Friday, December 7, 2012

WHITE CHRISTMAS: Blu-ray (Paramount 1954) Paramount Home Video

In 1954 Paramount inaugurated VistaVision – a competing widescreen process that utilize standard 35mm film stock running horizontally, rather than vertically, through the camera. Unlike Fox’s Cinemascope, VistaVision’s wider gauge film stock created a larger, crisper, more detailed clarity that, when projected, truly was 'motion picture high fidelity’. VistaVision also used Technicolor instead of Eastman Kodak film stock, yielding more vibrant colors than Cinemascope. The one advantage Cinemascope had is stereophonic sound. VistaVision was only available in mono. For a while, Paramount thought it had a winner in VistaVision. Indeed, critics and audiences alike went gaga over its obvious presentation advantages.
Unfortunately, theater owners were not nearly as enthusiastic. VistaVision required a retooling of their projection booths and the installation of costly equipment. Paramount would eventually compensate by producing ‘reduction prints’ from original VistaVision camera negatives transferred onto traditional 35mm film. Although the results were still better than Cinemascope, regrettably they did not yield the same level of detail and color saturation. Hence, by the end of the 1950s Paramount retired VistaVision altogether. Interestingly, VistaVision would continue to be used within the industry as a means of producing high quality rear projection for SFX. In fact, George Lucas used it for the original Star Wars trilogy. More recently the process has been incorporated into effects photography on The Dark Knight and Inception.
If waxing about a widescreen process created 57 years ago seems like a strange way to debut a review for Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas (1954), I have done so merely to illustrate the importance of the film as a technological transition. White Christmas marks the moment when movies truly became hi-def – albeit on film; an advancement that the home video market and digital age have only begun to catch up to with Blu-ray!   

