Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: White Christmas (1954)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures

White Christmas is a treasury of Irving Berlin classics, among them "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," "Sisters," "Blue Skies," and the beloved holiday song, "White Christmas." Two talented song-and-dance men (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) team up after the war to become one of the hottest acts in show business. One winter, they join forces with a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) and trek to Vermont for a white Christmas. Of course, there's the requisite fun with the ladies, but the real adventure starts when Crosby & Kaye discover that the inn is run by their old army general who's now in financial trouble. And the result is the stuff dreams are made of.

Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Song-"Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep", 1955.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1 & Digital Mono; French Digital Mono; subtitles English; single sided - dual layered; 19 chapters; rated NR; 120 min.; $29.99; street date 11/21/00.
Supplements: Retrospective Interview with Rosemary Clooney; Commentary By Rosemary Clooney; 2 Theatrical Trailers.
Purchase: DVD | CD album - Bing Crosby

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/C+/C

To some, the question may hearken to the classic query “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” When someone asks “In what film did the song ‘White Christmas’ first appear?”, the reply often comes back as “White Christmas”.

However, that wasn’t the case. “White Christmas” initially bowed in 1942’s Holiday Inn. Its continued popularity led to its inclusion in 1954’s White Christmas, a semi-remake of the older film.

I refer to WC as a “semi-remake” because its connections to the earlier movie are mildly tenuous at times. In HI, a couple of performers tussled over mutually-interesting women. One of them retires from showbiz to open his own lodge in the northeast US; eventually he combines the two lives and turns it into the Holiday Inn, a showpiece that only is open on different holidays.

Right off the bat, WC seems like a completely different film, as it starts during World War II. Our boys are enjoying a brief Christmas Eve entertainment during their ongoing battles with the Hun, a production that stars hotshot performer (and then-current captain) Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and also features wannabe song-and-dance-man (and then-current private) Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). The segment sets up the characters, as Wallace and Davis start a connection as partners, and we also meet their beloved chief, General Waverly (Dean Jagger).

After the war, the film jumps ahead about a decade. Wallace and Davis have indeed become a hugely-successful musical team, although their lives lack romance. Well, Wallace’s does, at least, and Davis tries to change that when they meet two performing sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen) Haynes. Through some meddling by Davis, he manipulates Wallace into following them to Vermont, where the sisters are to perform at a lodge.

By an amazing coincidence, this inn just happens to be owned by one General Waverly. It seems the joint isn’t doing too well - largely due to unseasonably-warm weather - and the old man’s come upon semi-hard times. Romance and helpfulness combine through the rest of the movie as we head toward the inevitable happy ending.

On its own, I suppose that WC isn’t a bad piece of work, but as someone who’s much better acquainted with HI, I find it nearly unwatchable. The later film seems so inferior to the original that it just can’t compete. Despite the presence of all that performance talent plus director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), the result is never anything more than a joyless attempt to mine the territory that worked so well twelve years prior.

The filmmakers really should have ventured into new territory. Clearly they wanted to capitalize on the value of “White Christmas” as a song, but there’s no reason why the story itself needed to stick so closely to the plot of HI. I recognize that it alters the material to a minor degree, but it remains the same framework.

Everything about WC pales in comparison to what was seen in the first film. Crosby and Kaye make a decent team, but they can’t approach the marvelous chemistry displayed by Crosby and Astaire. It seems unsurprising to learn that Kaye was actually the producers’ third choice for the role after Astaire and Donald O’Connor passed on the part. Kaye always was an engaging performer, but he adds little zip to the role.

Both female leads are competent, but the relative lack of spark found in the film makes them less effective. Probably the area in which WC most suffers when compared with HI stems from the many musical numbers. In HI, these production pieces were actually quite entertaining, even for an avowed showtune-hater like myself. The same positive sentiment did not apply to these parts of WC. Frankly, I found them to be interminable and just wanted them to end.

On the positive side, the movie look lovely and lavish, and all of the performers are always competent, even if they often lack much pizzazz. For those who enjoy that kind of music, Irving Berlin’s tunes remain solidly melodic and winning, and at least this picture’s production numbers lack the less-than-politically-correct atmosphere found in some parts of Holiday Inn. Nonetheless, White Christmas is not a film that I can recommend. It’s a passably-entertaining work at times, but there are many other holiday movies that offer much greater pleasure.

The DVD:

White Christmas appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not without flaws, I felt the picture usually looked quite solid, especially when one considers the age of the material.

