Sunday, 11 November 2012

White Christmas (1954)

Dir. Michael Curtiz
Starring: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen 

I started my Christmas shopping today. We stopped off in a garden centre and the place was festooned with decorations and piled high with gift ideas. I found myself making a few opportunistic purchases to kick off the season. It put me in quite a festive mood. When I got home I found myself slipping Irving Berlin’s White Christmas into the DVD player to continue the theme. 

White Christmas tells the story of army buddies Bob Wallace (High Society’s Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). In the decade since they first met, at a Christmas Eve show on the front line in Italy, they have hit the big time with their musical revue. When we join them they are packing up their touring show in Florida in preparation for returning to winter in New York. Fate intervenes when they catch the show of the Haynes Sisters. Phil notices a spark between Bob and Betty (Rosemary Clooney – the aunt of The Ides of March’s George); keen to get his workaholic pal off his back he hatches a scheme to fix the pair of them up. Betty’s sister Judy (Vera-Ellen) is happy to conspire with him. To this end they persuade Bob to stay on the train with them and head up to Pine Tree, Vermont, where the sisters will be performing a dinner show for hotel guests over the winter season. 

However the arrive in Vermont in a heat wave. Despite their promises to Bob there is no snow. And there are no guests either. The Columbia Inn is empty and its owner seems destined for bankruptcy. However that owner is Bob and Phil’s beloved army commander, General Waverly (Dean Jagger). Wallace and Davis decide to shift their show up to Pine Tree to attract guests. Bob goes further and uses a slot on the Ed Harrison TV show to appeal to all the former members of the 151st Division to head up and remind their former general that he hasn’t been forgotten. All they need now is, as if by some miracle, for the snow to start to fall so that everyone can enjoy a truly magical white Christmas. 

With the main characters being entertainers it provides the excuse for a host of Irving Berlin songs to be crowbarred in – Sisters, Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me and, of course, the title track. Oddly it is the songs sung in character (like Count Your Blessings or The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing) that work the best. Big production numbers from the Wallace and Davis show like Minstrels / Mr Bones / Mandy or the frankly weird Choreography stick out peculiarly – like they have been transplanted from an entire other show. Which, to be fair, most of the songs have. Bing Crosby first sang White Christmas in Holiday Inn; he sang it again in Blue Skies. Now the song gets its own film, but in a very different context. The first rendition takes place against an idyllic snowy backdrop – but all it is is a stage set. Panning out we see the audience, a grizzled combat troop, and we see the location, a bombed-out village on the front line. The setting is ripe with pathos – hardened soldiers, far from home, thinking of the families they left behind.

In fact pathos is something White Christmas does well, so it was fitting that I was watching it on Remembrance Sunday. One of the most interesting songs is one called What Can You Do With a General? In it Bing laments that after the war G.I.s were assured of jobs, but that there had never been so many unemployed generals in circulation, and it was not quite so easy to find positions for them. General Waverly tells Bob that he has applied for a posting back in the Army; when his letter is taken as a joke he is crushed. It may have been the Haynes Sisters who lured Wallace and Davis up to the Columbia Inn, but it is the problems of their proud General Waverly that keep them there. 

Danny Kaye might not have been first choice to partner Bing in the film but he gives a very good account of himself – his shameless mugging provides a good foil to Bing’s drollness. He’s also a nifty little hoofer – witness his Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing sequence with Vera-Ellen in Florida which could have been transplanted straight from An American in Paris. Vera-Ellen is there for her dancing skills rather than any inherent musicality and her singing was dubbed. In fact, in Sisters both parts were sung by Rosemary Clooney who provides an appealing love interest (even if she was much younger than Bing, the 25-year age gap is less noticeable than the 27-year one with Grace Kelly in High Society). I should also mention Mary Wickes as Emma the nosey housekeeper. This role could have been played as a comedic old woman; instead there was warmth and truth in the characterisation. Casting a younger woman worked well and while there was a shade of Pauline McLynn’s Mrs Doyle from Father Ted about her I had hopes that she and the General might end up together. 

White Christmas is not the most Christmassy movie ever – not enough snow frankly – but it is fun and feelgood. 

The budget for the Christmas set was smaller than they had anticipated

What have I learnt about Vermont?
Vermont in winter means one thing: snow (“Snow! Snow!! Snow!!!”). It is famed as the winter playground of America (much to the displeasure, I am sure, of Idaho’s Sun Valley!). It has hills blanketed with snow, pine forests, ski lodges, one horse open sleighs dashing through the lanes and a peculiar combination culture that allows for German words and Swedish liverwurst and buttermilk smorgasbords.
However, if the snow doesn’t fall it does not get the tourists. One gets the impression that the rest of the year is preparation for the holiday season. Warm winters are the last thing locals want or need. 

Can we go there?
It is immediately apparent that the entire film was shot on set. This took place at Paramount Studios (except for the Pine Tree Station scenes; Paramount did not have a railway station set so they had to be filmed at Fox instead). No filming took place in Italy, Florida or Vermont. 

In Vermont the setting was the Columbia Inn in Pine Tree (the set used was actually that created for the earlier Holiday Inn). Pine Tree does not exist in real life but as portrayed it was a stop on the east coast rail line that headed up from Florida and through New York. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

No comments:

Post a Comment