White Christmas (1954) dir. Michael Curtiz
Starring; Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen
By Alan Bacchus
Irving Berlin’s song ‘White Christmas’ is an endearing classic – cited by many music sources as the best selling single of all time. The song was recorded by Bing Crosby and released in 1941 and even appeared in the Bing Crosby starrer ‘Holiday Inn’ that same year. But in 1954, Paramount fashioned the single as well as a number of other Berlin songs into the lavish Vistavision Technicolor musical.
Unfortunately, the success of the song not withstanding, the film is a drab and overlong tepid musical, with aging stars and an aging director. It’s a lengthy two hour buddy picture depicting the professional relationship of two old war buddies Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) who become a song and dance act. The duo get tricked into auditioning a sister act Betty and Judy (Clooney and Vera-Ellen). Though Bob is resistant Phil who quickly falls in love head over heals lobbies to take them on.
The foursome then retreat to a chalet in Vermont to relax and ‘enjoy’ each other’s company. But when the hotel manager turns out to be Bob and Phil’s old army General, now a shadow of his former authoritative self, the foursome engineer a massive televised musical jamboree featuring the famous titular song to raise his spririts.
Michael Curtiz (‘Casablanca’ ‘The Sea Hawk’, ‘Angels Have Dirty Faces’) is one of my favourite directors, but by 1954, he was long past his prime and it shows. For a musical, his camerawork is surprisingly stodgy and inert. Of course, Curtiz was not known for musicals other than his classic ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ which is less a traditional musical than a showcase for the singular singing and dancing talents of James Cagney.
To his credit, Curtiz does not have much to work with here and there is no one of the caliber of Cagney to support the material. His two stars are as dull as dishwater. Bing Crosby, 49 at the time of the making of the picture, shows his age. Sure Bing was a great crooner, but as a romantic lead, he was just too short, and knobby eared even in his youth for him to carry a picture. His costar Danny Kaye, well… never was the most masculine of actors, and thus is miscast as the handsome swooning romantic.
And so their two leading ladies Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen look like poor spinsters suffering under a false arranged marriage. Looking back into the history of the film, it seemed to originate as a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby to reunite. If this was the case, then Bing would have had the chops of Astaire to rely upon. Unfortunately Astaire was even older than Bing and so, in 1954 that wouldn’t have worked either. A young Donald O’Connor, on the other hand, was at one point tapped for the Danny Kaye role, which would have been ideal.
Other than the ‘let’s put on a show’ motivations, the underlying theme of the film is the loyalty and camaraderie formed by men in battle. The opening musical sequence is a somber reflection on war and the contrast of our humanistic inner emotions and the horrors of battle. In the end the duo, though now successful and famous, still are subordinate and penitent to their army superiors. The depiction of the General in civilian mode is perhaps meant to remind society of the heroism these ordinary people in society once did for their country and to heed us not to forget these sacrifices.
That’s about the only redeeming theme to take from this indigestible and dated musical.
A 2-Disc Special Edition of White Christmas” is available on DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment