Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review - White Christmas

Short review: A series of conniving schemes culminate in a reunion of Army buddies as a gift to an aging retired General and two romantic couples pairing off.

Wallace and Davis
Meet, romance the Haynes sisters
Army reunion!

Full review: White Christmas is a movie musical built around an Oscar-winning song from an entirely different musical. In 1942, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire starred alongside Virginia Dale in Holiday Inn, a movie about a retired stage performer who runs a specialty inn in Connecticut that is only open on holidays, complete with themed entertainment for the guests who show up on those particular dates. White Christmas was among the songs included in Holiday Inn, and twelve years later someone decided it would be a great idea to make another movie, this time centered entirely around that song.

The original idea behind the White Christmas movie was to reunite Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, as it was a fairly common practice to pair up a singing lead like Crosby with a dancing lead like Astaire, sometimes even throwing in a comedic lead such as was done in On the Town where singer Frank Sinatra, dancer Gene Kelly, and comic actor Jules Munshin held the lead roles. Unfortunately, Astaire declined to be in the movie after reading the script. Looking for a capable actor to place opposite Crosby, the studio hired Donald O'Connor to take the place declined by Astaire. When Donald O'Connor had to drop out due to illness, Danny Kaye was recruited at the last minute to take over the part. One has to imagine that the movie would have been quite different with Astaire in the dancing lead role, and a number of staging decisions seem to have been made with Donald O'Connor in mind, as he was not quite as accomplished as a dancer when compared to Astaire, and may have not been as good as Danny Kaye.

The first time Bing sings
White Christmas in the movie
The plot of the movie consists of a collection of schemes, two whirlwind romances, and one giant coincidence. For the most part, the plot doesn't really matter a whole lot, as it mostly exists as a framework on which to hang Irving Berlin songs and associated dance numbers, some of which are only tangentially related to the story, while others are entirely unrelated to it in any way. The story opens during World War II, with Captain Bob Wallace (played by Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (played by Kaye) serving in the U.S. Army somewhere in Europe and putting on a Christmas show for the rest of their unit. In the mythic reality of the movie, Wallace is already a singing star of note, and Davis took the opportunity to organize a musical revue featuring the performer. The show, of course, involves Crosby singing White Christmas, so if that is all you are looking for in the movie, you can stop watching after the first ten minutes or so. There is a brief interlude while their unit's commanding officer General Waverly (Dean Jagger) gives a farewell speech as he is being replaced. Following Waverly's speech, the soldiers all start singing their farewell when the enemy decides this would be a capital time to start some shelling. Eventually the General makes his exit and the bombs begin falling in earnest, whereupon Davis saves Wallace from being crushed by a falling wall, suffering a minor arm injury in the process.

The Haynes Sisters floor show act.
This event sets up the first scheme in the series of schemes that makes up the bulk of the plot of the movie, when Davis uses his injury to guilt Wallace into taking him on as a partner once they return to civilian life. This partnership proves successful and a musical montage shows them appearing in bistros, on radio, and television. Eventually, the pair try their hand at producing and put on the hit musical Playing Around, which leads them to Florida. Davis tries to set Wallace up with one of the showgirls from their production, later explaining in their that he wants his partner to settle down and get married so they can take a break from working. The dressing room scene where the two discuss Wallace's non-extant love life highlights one of the signature elements of the movie as it features a collection of witty banter infused with the language of the 1950s jazz scene that Crosby was part of. A decent portion of the dialogue of the movie appears to have been improvised, mostly that delivered by Crosby, who, according to Rosemary Clooney, seems to have spoken in real life pretty much like his character does in this movie.

