In the pantheon of Christmas movie classics, White Christmas is a far cry from the sublime enchantment of It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. Aside from some snow and its inclusion of the immortal Irving Berlin song, the 1954 flick doesn't even have much to do with Christmas. It fits squarely in the genre of showbiz musical: light, fizzy and pathos-free.
But the central attraction in White Christmas is the music. Conceived as a sort of sequel to 1942's Holiday Inn, its construction primarily served as an outlet for a bunch of Berlin tunes. It's reasonably fun, resolutely cheesy and not particularly distinguished. But this reviewer's opinion isn't going to make a whit of difference to the legions who adore White Christmas (a group that includes this reviewer's wife), and this two-disc anniversary edition (nothing like a 55th anniversary, is there?) comes bearing plenty of bonus gifts for the faithful.
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye star as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis. They meet during World War II, where both are serving under the command of crusty-but-lovable General Waverly (Dean Jagger). Phil saves Bob's life, and before you can say spinning-newspaper-headline-montage, the two transform Army camaraderie into phenomenal post-war success as a song-and-dance team.
High jinks ensure when the boys jet over to Miami to check out an act of singing sisters, Betty Haynes (Rosemary Clooney) and younger sister Judy (Vera-Ellen). Bob, a workaholic bachelor, finds himself drawn to Betty; Phil and Judy conspire to nurture the romance. There's a slight hiccup when the girls must suddenly skip out on their nightclub gig. The gallant Bob and Phil, in semi-drag, fill in for the Haynes by lip-synching a recording of the sisters' "Sisters." It's silly and nonsensical, but very funny. Crosby's infectious laughter in the scene is genuine; he didn't think director Michael Curtiz would use the take.
Bob, Phil, Betty and Judy eventually wind up at a beautiful Vermont inn operated by none other than crusty-but-lovable General Waverly. The place has fallen on difficult times because of an unseasonal dearth of snow. Subsequently, our foursome decides to put on a whale of a show certain to draw big crowds and help restore a modicum of self-respect for the general who is inexplicably pitied for owning a beautiful Vermont inn.
It's all cheesy but harmless fun. Crosby and Clooney are in typically great voice. Kaye, who joined the cast after Fred Astaire and Donald O'Connor passed on it for different reasons, gets to demonstrate his gift for physical comedy. His mockery of modern dance in "Choreography" is a delight.
You can't fault director Curtiz. The director keeps the pace brisk, but he was saddled with a script cornier than Nebraska. There is little in the way of conflict. Screenwriters Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank try wringing faux tension from the sorts of misunderstandings that fuel second-rate TV sitcoms. Betty wrongly suspects Bob's attempt to help the general is more about self-promotion than selflessness. She gets that notion from one of Waverly's employees, Emma (Mary Wicks), who makes that deduction after listening to a snippet of a phone call. Emma is outraged at Bob, but promptly forgets about it by the next scene. In another harebrained contrivance, Phil and Judy pretend to be engaged in hopes that it will free Betty to hook up with Bob. Shock of shocks: It doesn't work.
Nevertheless, the audiences that flocked to White Christmas, and continue to flock, are not drawn to its formulaic schmaltz. Berlin's songs are fun, if spotty. In addition to two terrific renditions of the title tune, memorable numbers include "The Old Man," "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" and "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing." There is music, bright colors, snappy costumes and, best of all, Bing Crosby at his honey-voiced best.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the picture quality is good, but not an especially marked improvement over the movie's previous DVD version. Paramount's first offering in VistaVision boasts bright, eye-popping colors, but this edition is often beset by slight grain, ghosting and even flickering in a scene or two.
Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or a restored Mono mix. Sound is crisp and consistent, with no distortion or drop-out. An audio mix is also available in French, with optional subtitles in Spanish, French and English.
A commentary with Rosemary Clooney is left over from White Christmas' previous incarnation on DVD. It's a kick to hear from the actress-singer, who died in 2002, but her anecdotes are less than edifying. Much of it is of the "Boy, that was great" variety, and there are lengthy stretches of dead air.
Thankfully, Disc Two is loaded with informative, albeit fawning, featurettes. Backstage Stories from White Christmas (12 minutes) is an overview of the movie's production. Rosemary's Old Kentucky Home (13:30) spotlights Clooney's former residence in Augusta, Kentucky; the house is now a museum filled with artifacts from the making of White Christmas. Bing Crosby: Christmas Crooner (14:20) looks at the importance of the Yuletide spirit in Crosby's life, while Danny Kaye: Joy to the World (13:16) memorializes the comic performer who was also instrumental in raising awareness of UNICEF.
Irving Berlin's White Christmas (7:28) recounts the origins of the classic song, while White Christmas: From Page to Stage (4:26) touches on the film's adaptation to Broadway musical. Perhaps best of all is the 16-minute, 52-second White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney, although most of the information is recounted in the singer-actress' commentary.
Also included is an original theatrical trailer and a theatrical re-release trailer.
It's silly stuff, alright, but White Christmas endures thanks to a handful of Irving Berlin songs, the star power of its leads and, well, the fact that it's just plain comfortable. This is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, and fans of the 1954 picture are certain to enjoy the surfeit of bonus material.