Review: “White Christmas”
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Produced by: Robert Emmett Dolan
Written by: Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, Melvin Frank
Cinematography by: Loyal Griggs
Editing by: Frank Bracht
Music by: Irving Berlin
Starring: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, John Brascia, Anne Whitfield
You would think that a film called White Christmas would have Christmas as a more prominent subject. Though I’d recognized several sequences, having likely seen the film with my mom when I was much younger, it had been so long since the last time I really sat down to watch it, this time was like my first all over again. Needless to say, the lack of prominence of Christmas as the primary subject in the film was surprising. (It may also surprise some to know that White Christmas wasn’t the first appearance of the titular Irving Berlin song, either — the song was originally released as a single before appearing in another Bing Crosby Christmas film, Holiday Inn.) But that’s not to say that the old proverbial Christmas spirit isn’t present in the film — by the film’s big final musical number, the meaning behind the film’s title becomes immediately clear.
The film starts off on Christmas Eve, 1944, as two soldiers, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, lead a performance of Christmas musical numbers to boost morale, despite their stage being set in the wreckage of a shell-bombed building and the ongoing battle taking place in the background. Adding to this less than happy holiday cheer is that their division’s commanding officer, Major General Thomas F. Waverly, is being relieved of duty. And as if luck couldn’t be any worse, the enemy begins shelling their camp. Phil saves Bob’s life when one of the already weakened walls begins to topple over, injuring himself in the process. Knowing that Bob’s already a fairly well known Broadway entertainer, Phil uses this to his advantage to get Bob to agree to a performing partnership once the war is over.
True to his word, Bob teams up with Phil and they form a successful Broadway musical duo for a number of years, growing in fame, and even begin to produce and take their shows on the road. While in Miami, they are contacted by one of the men from their old division asking them to audition his sisters, Betty and Judy Haynes, who perform together in a sister act at one of the local clubs. As is the case with these types of lighthearted stories, both men are each smitten by one of the sisters, and Phil, having been concerned about Bob’s lack of interest in romance, takes notice of his attraction toward the older sister, Betty (played by Rosemary Clooney, aunt of George). The two duos eventually strike up a business partnership and head to Vermont, where they hope to celebrate the winter season enjoying all that the snowfall entails.
Unfortunately for them, when they get there, there isn’t much snow to speak of — in fact it’s unseasonably warm. With the increase in heat, tourism drops, and so does the potential audience for Bob, Phil, and their new business venture. Things become more dire when they learn that their old commanding officer, Major General Waverly, now owns the floundering inn, which may not make it through such a warm winter. Ever thankful for his leadership, Bob and Phil hatch a plan with Betty and Judy to put on a show that will save Waverly’s inn. But as the big day approaches and it starts to look like they may have a success on their hands, an unfortunate misunderstanding threatens to not only hinder the show, but also Bob and Phil’s love life. And, so, of course, we’re left waiting with bated breath until the very end to see how this will all play out. Will they save the inn? Will the guy get the girl? And will they ever actually get their hoped for white Christmas?
It’s admittedly a lot of plotting for a story that has very little pay off. I can’t imagine that even in 1954 the novelty and inevitable conclusion of a “Will they, won’t they?” relationship between the two leads was enough to carry an entire film, and the same sort of logic applies to pretty much every other plot question that could be raised in the film. (Of course they save the inn, and of course they get their White Christmas — it’s in the title and in one of the songs!) The film holds very few surprises and is largely an excuse to see the four leads perform song and dance numbers. Standouts include Bing Crosby’s opening and solemn performance of the title song against a backdrop of shell bombings and Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen’s “Choreography,” a mixture of jazz and tap, an unusual trio dance, and Kaye’s brand of clowning around. It’s a good thing that Vera-Ellen’s such a good dancer because her lip-syncing is often noticeably off with the dubbing. (In Betty and Judy’s introductory number, “Sisters,” Rosemary Clooney even pulled double duty on the singing voices, though Trudy Stevens did the rest of Judy’s singing elsewhere.)
The result of this format, however, is a film that largely feels underdeveloped, as not even the performances advance the plot or even the character emotions that much. Once they decide to put on a show, the movie’s basically on autopilot, with most musical numbers basically being dress rehearsals for the big show within the film. Rosemary Clooney’s “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” is one of the few songs that serve multiple purposes in being a talent showcase, a display of character emotion, and a plot development, expressing her feelings indirectly toward Bob. Otherwise, White Christmas is like a piece of hard candy — satisfying for a short while, all around sweet, but the joy doesn’t necessarily last longer than when you’re actually consuming it. Also, your grandparents will probably love it.
White Christmas is not a transcendent musical experience, neither as wonderful, witty, nor timeless as Singin’ in the Rain, and its musical numbers, aside from the title song, aren’t exactly songs for the ages, either. Still, for a film that cashes in on a song’s popularity while also piggybacking on the shoulders of the most popular holiday of the year, it’s not at all a stinker, either. Each dance musical number is fun enough, at the very least, and the stars put on some great performance within their respective skill sets, too, even if their characters are a little flat. The film also manages to fit in a message about respecting our veterans, too. By the time they do get that inevitable white Christmas, just in the nick of time, it becomes clear that the film isn’t necessarily just about snow on the ground, but rather embracing the spirit of giving for all seasons (even if that season seems to be warmer than it should) and remembering all that you should be thankful for, even in times of struggle. White Christmas may primarily be a showcase of talent than an actual film, but what plotting it does manage to eek out manages to convey an important (if underdeveloped) message.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5
Tech note: White Christmas was the first film to use VistaVision, an early widescreen format using horizontally-positioned 35mm film, allowing for a finer grain and wider filming area, which they were no doubt excited about using for the film’s musical and dance numbers. The format quickly died out in favor of other widescreen presentation methods, but several famous films used the format extensively including The Ten Commandments, North by Northwest, and The Searchers, while more recent films have used the format for certain special effects shots, including The Dark Knight, Inception, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
The film is also responsible for contributing the best line to one of the best mental meltdowns in cinema in Christmas Vacation.