with a comic line or two, and shows some good chemistry with Bing Crosby. Part of me wonders what this film would have been like with Fred Astaire, who was originally planned to do Kaye’s part, or with Astaire’s replacement Donald O’Connor. In the end, I think Kaye does just fine here though. (A different part of me wishes that Bob Hope could have at least come in as the wisecracking TV host character that helps get Crosby’s message to the former troops on the air!)
- One of the screenwriters for White Christmas was Norman Krasna, a lifelong friend of Groucho Marx, who also occasionally co-wrote with him. The music for the film is by Irving Berlin, who wrote the music for The Cocoanuts, starring the Marx Brothers. Groucho Marx sang a song with Bing Crosby in the film Mr. Music and guested on Bing’s radio show. Sig Rumann, who plays a landlord in a very brief appearance here, was in three Marx Brothers movies. What does this all mean? I have no idea beyond my love of the Brothers Marx. And that if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce, they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Thank you for indulging me. You can go continue reading.
- Permit me one little dig about using VistaVision here. If you’re trying to show off this dazzling new process, why film almost everything in cramped studio sets? White Christmas does have some shots on location somewhere with the train station, and yes, I understand not being able to film gigantic musical pieces because the setting of the inn automatically makes it a cramped setting. But just imagine the sweeping views of the Vermont landscapes that could have been captured. (And actually, you don’t have to imagine those views: Hitchcock got some glorious VistaVision shots of the Vermont landscape in The Trouble with Harry. So, it was possible!)
- Just so I’m clear, you mean to tell me that during the week before Christmas, an entire theatrical production can just up and go to Bumblefart Falls, Vermont, put on their entire show without cutting production costs or having a dip in the quality compared to putting on the same show in an actual theater? You also mean to tell me that Rosemary and Vera, who weren’t in the original stage show, can just be placed into that established show in a week without skipping a beat and in fact, get some numbers to showcase their individual talents? Beyond that, you also then mean to tell me that Bing Crosby, appealing to a possible television audience about two days before Christmas, can get dozens of former service guys who were under the command of Dean Jagger who possibly live in New England to show up on time at Bumblefart Falls, Vermont to see that show performed on Christmas Eve?! The timeframes and train schedules and lodging and shipping are too much for the human mind to comprehend. If you believe all this can happen, and still have problems with the mere existence of Santa Claus, I can’t help you. (Meanwhile I will continue to leave cookies out for that jolly old elf!)
- Hey, did you know that Rosemary Clooney is George Clooney’s aunt? Well, now you do! Did you know that Bing Crosby’s son Harry is in Friday the 13th as Bill, the nice guy who eventually gets pinned up against a door with arrows by Betsy Palmer’s Mrs. Voorhees? Well, now you do! Did you know that Betsy Palmer was a panelist on I’ve Got a Secret and three of Bing Crosby’s other sons made an appearance? Well, now you do! Did you know that Bing Crosby was in White Christmas with Rosemary Clooney, who is also George Clooney’s aunt? Well, now you do! Amazing how everything joins together, ain’t it?!
At the end of the day, White Christmas has a lot going for it. The leads are delightful and are all obviously talented performers. I mean Bing Crosby was one of the first multi-layer threats in show business with his singing, being on the stage, being on the radio, being on TV, being a star in movies, etc. Just incredible, especially for that day and age. There’s aren’t a lot of folks who can claim to be a success in that many mediums to be sure. And no one else can sing “White Christmas” like Bing. I love Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, and everyone else as much as the next guy, but Bing singing “White Christmas” is a staple that makes the season bright.
And is having the entire cast sing “White Christmas” when snow begins to fall in Vermont on Christmas Eve a shmaltzy way to end the film? Absolutely, but by that time, the movie can’t really do any wrong. It still has a winning and earnest charm about it for me, even if I didn’t grow up with it in the rotation. Sure, there are some gripes I have, some holes that exist, but overall, I can readily understand why so many fans are always caught dreaming of White Christmas.