No Christmas season would be complete without Bing Crosby singing that hardy perennial ‘White Christmas’ in his own inimitable style - so laid back that he’s almost comatose. Christmas without Bing would be like roast turkey without the cranberry sauce. There are many other Yuletide numbers that have been released by other artists over the years and apart from ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day’ sung by Roy Wood and Wizzard, I struggle to remember any others. The song ‘White Christmas’ first featured in a movie called ‘Holiday Inn’ back in 1942, but the version most people remember comes from the 1954 movie ‘White Christmas’ starring the Old Crooner, the irrepressible Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen.
It’s the kind of movie you like to watch when it’s below zero outside and there’s a nice log fire crackling away inside (okay, a fully operational central heating system will do), the aroma of baking mince pies fills the house and there’s some mulled wine being warmed on the stove. The shops are shut, the Christmas presents are bought and wrapped – all is well with the world. In the days of movie projectors, we used to watch ‘White Christmas’ preceded by the Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ for a perfect seasonal programme. But now, in our High Definition age we can watch it on UK Region free Blu-ray thanks to its release by Paramount.
Apart from the fact that it suits the season, there’s another reason that movie buffs might want to watch ‘White Christmas’. It was the first film to be released in the big screen High Definition process called Vista-vision. This is a term that movie-goers saw before the titles on many other movies (‘North by Northwest’ for instance) and wondered what it meant. It was widely promoted in the 1950’s as a process that increased the clarity of the on screen image. They called it High Fidelity back then. On a conventional 35mm movie camera the film passes through the gate in a downward manner, so the width of the picture on film could only be about 32mm at most if it has to fit between the sprocket holes. With Vista-vision, the film went through the gate sideways, allowing a much larger area of film to be used for the picture. The greater the film area, the better the picture quality. This increase in picture quality may not be apparent when a Vista-vision movie is shown on TV as they probably show something that was printed down on to normal 35mm film for convenience of projection. With the advent of Blu-ray we can now fully appreciate just how good the Vista-vision process was – and it looks stunning! More on that later.
But back to the movie. It opens during World War II, with big time entertainer Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) entertaining the troops just before they ‘move on up’ on Christmas Eve and we first hear the ‘White Christmas’ number over shots of world weary American soldiers far from home. As they say goodbye to their outgoing commanding officer, General Waverly (Dean Jagger), they come under enemy artillery fire (it couldn’t possibly be friendly fire, now could it?) and an aspiring young performer, Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), saves the life of the headline act. After the war, this favour is called in time and again as Wallace & Davis become a highly successful double act. Through connivance, they go to watch female duo ‘The Haynes Sisters’ (Rosemary Clooney & Vera Ellen) in cabaret. They help the girls evade the local sheriff by replacing them during their ‘Sisters’ number while they effect their escape. This routine is probably the funniest part of the film as the two song and dance men mime, trousers rolled up to the knees, to a record of the two sisters singing. Danny Kaye is the more hilarious of the two as he camps up the dance involving a couple of large blue ostrich feather fans. Kaye apparently improvised a large part of it, which involved whacking his co-star with the fan, causing him to crack up on camera. Crosby just let go and laughed, assuming they’d never use that take. They did, and it is just so natural that it works superbly. As our two heroes follow the girls on the train, they end up in snowy Vermont, which turns out to be a snow free zone and they discover that their old commanding officer is running the Hotel there, but without great success. They set out to help General Waverly by moving their stage show up there for Christmas - lock stock and barrel. I’m not going to reveal any more of the storyline (although, that’s just about it anyway) as I’m sure there’s a whole new generation who have yet to fall for the charms of this movie.
Okay, so the storyline sounds pretty contrived. The opening part about a stage act evading the law is straight out of a Bing Crosby & Bob Hope ‘Road’ picture, the rest is sugary sweet – though strangely never sickly – but it works as a vehicle for the Irving Berlin musical numbers including ‘Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep’, ‘Sisters’, ‘Mandy’ and ‘It Only Happens When You’re Dancing’. It also gives Danny Kaye the chance to shine brightly in the comedy stakes. His clowning is way over the top but as it’s him, it works. Rosemary Clooney (she was George Clooney’s auntie, by the way) looks lovely and her singing voice is wonderful. Vera Ellen was probably the busiest performer in Hollywood at the time this was made – and watching her in the dance routines reveals her perfect timing. She’s also rather good in the witty exchanges with Danny Kaye.
Dean Jagger turns in a great performance as he just looks as every retired General should. The one who really steals the movie however is character actress Mary Wickes who plays the busybody housekeeper with a penchant for listening in on other people’s phone calls. Her sharp features made her memorable in every film in which she appeared such as ‘On Moonlight Bay’ in 1951 or ‘Sister Act’ in 1992. The last thing she did was to voice one of the gargoyles in Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (‘Casablanca’, ‘The Sea Hawk’), ‘White Christmas’ may not be the best film ever made, but it does entertain and it also does produce just the right amount of warmth to offset the cold Winter weather. The finale as the cast sing the title number dressed in bright crimson Christmas outfits, while the snow falls in the background has enough sentiment to bring a tear to the eye of a donkey jacket. Give yourself a treat. Forget about trying to be trendily cynical and hard hearted. Just sit back and enjoy the movie.
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