Monday, December 21, 2015
Holiday Watch: White Christmas (1954)
It seems like Holiday Inn (1942) used to be the Bing Crosby Christmas movie of choice for television, but the past few years, probably because it's in color and because they don't have to cut out any super-racist blackface scenes, White Christmas (1954) has been the Bing Crosby film that AMC has really been pushing.
In my book, White Christmas is the Pepsi to Holiday Inn's Coke - both are fine, but I'll usually start with Coke (well, Coke Zero or Diet Coke) and work my way backward to Pepsi. Again - I don't want to say Holiday Inn isn't hugely problematic by any standard after 1952 or so. It is. But when you cut out that President's Day sequence (shudder) the story just works better. For me, anyway. Plus, I like Fred Astaire a magnitude more than I'll ever like Danny Kaye.
But we don't have Holiday Inn, we have White Christmas.
This movie, on the other hand, is racist only indirectly. That is a whole lot of white people singing about wanting a little precip enough to make the title a little on-the-nose.
White Christmas contains book-ends of a good movie with a somewhat tortured 30-minute-or-so segment that usually leads me to turning off the movie for a while and then coming back to catch the last five minutes.
In 1944, a pair of soldiers serving under General Waverly (Dean Jagger) put on a Christmas show for their unit just before being re-deployed under a new commander. Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) is an established entertainer working with Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). They're all pretty sad to see General Waverly go as they're aware he's been an exceptional leader.
After the war, Davis and Wallace team up and become a national sensation as a song and dance team. 10 years after that show where they bid Waverly adieu, they're doing their act down in Florida when they go to see one of their former comrade's sisters who are performing a song and dance "sister act". They recruit the girls to join them as they head to Vermont, and it turns out the lodge they're headed for is run by none other than General Waverly - but business at the lodge is not faring well. They put on a show to save the day.
The part I don't care for is a pretty big spoiler, but what the hell. This movie is 60 years old and on TV all the time - so this is on you, really (watch more TV). Through a misunderstanding, the sister who fell for Bing, played by Rosemary Clooney (yes, George Clooney's aunt), thinks they're going to put the General on TV and exploit him for free publicity and there's this huge drag in the story because nobody asks Bing a simple question to see if/ why he's exploiting the General (Bing is not putting the General on TV), and, frankly, I don't entirely get why putting the General and his lodge on TV is seen as bad advertising for the lodge. I guess in 1954, people weren't quite clued in yet to "oh, no, people do what TV tells them to do". Plus, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen get fake engaged for no real reason other than to give them something to do in the movie.
It just makes everyone in the movie into either an idiot of an ass#@!&, and rather than feeling character driven, it just makes Rosemay Clooney's character seem like a reactionary lunatic with no sense for the business she's in.
There's also a number about modern dance that seems like scared 1940's show people making fun of the new medium in a way Gene Kelley would have probably recommended they avoid.
So, what's with the movie?
Well, keep in mind that in 1941, we had kind of a busy December. This was also the year Crosby first sang White Christmas by Irving Berlin and it went unnoticed. But by 1942, the song had appeared in the film Holiday Inn (released in the summer. What the hell, 1940's America?) and as the war moved into winter, it struck a chord with GI's overseas and the folks at home who were wanting a Christmas with their families and loved ones back in their family homes.
The song became a runaway hit unlike almost anything else to ever appear in modern culture with record sales and whatnot. It's generally considered the best-selling single of all time, with something like 50 million singles sold and 100 million copies when you include the song's inclusion on albums.
Damn. That take, Adele.
So, you can imagine that Irving Berlin and company wanted to capitalize on some of that sweet, sweet White Christmas lucre and they didn't need the world's best movie to do it. Make a play for post-WWII veterans' sympathies and play up the Holiday cheer and you can move another 10 million records while selling tickets to a product with pre-Awareness. (cough)
It's never more than a serviceable movie, even with an ace director like Michael Curtiz at the helm. Vera Ellen is a great dancer, if not a phenomenal singer and actor. Danny Kaye is Danny Kaye. I'm a fan of Bing Crosby, and the first two CD box sets I ever purchased were the Star Wars soundtracks and a Bing Crosby set, to give you an idea.* This is the only Rosemary Clooney movie I've ever seen, and she seems so oddly cast. I understand she was a very popular performer for decades, but her look and personality make her seem like she would have made a better tough girl in a crime picture than a perky song and dance girl, but nobody was asking me.
The portions about the General and remembering our veterans and appreciating their service is an eternally relevant message (it is odd that the Korean War goes unmentioned in the movie, but that seems to generally be the case in a lot of media from the era). And it's more or less why I probably wind up getting duped into watching the movie again so often.
Anyway. The 25th is rapidly approaching, so I'm not sure how many more of these Holiday Movie reviews I'll be bopping you over the head with. Sorry about all that.
I'm only writing about movies I watched in their entirety, and I watched the last 40 minutes of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes tonight, too, and that is an entirely better movie.
*I was one hip, hip 20-something