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is a fascinating movie for Paramount for another reason. It took 3 years to get off the ground. Intent on recreating the magic of 1942’s Holiday Inn (the movie that introduced the Oscar-winning song to audiences), a minor wrench was thrown into the works when Fred Astaire politely declined to partake in the project. Today, it’s still a mystery why Astaire bowed out. The official ‘rumour’ is that Astaire felt he was getting ‘too old’ for movie musicals, which really makes no sense at all since he appeared in three more musicals between 1954 and 1957, continuing to dance well into his seventies on television with Barrie Chase.
Whatever Astaire’s logic, the studio next approached Donald O’Connor for the co-starring role opposite crooner Bing Crosby. But just as plans were underway O’Connor developed a rather severe respiratory infection that forced him to decline. In the end, Paramount hired Danny Kaye, who leapt at the opportunity to work with Crosby and Irving Berlin. The studio also signed singer Rosemary Clooney to a five year contract and borrowed Vera-Ellen from Fox to shore up the cast. This would be the latter’s second to last film before retiring. Spirits on the set were high. But Berlin, a stickler for detail in each artist’s rendering of his songs, became a nervous wreck. He really had nothing to worry about. At the time White Christmas went before the cameras the song was already a million copy seller.  
White Christmas really isn’t a sequel, prequel or even a loose remake of Holiday Inn, but a standalone ‘update’ of themes previously explored; a sort of reconstitution using the backdrop of a country inn to tell its story. Norma Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank’s screenplay is serviceable, though hardly exceptional; its subtle poke at Rodgers and Hammerstein – then the biggest names in live theater – most obvious in the casting of Crosby and Kaye as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis respectively; a reluctantly paired act who have just produced their first big Broadway musical review. At one point Phil even says to Bob, “You’ve gone absolutely bizerk with work…you like being Rodgers and Hammerstein!”
But White Christmas takes its time getting to the heart of the story; the warm and fuzzy ‘feel good’ of helping a forlorn and forgotten man realize that his life’s work has not been in vain. On this occasion the man is Tom Waverly (Dean Jagger) a retired U.S. general who was relieved of his command during the war and has since taken refuge as a not altogether successful owner of the Columbia Inn in Pine Tree Vermont. After Phil saves Bob from a shell blast he finagles his way into Bob’s life and career; the two becoming a hot act. Phil is constantly trying to involve Bob with various showgirls; suggesting that he is in danger of becoming a miserable, lonely old man. Although Bob mildly resents the implication, he can obviously see the merit in his partner’s concern. But women in showbiz are not interested in settling down…or are they?
Receiving a letter presumed to have been written by one of their war buddies, Benny, whom Phil has nicknamed “Freckle-faced Haines: the dog faced boy” Bob and Phil agree to review a sister act at ‘The Florida’ – an outdoor nightclub. The boys are greeted warmheartedly by the owner Novello (Herb Vigran) who wastes no time in alerting the Haines sisters, Judy (Vera-Ellen) and Betty (Rosemary Clooney) that Wallace and Davis are out front to catch their act. Judy reveals too much about the ruse however and Betty wisely deduces that she, not Benny, has written the letter that brought Bob and Phil to the club. The girls perform their signature number, attracting more than just a fleeting interest from Bob and Phil. But afterward Bob becomes embroiled in a rather caustic discussion with Betty in which she reveals to him that they have been brought to the club under a false pretext.
In the meantime, Phil has engaged Judy in a spirited pas deux that ends when a mildly perturbed Betty comes to collect her. Novello explains to Betty, Judy and Phil that the sheriff (James Parnell) has arrived to arrest them because their landlord (Sig Ruman) is claiming they burned a hole in their apartment rug but are refusing to pay him $200. Determined not to let the girls slip away, Phil gives Betty and Judy the train tickets he and Bob are supposed to use later that same evening and tells them to get out of town. Phil further stalls the sheriff by borrowing one of the girl’s records and then partially dressing himself and Bob up in the girl’s flashy attire to lip sync their song as a garish burlesque for the audience. This plot entanglement is clumsy at best and ends with Bob and Phil also escaping the sheriff to board the train.
Bob is perturbed at Phil for giving away their drawing room to the Haines sisters, but is unable to carry over his contempt after Betty and Judy graciously thank him. Instead, Phil encourages Bob to take a side trip to Vermont where the girls have been hired to perform at the Columbia Inn. It all sounds like the idyllic wintery escape, except that Pine Tree has not had so much as a flake since Thanksgiving and, in fact, is experiencing something of a minor heat wave. Bob and Phil are reunited with their former commanding officer, Gen. Waverly and meet his granddaughter, Susan (the charming Anne Whitfield) and housekeeper, Emma (Mary Wickes) – a loveable busybody. Eventually, Bob latches onto an idea to drum up business and save Gen. Waverly from bankruptcy. He’ll bring their entire show to the inn and open it on Christmas Eve – implausible, I know. A real Broadway review would never fit into that barn theater; much less the accommodations necessary to put the entire cast and crew up for the duration of the show’s run.
The center act of White Christmas doesn’t really have much to say, devolving instead into a Broadway styled review of ‘rehearsals’ for numbers that are presumably meant to be in the final show. In between these glossy – occasionally garish – songs and dances, Bob and Betty slowly begin to fall in love. But Betty’s affections turn to vinegar when she erroneously comes to believe that Bob has decided to sell out the General for some free publicity by going on the Ed Harris television show – thus making Waverly a shamelessly pathetic figure from coast to coast. Without questioning her suspicions, or Bob to learn if what she suspects is the truth, Betty quits the show and takes a job at the Carousel Club in New York.
