Friday, June 12, 2009

That Old White Christmas Has Me In Its Spell. White Christmas: A Review


WHITE CHRISTMAS

I have never liked Danny Kaye. I find him quite annoying. Up until White Christmas, the only Danny Kaye film I'd seen had been Hans Christian Andersen, and I couldn't get through it. I remember him singing, "I'm Hans Christian Andersen", and then promptly getting arrested for insulting the king by singing on his statue. I then remember him in jail singing Thumbelina to a child outside his window. It was at this point I changed the channel. I was six at the time so my memory is hazy. In fairness, credit should be given where it is due: his charity work, especially for UNICEF, is to be applauded and he rightly won a Humanitarian Oscar and a Kennedy Center Honor for his work. That still doesn't make me like him as a performer.

Perhaps that is why I had not seen White Christmas...until now. I now see how wrong I was to have waited so long just because I have a dislike for one of the stars. What I found was a sweet, charming, light, and delightful musical, one that is unashamed in its desire to entertain and doing it so well.
This might come as a surprise, but the song White Christmas did not originate from the film White Christmas. Rather, it's the reverse: the song (which earned an Oscar for Irving Berling from the film Holiday Inn) became such a hit that an entire film was built around the song. Not surprisingly, the man most connected with the song (Bing Crosby) is one of the stars.

The story starts in 1944 in Europe in the last Christmas of World War II. Crosby is Bob Wallace, a song-and-dance man who as a captain is entertaining the troops along with Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). Davis saves his life, and from that schemes his way into making the already-established Wallace make him his showbiz partner. After the war, the double-act is a hit, and they get into producing. As part of that work, they scout the Haynes Sisters act, Judy (Vera-Ellen) and Betty (Rosemary Clooney). Judy and Phil are apparently in cahoots to get Betty and Bob together, and Bob is hoodwinked into going to a Vermont ski resort with the girls.

Coincidentally (as coincidentally as any musical would make it), the inn is run by their former commanding general who's fallen on hard times. The old Army buddies decide to put on a show to help the general out. Soon romance begins for Bob & Betty (love the names), but, in the tradition of all good musical comedies, a classic case of misunderstanding takes place that separates the lovers. Eventually, it's all cleared up, allowing the lovers to reunite and sing White Christmas one more time.


White Christmas gleefully is what it pretends to be: a film where the plot is just an excuse to have big musical numbers and revel in the non-reality of them. Take the number Snow. Here, the leads sing in a dining train car about what they're going to do when they get to the lodge and see 'snow'. It's so nice to see a film where people sing to describe their plans without it being considered odd and being unapologetic about it. The filmmakers trust the audience to know they are not trying to be 'realistic' and to go along with the ride.

It is hard to believe that there could be a barn in Vermont big enough to host such a lavish musical number like the Minstrel number (mercifully it did not have people in blackface like the title suggests), complete with sets and a full orchestra with backup dancers. Like other musicals of its time, it wasn't going for strict logic as it was for entertainment value. In this, it is a brilliant success.

It's obvious in the film that Crosby is not a dancer. He certainly wouldn't have been able to do the The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing number that is a showcase for Kaye and Vera-Ellen. However, he certainly shows his charm with his duet with Clooney in Count Your Blessings. Clooney has her own highlight with Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me, looking so elegant as she sings of a broken heart.

White Christmas also has the always reliable Mary Wickes as the general's wife. It is also more evidence for the case that director Michael Curtiz should be thought of with higher regard and should be remembered by people for more than Casablanca (though that would ensure anyone's reputation).

My only slight complaint is the Choreography number. It reminds me why I find Kaye so irritating. His habit of making faces, his vocalization and rubbery body movements that many find endearing I only find annoying. Still, that's a minor issue that I'm willing to overlook.

White Christmas the movie is exactly like White Christmas the song: sweet, gentle, and nostalgic. For someone who has lived in the desert Southwest all his life, I too 'dream of a white Christmas/just like the ones I used to know'. White Christmas is a beautiful, lovely film. As for Danny Kaye? I'm still not a fan, but I gladly make an exception in this case.

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