This is the one time Kaye gets a
big dance number as Vera-Ellen's
At this point, the second scheme crops up when Wallace tells Davis that he received a letter from an old Army buddy who has asked them to see his sisters' cabaret act. The two sisters turn out to be Betty Haynes (Rosemary Clooney), providing the movie with a female singing lead, and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen), providing the movie with a female dancing lead. The letter that brought Wallace and Davis to see the sister act was actually written by Judy trading on her brother's name to lure the famous producers and potentially advance the girls' careers. This folds into yet another scheme: When the girls are performing their floor show act singing Sisters1, Davis notices that Wallace is smitten with Betty, and Davis immediately decides this is the woman he should get to marry his business partner. In a twist that can only happen in movies, it turns out that Judy is trying to get her sister married off as well, and she almost immediately becomes Davis' co-conspirator, which seems to be the seed from which the romance between Judy and Davis grows. Davis and Judy proceed to more or less dance into a love story in the number The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing, the only major dance routine where Kaye is partnered with Vera-Ellen. The two pairs of leads and their ensuing parallel romances is a change from Holiday Inn, where Crosby and Astaire competed for Dale's affections as part of a love triangle, with Crosby winning out in the end. One might suspect that this twinned set of romances was written into the script in order to entice Astaire to participate in the movie, as he had briefly retired from movie acting in the 1940s citing, among other things, his dislike of being cast in movies such as Blue Skies in which he lost the girl to Bing Crosby.

This is the funny version
A misunderstanding between the Haynes sisters and their landlord leads to the girls going on the run and Wallace and Davis filling in for them in a reprise of Sisters (although no one in the club's house band seems to think it odd that the Haynes sisters have a recording of the performance they had given mere minutes before). Following their collusion with the two girls, Wallace and Davis are soon on the run from the local law, and wind up on the same train as the Haynes sisters - who are now in possession of Wallace and Davis' tickets courtesy of some mildly deceptive generosity on the part of Davis. Having been told that the two women are headed to Pine Tree in Vermont for a job, Davis gets to scheming again and tries to convince Wallace to head to Vermont rather than New York, asserting that taking a break to play in the snow would do them some good. With no tickets, the two men have to buy new tickets and sit in the club car rather than rest comfortably in their arranged for sleeping quarters. Wallace is having none of Davis' "Vermont" talk until the Haynes sisters show up and Davis resorts to using his old injury to convince Wallace to divert their trip to the Green Mountain State. To celebrate the upcoming Vermont excursion, the four sing Snow as the train steams north. On another note, the scenes on the train are the only instances in which black actors show up in the story consisting of one porter handling luggage, and one bartender in the club car making drinks for the four leads.

Everyone singing about snow that won't
be there when they reach Vermont.
Once everyone reaches Vermont, they discover that there is no snow, a circumstance that serves to drive much of the rest of the plot of the movie. When they reach the Columbia Inn where the girls are booked, the one giant coincidence that drives pretty much everything else about the plot turns up: The inn is owned by none other than the retired General Waverly who is in danger of being driven into bankruptcy due to the lack of guests caused by the lack of snow. Given that the movie takes place over about a week and a half of time, one has to wonder how financially unstable Waverly is if he is threatened with bankruptcy as a result of this fairly brief interruption of business.  To save their former commanding officer from financial ruin, Wallace and Davis cook up yet another scheme, but this one is different from all of the others that have come before in that neither Wallace or Davis stand to gain any benefit if they are able to make it work. The pair round up as many of the cast members of Playing Around as can be found and move the entire production to the Columbia Inn in order to provide top flight floor show as a draw to bring guests despite the fact that there is no snow. One also wonders how the inn stays in business during the warm months of spring, summer, and fall if no one ever comes to stay there when there is no snow.

At least they aren't in blackface
Using a show within the movie allows for several musical numbers that essentially have nothing to do with the plot: The Minstrel Number and Mandy, Choreography, and a dance routine to an instrumental version of Abraham, the full version of the last song having appeared in Holiday Inn, and in the intervening years having become too embarrassing to use2. The interesting thing with most of these numbers is that Vera-Ellen is paired up with John Brascia rather than Danny Kaye in her dance routines. I suspect that the dance routines were originally choreographed for Astaire, and then when O'Connor took over the role, someone at the studio decided that he was not a strong enough dancer to be paired with Vera-Ellen and the routines were rehearsed with Brascia instead. By the time Kaye stepped in to the production, it was likely too late to adequately rehearse him for the number and Brascia stayed. These dance numbers feel a bit odd as a result, as Brascia essentially shows up in the movie for the dancing scenes and is seen in a few brief flashes as the dance captain for Playing Around, but has no other role in the movie. Even the showgirl Davis tried to set Wallace up is a more complete character than Brascia, and she had fewer than a half dozen lines in the movie.