In the meantime Bob goes on the Ed Harris Show, explaining that no one connected with the Wallace and Davis review is getting anything out of his TV appearance except the opportunity to give the General the nicest Christmas present anybody ever could. Betty catches the broadcast in between numbers and quits the club to return to Pine Tree on Christmas Eve. Emma has deliberately sent the only two suits Waverley owns to the cleaners, thus forcing him to dress in his retired general’s garb to attend their premiere. But when he enters the barn, the general suddenly realizes that he is surrounded by the men who served under him during WWII; a parade of familiar faces appreciatively beaming at him. Better still; the weather has turned in everyone’s favour with a light snowfall blanketing the ground. Bob, Phil, Betty and Judy take to the stage and reprise ‘White Christmas’ for the audience; the general toasted by his men as the evening draws to its close.
More than anything else, White Christmas is meant as a celebration of Irving Berlin’s prowess as the Dean of American pop music. And yet the Berlin score gets short shrift or is rather garishly blown all out of proportion. Crosby’s solo of the title track is briefly interrupted by a tired old music box that quits in the middle of the song. A montage depicting Phil and Bob’s meteoric rise to fame showcases mere snippets of ‘Heat Wave’,A Funny Song’ and ‘Blue Skies’ – more frenetic than melodic, and thrust together with overlapping headlines in the showbiz trades touting their success. ‘Mandy’ – a minstrel tune first written by Berlin all the way back in 1929 is transformed into a razzamatazz glitzy spectacle with green and red coated dancers tossing Vera-Ellen about like a rag doll, while ‘Choreography’ is a rambunctious, but noisy spoof of what dance has come to in the American theater.
One really has to question the artistic integrity in the interminable interpolation of ‘Sisters’ – heard three times (twice in its entirety) in the film; the first, as a legitimate number sung by Clooney and a dubbed Vera-Ellen, then, as lampooned by Crosby and Kaye to a lip sync track, and yet again, as part of the girl’s debut at the Columbia Inn. It’s a middling effort at best, and one not enhanced by these repeats. Unlike the reprise of ‘We’ll Follow The Old Man’ which basically bookends the movie and serves to remind Gen. Waverly that he has not been forgotten by his men these many years since the war, the two reprises of ‘Sisters’ does nothing but remind the audience of just how maudlin and coy that song actually is.
This leaves two of Berlin’s new efforts to champion: the Crosby/Clooney duet ‘Count Your Blessings’ and Clooney’s only solo in the film: the sultry and slightly sad, ‘Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me’ – introducing a very handsome George Chakaris as one of her male dancers. The other undisputed moment of musical brilliance is the Kaye/Ellen pas deux, ‘The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing’ – executed with a maximum spark of joy and some classy moves. Crosby has his own poignant moment with ‘What Do You Do With A General?’ – a rather lyrical reminiscence about the declining popularity of men in service once their duties have been fulfilled.
Of course, no film titled White Christmas could endure without a lavish reprise of its title track and, in this regard, the movie attempts not to disappoint. But the resultant spectacle, with the four principles garbed in satiny red Mr. and Mrs. Claus attire, and, flanked by an incurably precocious brood of pre-teen sugar plum fairies and miniature Santa’s, comes off as just a little too grand and gauche, robbing Berlin’s simple lyrics of their sustained intimacy: that, and the fact that Paramount has borrowed most of the backdrop, including the pinnacle plastic trees used in this number from their 1944 flop, Lady in the Dark.
In all, White Christmas is really more of a time capsule of ‘50s pastiche rather than a penultimate example of seasonal good cheer, utterly lacking the timeless allure of its predecessor, Holiday Inn. The flash is too flashy; the numbers too obvious in their accoutrements to be appreciated as integral parts of the story. Vera-Ellen seems to realize as much. She frequently looks directly into the camera during her dance routines (a no-no in film making). Yet her gaze seems to be addressing no one except the audience sitting in the dark rather than the characters she is attempting to interact with in the story. It may sound as though I’m poo-pooing the film too much, perhaps even wrongfully so, since White Christmas was Paramount’s biggest money maker of 1954.
I don’t mean to sound cynical, because White Christmas was, is and will likely always be a part of my own family’s holiday traditions. It’s a movie begging to be seen. I simply suggest that perhaps the grovelling is a tad too strong. The cast is dynamite. Yet even they, like Berlin seem to be trying a bit too hard to impress. The ‘feel good’ doesn’t emanate with the same level of warmth as it does from Holiday Inn. One cannot help but compare the two films – both dedicated to a cornucopia of Berlin standards. But in the final analysis, Holiday Inn generates the tender-hearted warmth of a cherished musical memory. White Christmas merely gives off a lot of frenetic heat.    
Paramount's Blu-Ray is simply gorgeous, applying a renewed visual and aural vigour that the movie has not enjoyed since its original release. For years, White Christmas on home video has looked careworn, faded, sharply contrasted and abysmally grainy. But now we get a superb 1080p scan of this timeless classic with colors so vibrant they simply glow off the screen. Fine detail and image sharpness take a quantum leap forward. This truly is 'motion picture hi-fidelity' at its best.

The audio continues to fall short of expectations, perhaps because no original elements exist to provide a tru-HD stereo remix. Paramount only recorded the tracks in mono! Hence, what we get is a Dolby rechanneled stereo offering. It's adequate, but I still personally prefer listening to the mono mix. It just sounds more natural and appealing to me. Extras are all direct imports from Paramount's previously issued 2-disc DVD from last year; including bios on Crosby, Kay and Clooney, but curiously nothing on Ellen. There's also a vintage recollection featurette with Rosemary Clooney and an audio commentary with Clooney that covers a lot of the same ground.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)



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