White Christmas is a staple of holiday television. Like Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life, this Irving Berlin musical will be shown on late-night cable in December long after even the youngest member of the cast is gone. It has a solid cast, terrific musical numbers, and the kind of scatterbrained plot for which such musicals are known. Unfortunately, it can come across as a bit dated for younger audiences.
The movie opens during the Second World War, and Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) is entertaining his fellow troops on Christmas Eve. Although shelling can be heard in the background, Wallace does his best to entertain the men, with the help of Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). Coincidentally, this night is also the night that the division is moving towards the front, and their commanding officer, General Waverly, is retiring. After goodbyes to the General are said, the shelling comes closer to the unit, and Phil saves Bob's life. Using this to his advantage, Davis coerces Wallace into forming a team on Broadway after the war.
The singing duo succeeds, mostly by singing the staple Berlin tunes ("Blue Skies" makes an appearance in yet another movie), and eventually become big-shot producers. One night, the two men watch a sister act at a nightclub, and Phil's career as a matchmaker is born. Manipulating all parties masterfully, Davis manages to get the four of them checked into a ski lodge in Vermont where the girls, Judy and Betty Haynes (Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney, respectively), are booked to be the singing act during the ski season. Surprise! Their old buddy General Waverly owns the hotel.
Unfortunately, there hasn't been snow in weeks, and the hotel is in danger of folding if Wallace and Davis can't cook something up. Can they save the hotel? Will the Haynes sisters fall for these suave singing men? Can the screenwriter concoct one more harebrained scheme or misunderstanding to create more conflict? But of course! This is 1950's Hollywood!
From left: Crosby, Kaye, and Clooney.
The actors, of course, are scrubbed-clean and hard core showbiz talent. Crosby does his wisely father act, complete with pipe, and croons his little heart out for the title song. Kaye, best known for his role in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, stumbles about in his best court-jester fashion. Vera-Ellen provides show-stopping dancing, and Rosemary Clooney's voice is as amazing as ever. A huge cast of character actors whom you'll almost recognize back them up (don't miss Percy Helton as the train conductor he played the drunken Santa at the beginning of the original Miracle on 34th Street, and was also the voice of Winnie the Pooh).
One of the problems with a film so firmly mired in its own time frame, however, is the fact that it quickly becomes dated to modern audiences. Add to that the fact that musicals are now practically nonexistent outside of animated films, and the alienation continues. Our screening of White Christmas at the 1997 Fall Film Series resulted in some bizarre conversations. Some folks wondered audibly whether Danny Kaye was gay (he wasn't, at least not according to his wife and daughter). Apparently a man can't mince around in tights, wear lipstick while pretending to be a woman, or scream like a sissy without certain people today wondering whether he was actually the pulsing dynamo of masculinity we know Danny Kaye was. Stop laughing.
Others expressed horror at Vera-Ellen's dangerously thin physiognomy, wondering how anorexic one has to be to have a 9-inch waist and thighs that are no thicker than one's calves. It was also noted that neither woman appeared to consume anything on screen, apparently obtaining sustenance from the air itself, like Spanish moss. Some people obviously can't handle 1950's Hollywood glamour, or a dancer's physique.
It could also be observed, by those who are particularly cynical, that the plot is as light on developments as Vera-Ellen is on her feet. The biggest stumbling block to Bob and Betty's courtship is put in place by coincidence, and is removed without Bob or anyone else knowing what happened. Worrying about such plot points in musicals is like worrying about the plot in Jackie Chan movies. In both genres the plot only exists to move the characters from one display of physical prowess to another.
Watching White Christmas is like eating a candy cane: it only comes around once a year, and too much will make you sick. But while the experience lasts, it's pleasingly sweet, and worth doing while it's in season.