Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Well, it's Christmas Eve and it seems to make sense that I finally fill out my obligatory quota of holiday-themed articles. I've already gotten away with a review/analysis of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, but let's look at a less sexual holiday classic, something a bit out of my usual comfort zone. About two years ago now (three including this year), I was still in college and encountered a man was selling low-priced DVDs. Seeing as that is something of a secret weakness of mine, I couldn't resist buying a whole bunch, and one of the ones I found was White Christmas, featuring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Now after two years of failing to get around to watching it, I finally managed to see this classic, and it's great.

I knew its two leading actors to an extant already. Danny Kaye was a comedian who did a lot of funny movies, though the two I best know him from are The Inspector General and The Court Jester. Both films are a lot of fun if you get the chance, with Danny Kaye playing a bumbling everyman who gets caught up in extraordinary situations but ultimately proves to be the one person that can save the day (so basically an early predecessor to the "Die Hard on an X film", at least in the case of The Court Jester). I was a bit more limited in my exposure to Bing Crosby. The one thing I'd really seen him in was the wonderful special he did in which he performed with David Bowie.

During World War II, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) are soldiers who like to provide entertainment for the men in their division. On Christmas Eve, they perform a fantastic show only to learn that their commanding officer, General Waverly (Dean Jagger), is being relieved of command. After saying goodbye in the form of an elaborate musical number, the division is attacked. Bob is nearly killed when a break wall is destroyed, but he is saved by Phil. To repay Phil for saving his life, Wallace agrees to try out a duet son his friend wrote. Fast forward a few years later and the two men are now a successful singing duo. They receive a (forged) invitation from an old army buddy to see a performance by his sisters, Betty and Judy (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen). 

These two turn out to be very attractive, with Judy quickly attracting Phil's attention. Both are also hugely successful performers despite the fact that they apparently only know one song. A series of convoluted mix-ups and situations that includes Bob and Phil donning partial drag and lip-synching to the sisters' music leads to all four of them ending up in a hotel at Vermont where there doesn't seem to be as much snow as they expected. Said hotel turns out to be owned by Waverly, and is not doing very good financially. Our four performers naturally conclude there is only one logical solution: bring Bob and Phil's entire show from New York to the hotel and invite as many old army buddies as possible. In the vein of a Shakespearean comedy, misunderstandings and romances ensue.

As you can see, there are some odd things about the story, like the fact that Betty and Judy are somehow as successful as they are even though they only seem to know how to perform one song, that happens to be about the fact that they are sisters. I also won't pretend that White Christmas is not a product of its time. As far as movies displaying 1950's standards goes, there are far worse, but it does have its moments that might be jarring to a modern viewer, usually in the form of specific lines that may have made sense at the time but can easily be taken the wrong way now.

For instance, there is an early scene where Danny Kaye remarks about a female performer wanting to settle down being "refreshing" (or for that matter, even the notion that either of the women getting married means they will have to give up their musical careers). It's meant to refer to an earlier conversation between them about how female singers are more interested in their careers, but can easily come off as sexist today. Later on we also have Vera-Ellen deciding to stage an engagement with somebody, and concluding it "has to be a man" (this was of course during the production code, so her even considering the possibility of being engaged to a woman would have been seen as unacceptable). After pressuring Kaye into pretending to be her fiancée, he tries to announce their fake engagement at a party, but it is played as embarrassing when he accidentally says that it was the girl who proposed to him (a radical idea for 1954). The all-male military may also be jarring to any modern viewer used to female soldiers being permitted in combat roles.

Fortunately, these moments are few and far between, so they are a lot easier to forgive. I've seen far worse. It helps that the two female leads are given some actual depth beyond simply having a pretty face, and that there is one other memorable female character in the form of Mary Wickes as the housekeeper Emma Allen, who is hinted to have some prior experience in espionage. Among other things she has a habit of listening in on phone calls, and gets plenty of great lines. My one criticism would be that there is one female character, Susan Waverly, who is a bit underdeveloped, but that is more of a story issue than anything to do when the movie was made.

In spite of the offhanded moments of... period-appropriate dialogue, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are still very good together and make a great duo. I'm not normally a fan of musicals; in many cases the way the characters spontaneously break out into elaborate musical numbers takes me out of it, but here it worked. The songs fit right in (it probably helps that the central characters are established as musical performers), and in general fit the tone of the scenes in which they are played. The film also spaces out the numbers, allowing room for character development and advancement of the plot.

White Christmas is a fun movie and one I would recommend as a film to get into the holiday spirit. It's flawed, there are the weird story problems and moments that remind you of how people at the time saw the world, but it is still an enjoyable film with some good songs and likeable characters. Definitely worth a watch if you get the chance. You won't regret it, unless of course you can't stand the song "White Christmas". In that case, you might want to pass on this film since that song is guaranteed to get stuck in your head after you watch it.


  1. Considering only men were in combat at that times, makes perfect sense and also that she is not gay is also just fine. It is a movie musical-a Christmas one to boot:) I have watched this film for years and always enjoyed it. I thought Rosemary Clooney was great. The Sister scene with Bing and Danny is priceless since Danny really did break up Bing and they kept that in the scene. The one major thing that stands out to me is how horribly think Vera-Ellen is. She never wears anything low necked in this film. When Danny Kaye is dancing with her, near the beginning, his whole hand goes around her waist! Later one when she dances and you see her kegs you can see the upper thighs and how thin they are. I am certain she suffered from anorexia but no one talked about that back then

    1. Like I said, it was a product of the times. I can understand why we don't see women in combat it's just a little jarring for someone used to it. My concern about Vera-Allen was also not so much the fact that she was straight as simply the line where she said it HAD to be a man, as though having a relationship with another woman was unthinkable.