Thursday, December 17, 2009

Film Review: White Christmas

"White Christmas" *** (out of ****)

What kind of person would I be if I didn't review "White Christmas" (1954) during the Christmas season?

Sometimes I ride against the wave of public opinion; I'm the guy that didn't like "Spider-Man" (2002), didn't think "Slum-dog Millionaire" (2008) should have won any Oscars, thought "Titanic" (1997) was a bad movie and felt the public was over selling "The Dark Knight" (2008). But sometimes you have to ride with the wave and let it wash over you. Case in point, "White Christmas". I really don't consider this a "Christmas movie". It takes place in December, the final scene falls on Christmas Eve. There is mention of Santa and snow in the dialogue, but, this has no real Christmas moral. This isn't a Christmas fable where we learn what the holiday is about and why we are celebrating it. However, somehow it has become a holiday tradition for many families to watch this film. I'm just going to go with it.

"White Christmas" is really a pleasant romantic/musical/comedy starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as army buddies. Crosby is Bob Wallace and Kaye plays Phil Davies. On Christmas Eve 1944, getting ready for a big battle the next day, the two men put on a Christmas show for their unit. But the area turns dangerous when bombs start to land near them, causing a wall to collapse. Just before it does Phil pushes Bob out of the way, saving his life, breaking his arm in the process.

Bob is actually a well known singer and Phil takes advantage of this. Trying to incite sympathy for his broken arm and saving Bob's life, he asks Bob what would he think of taking him on as his singing and dancing partner. Bob agrees and the two find great fame after the war.

Getting ready for a big television show appearance in New York, the boys head to a nightclub where an old army buddy has asked them if they will check out his sisters' act, a couple of singers. The sisters are Judy (Vera-Ellen) and Betty (Rosemary Clooney). And it is love at first sight, for the boys anyway. But Phil has a scheme going on in his head. Phil doesn't like working so hard as Bob is a workaholic. But if Bob was in love he might take some time off. So Phil wants to get Betty and Bob together.

The four seem to hit it off and before you known it they are all headed to Vermont, where the sisters are engaged at an inn. Phil suggest he and Bob go, just so they can be close to the ladies. The inn the ladies will be performing at is run by the boys' former general, who is facing hard times since there hasn't been any snow since Thanksgiving and his inn is empty.

Some have suggested "White Christmas" is a remake of "Holiday Inn" (1942), which I have reviewed. That film starred Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, it is originally where the song "White Christmas" was heard. The only similarity between both movies is the inn facing hard times. Neither Astaire of Cosby were in the army and Crosby actually does want to settle down.

Both movies features a score by Irving Berlin. In this movie we hear some familiar tunes, songs Berlin wrote for other movies or plays. The songs include "Blue Skies", "Heatwave", "Sisters", the Oscar nominated "Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep", "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing", "Choreography" and a big production number for "Mandy", a tune first heard in "Kid Millions" (1934), an Eddie Cantor musical/comedy which I reviewed. Compare the two dance numbers and despite the presence of Vera-Ellen I think most will find the original number more charming. Both are big a splashy but I felt the number this time around was just trying to copy the original and came off as stale.

The best performances are probably given by the women I would argue. Vera-Ellen, whom I've always liked, gets several good opportunities to show off her dance skills. Check out the "Mandy" number and the "Choreography" sequence, a criticism of modern dance interpretation. Vera-Ellen actually got her film start appearing in movies with her co-star here, Danny Kaye. The two appeared in "Wonder Man" (1945), one of Kaye's best and "The Kid From Brooklyn" (1946). Ellen is also very good in "On the Town" (1949) which I have reviewed and the Fred Astaire musical "Three Little Words" (1950). In "White Christmas" there are moments when Ellen's performance suggest all sort of things. First of all I feel she had a "cute" appeal. She seemed like your kid sister, sweet and innocent. Yet, at the same time there was no way to deny her stunning beauty and could make her looks the center of a scene.

This has to be Rosemary Clooney's most popular performance. She didn't act in many films. She has to go to more dramatic depths than Ellen. Though the role doesn't get too serious, this is a musical/comedy after all.

During this period I feel Crosby was giving lesser performances. First and foremost Crosby was a singer who had a charm which he just seemed to ooze. It was effortless. He was an absolute natural on-screen. And that was, I think, his greatest strength. Though there were times he could give a very good performance, watch him in "The Country Girl" (1954) with Grace Kelly. That might be his best performance in the 50s. All of his performances from this time period seem to suggest Crosby was merely getting by on his charm. He really wasn't giving it his all. He does the same thing in "High Society" (1956). It is as if he wants to do an imitation of the Crosby of old in those great movies he did with Bob Hope. He wants to get by on his reputation alone. The performance is hardly a disaster but it could have used more emotion.

Danny Kaye holds his own with these singers and dancers. I've usually always thought of Kaye as a comedian. But he did have a musical skill. And could "fake" his way through a dance sequence with Vera-Ellen and do a duet with Crosby and not embarrass himself. I wouldn't say this is his best performance, for that watch the comedies; "Wonder Man", "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947) and the movie I first saw him in as a boy "Hans Christen Andersen" (1952).

The movie was directed by the very talented Hungarian filmmaker Michael Curtiz who directed such classics as "Casablanca" (1942), "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942). Some readers might not known that Curtiz actually got his start in Hungary making films dating as far back as 1916. Here the movie almost seems to direct itself. It is all pretty conventional.

The script is what makes the movie and it was written by three top talents; Norman Krasna, who wrote the charming Carole Lombard comedy "Hands Across the Table" (1935), the entertaining Clark Gable, Jean Harlow comedy "Wife vs Secretary" (1936) and one of Fritz Lang's best movies "Fury" (1936). The other writers were the team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, who wrote a couple of movies for Bob Hope and Danny Kaye; "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946) often regarded as one of Hope's best (I have reviewed it), "Road to Utopia" (1946) and "The Court Jester" (1955) with Kaye. Frank was also a director and direct Hope in one of his best later films "The Facts of Life" (1960) and directed the multiple Oscar nominated "A Touch of Class" (1973).

As a musical comedy "White Christmas" is a pretty decent effort. The script and talented cast really make the movie worth watching. As holiday entertainment, I'm really not so sure. You could watch "White Christmas" any time of the year so don't just wait until Christmas to watch it.