Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Movie Tuesday: White Christmas

This week's Movie Tuesday selection is the 1954 holiday classic White Christmas!

I'm posting a special Christmas-themed "Movie Monday Tuesday" column, focusing on a holiday movie that I discovered earlier in the month and completely fell in love with: Michael Curtiz's White Christmas.

Now, of course, it's kind of absurd using the word "discovered" when talking about a movie like this, as if it's some rare artifact, when it couldn't be further from reality: White Christmas was the #1 box office hit of the year, starred one of the most legendary singers of all time, featured a title song that is still the second biggest-selling song of all time, and directed by one of the most successful movie directors in Hollywood history (in this case, the aforementioned Curtiz, who also helmed a couple of films you might have heard of, like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Casablanca). White Christmas is considered by pretty much everyone a bona-fide movie classic. But, until this Christmas season, I had never seen it. How is that possible?

I guess that's because, of all the movie genres out there, the Musical is one of the last left for me to embrace. I usually find the music to be unappealing at best, and the whole idea of people breaking into a song, then going back to traditional dialogue, off-putting. When going through AFI's list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time, checking out the couple of dozen I had not ever seen, I put off The Sound of Music for last, knowing it would be the film equivalent of eating brussel sprouts. And I hated every minute of that film's 473-minute running time (approximate). So I generally always attributed the Musical as something I just wasn't interested in.

But, for whatever reason, I started appreciating the artistry behind some of the genre's best more and more. I reviewed Vincent Minelli's The Band Wagon for this very column, and while the music still didn't do much for me, I really loved how visually beautiful the film was. I had a similar experience with the movie version of The Tales of Hoffmann, a filmed opera that no less than George Romero credits as the reason he got into movie-making! Clearly I was missing something.

So when my better half and I started our yearly tradition of watching nothing but Christmas movies between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I wanted to expand our playlist a bit, and when I saw that White Christmas was on Netflix WI, I thought why not give it a shot?
The films stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as two Army buddies, serving under the gruff-but-decent General Waverly (Dean Jagger) overseas in 1944. Crosby is Bob Wallace, a famous singer, and he and Kaye (playing Private Phil Davis) are putting on a Christmas show for their fellow G.I.s, who all long to be home. Waverly is being transferred to a new command, but when a new commander demands that the Christmas show be cancelled--this is a war, after all--Waverly gets him purposely lost just long enough for the show to go on. Waverly's men are fiercely devoted to him, even composing a song for the show in his honor.
Soon after, the unit comes under fire, and Phil saves Bob from being crushed by a falling brick wall, getting hurt himself in the process. Later, in the hospital, Bob thanks Phil for saving his life, and Phil uses the opportunity to pitch himself as a singing partner for Bob. Bob initially refuses, but finally relents when he reads a top-flight song Phil has written. Cut to a montage of the newly-christened "Wallace & Davis" becoming a hugely popular singing/comedy act.
The boys meet two sisters, Betty and Judy Haynes (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen), who also have a singing act. They fall in Instant Like, and after helping them out of a jam, they all head for a Vermont lodge where the Haynes Sisters are planning to perform. Except, the inn is a giant flop; there's no snow, meaning no customers. At the same time, the boys learn that the inn is owned and run by the former General Waverly, now retired and looking to make this business venture work. Assisting him there is his grandaughter and assistant/clerk Emma, played by the incomparable Mary Wickes.
Bob and Phil decide they want to help their former top kick, but how? Along with Betty and Judy, they plan to throw a live Christmas Eve show at the inn, filling it with paying customers. Of course, there are lots of complications: while Phil and Judy acknowledge how much they like each other and essentially run (dance, really) with it, Bob and Betty have a little more trouble, leaving the other two to scheme to get them together. Also, they have to keep General Waverly in the dark about their plan, because he's a proud man and might not want their help.

The plot works just fine--it's sweet and warm, the perfect kind of story for a patriotic Christmas movie--but obviously what the film is most famous for is the music. White Christmas is stuffed to the brim with numbers, many of them classics: Bing's "White Christmas" opener, the Haynes' song "Sisters" (which Dan and Phil have a go at as well, featuring a couple of flubs that director Curtiz chose to leave in), a torch song called "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me", the annoyingly-catchy "Snow", "Choreography" (a parody of Martha Graham), and about half a dozen others. 

One of the revelations in this movie to me (other than how awesome it is generally) is Vera-Ellen, by far the least known of the four stars. She was primarily a dancer, not an actress or singer, so she takes the lead during the numbers that require the most intense hoofing, and man oh man does she pull it off. There's a song called "Mandy" ("Mandy/There's a minister handy/And it sure would be dandy/If we'd let him make a fee/So don't you linger/Here's the ring for your finger/Isn't it a humdinger?") that is mind-boggingly complex, with her in the lead:
She is simultaneously sweet, funny, and very sexy in the movie, no easy feat. Vera-Ellen didn't have much of a career after White Christmas; she appeared in just one more film before retiring.

As you might guess, everything ends up all right in the end. The movie ends with the show going on at the inn, featuring yet another classic tune, "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army", featuring our fantastic foursome singing the praises of life in the service:
(There's an almost meta moment in this song; the original lyric featured a mention of Bing Crosby; his name was replaced in the song by Jack Benny, presumably because it would have seemed odd to have Bing singing a lyric about himself).

Growing up, I had hard time considering older film comedies to be worthy, since the humor tended to be so dated (I made an exemption for Abbott & Costello, whose films I adored from an early age), but of course over time I realized how wrong I was. And White Christmas is very, very funny: Crosby and Kaye have a great chemistry (so much so I'm amazed they never did another movie together) and there's a greater amount of sarcasm than you'd typically associate with a big Hollywood musical.

Reading back over this post, I realize I'm rambling. That's because I cannot coalesce all the things I love about White Christmas into a coherent whole. It's funny, has great music, is very sweet, and, thanks to Michael Curtiz's sharp eye for composition and the gorgeous Technicolor, it looks like gangbusters.

I don't think a day has gone by since Thanksgiving that I haven't watched the movie; and I don't think I'm going to stop even after the holiday season passes. White Christmas really is every bit as good as it's reputation.


Michael Jones said...

You're aware of course that Rosemary is George's aunt.

Wings1295 said...

Okay, Rob. I watched this last night for the first time. And realized I had seen it, or maybe bits and pieces, before. But this was my first start-to-finish viewing and I have to say I love it, too.

Everything you say is spot on. The writing isn't played overly sappy. They snark and snap at each other and I often felt like some of the dialogue could have been in a modern film.

Conversely, I love the optimistic, Christmas vibe the film has. They are going to do right for rights sake, and everyone is going to want to take part. Not something that often happens in reality, but love it in movies like this.

Another thing I adore in movies of this era is the brightness of the color and sets. This is a technicolor world that never really existed, but I so wish it had. I wish it did now.

Love Mary Wickes, always. Vera-Ellen is wonderful. As you said, some of her dancing is just incredible to behold.

Classic, for sure and with good reason. Will make sure to watch again next year. I have to ask, is this going to be Rob's year of 365 White Christmases? ;)

rob! said...

@Michael-Yes, I'm aware of that. Maybe they should remake WC and have George play the Bing part.

@Joe--I'm so glad you liked it! I agree with all your points and feel like I could have filled two whole posts babbling about the movie.

And while I don't see myself watching the movie every day for a year, it'll probably be close!

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