Tuesday, December 27, 2005

WHITE CHRISTMAS Revisited

One of the gifts I received this holiday season was a DVD of Michael Curtiz' WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954), once a holiday perennial with me, which I hadn't seen in several Christmases. I was revved up to see it last year, at which time I dug out of my attic a sale-priced VHS copy I'd acquired from a local Blockbuster some years before, which turned out to be unplayable.

Such disappointment seems to be part and parcel of my relationship with this movie. I grew up seeing WHITE CHRISTMAS on television at Christmas time and I always remember liking it more than I actually do. This is tied-up with it being more of a musical than I remember it being -- kind of a THREE LITTLE WORDS about a songwriting duo that didn't really exist, because all of its songs were actually written by Irving Berlin. Consequently, the movie doesn't show its composers (Wallace & Davis, played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) actually writing songs together, working out choreography, or doing anything but hitting on their co-stars, pining for their war years, and spontaneously generating dance and music. The duo also has the uncanny ability to flawlessly lipsync and lampoon the Haynes Sisters' (Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen) signature performance piece "Sisters" act after seeing it performed only once.

While I can admire Vera-Ellen as a dancer, her anorexic figure is a distraction; her waist puts Vampira to shame and her thighs look like a boy's upper arms. Bing is sullen and bossy and Danny is annoying, despite their character's good, soft-hearted intentions. Rosemary Clooney I much prefer as a vocalist than as an actress. Furthermore, I don't buy either romance the movie has to offer, anymore than I buy that so many ex-servicemen would leave their wives and kids on Christmas Eve, on short notice, to prop up their former commanding officer no matter how much affection they have for him. And what's his dilemma? He owns a magnificent if empty Vermont hotel, and the only obstacle between him and a full house is that it isn't snowing -- which it ultimately does, as though God Himself finally breaks down and decides to add to Wallace & Davis' collection plate.

I don't really buy WHITE CHRISTMAS as a Christmas movie, either. It's more of a patched-together musical that capitalizes on Christmas. "Peace on Earth, good will toward men" I can appreciate as a Christmas sentiment, but not "Gee, I miss being behind enemy lines in World War II under the Old Man's command." (Of course, it was Irving Berlin whose "Alexander's Ragtime Band" celebrated bugle calls "so natural that you want to go to war...") But, as I say, I always forget how much I'm at odds with this movie until I work up a need to see it again, and get around to seeing it again. It's not unlike when I convince myself that McDonalds can't be as bad as it was the last time I ate there, because it's tied-up with nice memories from my childhood or the less discerning tastes I had as a teenager.

There are, nevertheless, some things which I continue to like about WHITE CHRISTMAS. They boil down to Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes (who gets to kiss both leading men -- a rarity in her screen career), a few of the songs, and a sometimes surprising cast of supporting actors like Percy Helton and I. Stanford Jolley. I also love that little bit on the train, during the song "Snow," where the principals conjure the image of a snow-covered slope with a couple of table napkins, and the bit where they open the barn door during their performance's finale to reveal the Vermont snowfall is hard to resist. But that's very little upon which to hang the film's dubious reputation as a screen classic.

It crossed my mind while watching WHITE CHRISTMAS this year that it might be a fun subject for a belated spinoff series, in which Wallace & Davis (Crosby and Kaye lookalikes, if there are such things) would meddle weekly in the lives of the other downtrodden folks from their pasts, changing their bad luck around with impromptu nationally televised performances originating from garages, solariums, neighborhood bars, or public school gymnasiums. For the pilot, they could find out that their old high school gym teacher (say... George Carlin) has fallen on hard times. They could organize a hush-hush event, gathering all the school's alumni via a "top secret" announcement on Leno, who would all fly back to their old school at their own expense to watch the old guy blow out some candles on a three-tiered cake. The pageant could build to a heart-tugging song like:

He made us do a hundred laps
And hit the showers and turn the taps
Do more chin-ups than we could do
And push-ups till we all turned blue...
But we love him
We love him
As much as we love tumbling or dodging ball
Yes, we love him
We love him
The nastiest son of a gymnast of them all!

Subsequent weeks could focus on Wallace & Davis turning about the misfortunes of their ex-wives (a guest appearance by the Haynes sisters!), their former agents, their proctologists, their IRS auditors, and so forth.

It's dynamite. It's dynamite. Ladies and gentlemen, it's dynamite.

Seriously, a lot of people seem to share my interest in WHITE CHRISTMAS -- my initial interest anyway, as it's presently the #28 DVD title at Amazon.com. Paramount's DVD is anamorphic and has a Dolby 5.1 audio option in addition to the 2.0 ones in English and French. On the one hand, it's the handsomest presentation of the film I've seen, but the image is softish throughout and sometimes rendered blurry by too much digital noise reduction -- during one of the songs, I noticed that Bing Crosby's eyes lost a serious degree of definition. There's an audio commentary and on-camera interview by the great Rosemary Clooney, who has since died. I haven't listened to the commentary, but the interview is interesting and candid, making the movie sound like hard work -- and worth it for her, as it allowed her to work with her idol, Bing Crosby.

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