Scheming up a fake engagement that Judy wants to be real
Among the rehearsal numbers, the romance between Wallace and Betty gets moving, with a little bit of conniving help from Davis and Judy, reaching a high point with a kiss after the duet Count Your Blessings. Because a romantic story line can't be allowed to run its course without some obstacles, a misunderstanding arises between the two revolving around the final scheme of the movie: In an effort to raise Waverly's spirits after the former General received some disappointing news from the Pentagon, Wallace and Davis arrange with television personality Ed Harrison (a thinly disguised version of Ed Sullivan) to use his show as a platform to ask as many members of their old Army unit to come to the Colombia Inn on Christmas Eve to show how much the old man means to all of them. Of course, the gossipy housekeeper Emma Allen (Mary Wickes) listens in on part of the conversation and comes away with the impression that the intent is to put the General on the Ed Harrison Show and produce a sappy and schmaltzy program playing up the pathetic nature of Waverly's plight, and she wastes no time telling Betty about her conclusions. Rather than actually directly asking either Wallace or Davis what they intend to do, Betty makes a series of cryptic comments and jumps to her own conclusions before storming off to New York once Davis and Judy announce their engagement. Betty is unaware that her sister had cooked up the engagement with Davis (in a fairly humorous scene) as a means of getting Betty to stop being a "mother hen" and go off and make herself available to marry Wallace.

I'm mad, but I won't tell anyone why
Instead, Betty hops the earliest train to New York, leaving a letter for Judy, and ensconces herself as the headline act at a night club. Once Betty has left Vermont, Judy and Davis reveal to Wallace that their engagement was a ruse to clear the decks for him to get married to Betty, resulting in Wallace heading to New York, both to meet with Ed Harrison and try to convince Betty to return to Pine Tree. Before he heads out of town, Crosby has a scene with Kaye and Vera-Ellen that suggests to me that the script for the movie underwent at least some revision between the time Astaire saw it and final production began. In the scene, Crosby scolds his two co-stars, taking on a tone that could be said to be akin to that of a big brother, or even a father. One has to imagine that this scene would not have played nearly as well if Astaire, who was a few years older than Crosby, had been playing Davis. This scene, along with a couple others in the movie, simply would not work with Astaire in the movie, and all of these were almost certainly were written in after he declined the role. It is also somewhat hard to imagine Astaire accepting a role that would have made him play a private to Crosby's captain. It is somewhat interesting to wonder what the original relationship between the two characters was, although it seems likely that this question will never be answered.

Rosemary and four of her dancing boys
Once Bob gets to New York and shows up at her place of employment, Betty sings the torch song Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me, accompanied by a set of young male dancers that includes George Chakiris, who would go on to play Bernardo in West Side Story seven years later. The choreography of this number highlights one fact about the movie: While Vera-Ellen was a fantastic dancer, Danny Kaye was quite a good dancer, and even Bing Crosby was a competent professional (although never particularly fluid, and at the age of fifty-one was showing his age a bit), Clooney was not really able to do much more than walk in time to music. In this number, Clooney basically stands still for the song while her accompanying troupe of young men clad in black dances, or rather dramatically poses, around her. One element of the movie that is always on the screen, and yet sometimes overlooked is just how good it makes all of the lead performers look. Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney were both quite attractive women, but in very different ways, with very different body types. It would have been easy for a costumer to make choices that would have been unflattering to one or the other of the women, but throughout the movie the costuming choices show each woman in her best light. In most cases, if one were to switch their costumes (assuming the outfits were properly resized), they would have looked terrible. Even the men's costumes seem to have been carefully chosen, with attention paid to even minor details such as making sure that the color of their shoes matched the color of their suits in the musical numbers. Following her rather unsubtle song, Betty meets Wallace at his table and when he asks her what he did wrong, rather than actually tell him what is bothering her, she continues to cryptically evade talking about the subject, and when Ed Harrison shows up she makes up a couple of excuses to get out of seeing Wallace another time.