Sharpness generally seemed fairly crisp and well-defined. Some softness could interfere with the image on occasion; these concerns mainly affected wider shots, but a few close-ups appeared mildly fuzzy as well. However, most of the movie seemed adequately accurate and concise. Moiré effects cropped up due to some checked clothing but otherwise were minor, and I detected few artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws seemed wonderfully absent. I saw occasional signs of grit and speckles, and there’s a little grain from time to time - mainly due to some process photography - but the picture appeared nicely clean and vibrant for its age.

Colors occasionally came across as slightly muddy and runny, but these instances were rare and they were easily outnumbered by the scenes that displayed vibrant and vivacious hues. Some of the production numbers featured a nicely varied palette and the tones were reproduced cleanly and brightly. For example, during the “Minstrel” piece, I found simply stunning reds and blues. Black levels also could be quite impressive, as they appeared consistently deep and rich. Shadow detail looked slightly heavy at times but generally seemed clear and appropriately opaque. All in all, White Christmas presented a fine image.

The film’s remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack wasn’t as impressive but it seemed acceptable as a whole. The soundfield seemed like glorified mono, as the imaging rarely strayed too far from the center channel. Mainly it was the movie’s songs that emanated from the side speakers; they boasted some mild stereo separation, but they never seemed terribly broad or engaging. The surrounds largely provided very gentle reinforcement of the music.

Audio quality seemed acceptable but unspectacular. Dialogue appeared somewhat edgy at times, but it usually came across as fairly natural and distinct with no concerns related to intelligibility. Effects were similarly bland but reasonably clear and realistic. The music had a few more concerns, unfortunately. Songs seemed slightly distorted at times, and the music displayed excessive warmth during much of the film. There was an underlying boomy tone to many of the tunes that seemed unnatural.

The DVD also provides the movie’s original monaural soundtrack, and I examined it to determine if it sounded better than the 5.1 mix. It didn’t. Yes, the music lacked the strange bassiness of the 5.1 track, but instead the songs appeared brittle and thin. It’s a tradeoff; whichever one you select will likely depend on personal preference. Ultimately, I found the overall soundtrack to be fairly average for the era.

This DVD packs in a few supplements, starting with a running audio commentary from actress Rosemary Clooney. Although I didn’t much enjoy the movie, I looked forward to this track because Clooney seemed able to provide a unique perspective on the film and the era. Unfortunately, the resulting commentary is deadly dull and adds extremely little in the way of useful information.

The vast majority of the track passes without any remarks from Clooney; her statements are few and far between. Even when she does speak, it’s rarely to offer any details about the production or anything insightful. Instead, she usually just laughs or echoes what the characters in the movie say; she doesn’t seem to understand that she’s supposed to tell us stories or details and not just mutter an occasional phrase as she watches the picture. Every once in a while, Clooney gives us some nice information, usually about Crosby and her relationship with him. For serious fans of White Christmas, Clooney’s commentary may merit a listen, but anyone less than absolutely in love with the movie or its cast should skip this dull and frustrating track.

We get more from Clooney in another area. She provides a “Retrospective Interview” that lasts 16 minutes and 40 seconds. This piece intercuts comments from Clooney with movie clips and connecting remarks from a narrator. I thought this program was much more effective than was the commentary, mainly because it condenses the information into one neatly-package piece. I disliked Clooney’s commentary mostly because we hear so little over such a long period; Clooney provides as much information during the commentary as she does here, but the format made it unwieldy. That’s not a problem during the retrospective. Clooney adds some nice details about her career, her costars and the production; none of her statements are absolutely fascinating, but they provide a nice complement to the film.

Lastly, the DVD includes two trailers. We find one for the movie’s original theatrical release. It’s distinguished mainly by the fact it often touts the use of VistaVision back when widescreen films were new. There’s also a re-release trailer; it seems to have come from a period not too many years after the movie’s original 1954 issue, but I couldn’t establish exactly when it appeared.

White Christmas is considered a holiday classic by some, but I don’t think it deserves that designation. At best, it’s a moderately watchable rehash of a superior movie, 1942’s Holiday Inn. WC never is a truly bad film, but it seems consistently uninspired and bland. The DVD offers fairly solid picture plus mediocre sound and extras. Fans of the film will probably be pleased with this DVD, but others looking for entertaining Christmas fare should search elsewhere.

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