Wishing they were on
Uncle Sam's payroll again
Of course, Betty is wrong about Wallace's intentions, and she discovers this while watching the Ed Harrison Show when Wallace sings What Can You Do With a General and outlines the entirely benign plan that she would have known about before scampering out of Vermont had she merely asked someone directly. Interspersed with this revelation are some funny scenes in which Davis distracts Waverly away from his television set by faking an injury, one of the handful of instances of physical comedy that crops up, as most of the humor in the movie is built around witty banter, which was more or less Bing's comedy forte. Given that he was one of the producers of the movie, it seems natural that it would play to his strengths, but both O'Connor and Kaye were excellent physical comedians, so the relative lack of this sort of humor seems like something of a missed opportunity. One interesting note is that the script of the movie pretty much assumes everyone in the U.S. is Christian, or at least celebrates Christmas, as Wallace expresses the notion that it is "murder" for his comrades to miss Christmas Eve with their families. But there were numerous non-Christian service members in the U.S. armed force for whom this probably wouldn't have been any kind of hardship, and the movie apparently doesn't seem to even give their existence a second thought.

In any event, at this point the movie picks up steam and rushes headlong towards its rather predictable, but still enjoyable conclusion. Emma Allen tricks Waverly into wearing his uniform to what he believes to be the opening performance of Playing Around at the inn, the various former soldiers (who, almost miraculously, seem to have all not only kept their uniforms, but are all able to fit in them nearly a decade after they were presumably last used) sing a rousing tribute of We'll Follow the Old Man, and then Wallace, Davis, and the Haynes sisters sing a paean to how much they miss Army life called Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army. Finally, everyone gets together for the big finale with everyone singing White Christmas as snow finally begins to fall. Bob and Betty are reconciled, and Phil and Judy's engagement turns out to not be quite as phony as they had led everyone to believe. Given that this is a Christmas movie, the fact that everyone ends up with a happy ending isn't really a surprise, although I do have to wonder how many of the women from the audience in off-the-shoulder dresses caught pneumonia when the barn doors were thrown open to show the audience the falling snow.

The big finale. Won't those ballet dancers and everyone
in the audience get cold with that barn door open?
White Christmas is a lovely movie, with a lovely soundtrack anchored by one of the most famous songs in movie history. It is full of fun dance numbers, a healthy dose of witty humor, a little bit of romance, and a kind of schmaltzy Christmas theme. This movie was the biggest box office success of 1954. It was also something of a last hurrah. This was Vera-Ellen's second to last movie appearance. It was also Rosemary Clooney's second to last movie appearance. Danny Kaye only appeared in a handful of movies following White Christmas before moving to television and his own variety show. As the biggest star of the movie, it should come as no surprise that Crosby had the most successful post-White Christmas career, but even he was on the downward slope of his career: After appearing in nearly four dozen feature movies between 1930 and 1954, Crosby would appear in less than a dozen more over the rest of his career. With the exception of Vera-Ellen, whose career essentially ended after the 1957 movie Let's Be Happy, these entertainers found new life as performers on variety television, but in a way, White Christmas marks one of the final big moments for feature movie musicals of its style. When it was released, most of the famous movie musicals people remember today, such as An American in Paris, On the Town, Easter Parade, Blue Skies, Royal Wedding, Singing in the Rain, and Meet Me in St. Louis, were already in the past. In a sense, while the plot of the movie serves as a send off for General Waverly, the movie itself is something of a metaphorical send off for an era of movie musicals of its type. That said, it is a beautiful, touching, and fitting send off worthy of serving as one of the final highlights of a dying era in film.

1 Actually, only one sister sings in the song as Vera-Ellen's singing was dubbed for the entire movie. For most of the songs, her singing voice was dubbed by Trudy Stevens, but for the song Sisters, Rosemary Clooney sang both parts.
2 In Holiday Inn, the song Abraham was performed with the entire cast in blackface. Apparently, at one point the intent was to perform The Minstrel Number in this movie in blackface as well, but someone thankfully thought better of the idea before it was filmed. As it is, the number is still somewhat embarrassing, as the minstrel shows that the singers pine for in the lyrics were performances in which white people dressed in blackface and portrayed fairly racist caricatures of African-Americans. The routine relating to "Mr. Bones" involving references to Mr. Bones, Mr. Interlocutor, and a joke relating to misunderstanding what a word means, are direct references to these sorts of racially offensive performances.

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