Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Irving Berlin's WHITE CHRISTMAS: Blu-ray (Paramount 1954) Paramount Home Video

In 1954, Paramount inaugurated VistaVision – a widescreen process utilizing standard 35mm film stock running horizontally, rather than vertically, through a refurbished Mitchell camera. Interestingly, Paramount remained the only studio not to embrace 2oth Century-Fox’s patented Cinemascope; though it sincerely and desperately wanted to enter the ‘widescreen revolution’ on its own terms. Unlike Fox’s Cinemascope, VistaVision’s wider gauge of exposed camera negative created a vertically larger, crisper, more detailed non-anamorphic image with startling clarity. When projected, VistaVision truly was (as its marketing touted) 'motion picture high fidelity’ decades before 1080p was even a pipedream. VistaVision also used Technicolor dye transfers instead of Eastman Kodak film processing. Hence, VistaVision maintained rich and vibrant hues; particularly impressive, its saturation of reds. While both format had their virtues, the only real advantage early Cinemascope did have over VistaVision was stereophonic sound. Regrettably, VistaVision was only available in mono.
For a while, Paramount thought it had a winner in VistaVision. Indeed, critics and audiences fortunate enough to see VistaVision in its limited engagements were agog in their plaudits over its spectacular presentation value. Unfortunately, theater owners were not nearly as enthusiastic, as VistaVision required yet another complete retooling of their projection booths and the installation of other costly equipment. Paramount would eventually compensate distributors for these expenditures by producing ‘reduction prints’ from original VistaVision camera negatives, transferred onto traditional 35mm film stock. Although the results were still better than Cinemascope, these 35mm facsimiles did not achieve all of the fine detail or color density of true VistaVision. Hence, by the end of the 1950’s, Paramount retired VistaVision – although, not altogether. Interestingly, VistaVision is still utilized today to produce high quality rear projection SFX. In fact, George Lucas used VistaVision extensively to shoot his miniature on the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1989). More recently, the process has been incorporated into effects photography in The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2010).
If this history lesson seems a curious point of embarkation for any review of Michael Curtiz’s perennial holidays favorite, White Christmas (1954), its inclusion herein is illustrative of VistaVision’s importance as a watershed technological, yet another evolutionary step in transitioning from Hollywood’s full-frame golden era of ‘Academy aspect ratios’ to the present, and still competing ‘widescreen’ formats. In hindsight, White Christmas marks the moment when the movies truly went hi-def – albeit on film; an advancement home video technologies have only begun to rival more recently with the advent of Blu-ray. In some ways, Blu-ray was meant for VistaVision and vice versa, the extraordinary levels of detail and color saturation, long imperceptible on older video formats, suddenly realized to their fullest potential. And White Christmas remains its very impressive debut; Loyal Griggs’ stunning cinematography showing off Edith Head’s regal costuming; just one of the movie’s many assets. In years to follow, co-star Rosemary Clooney would reminisce about Head’s uncanny sense of color; commenting on the seamless expression of soft gray in Danny Kaye’s ensemble, from the lapels of his suitcoat, right on down to his shoes during his pas deux with Vera-Ellen in ‘The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing’; providing an uninterrupted continuity of color for the dance. Clooney would also chuckle over the stunning black velvet dress made for her song, ‘Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me’ – “Everyone talks about that dress and the diamond broach pinned to my butt! When Edith was making it she said ‘we have to do something to break up all that black velvet!’ Oh my…she had a rare sense of humor.”   
Indeed, in her seminal career as a leading couturier in Hollywood, Edith Head would not only create ‘the look’ for a particular generation of Paramount pictures, but win a record 8 Oscars in the process; the most for any designer to date and an award that Head (along with several other costumiers) was instrumental in establishing with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Paramount’s ‘house of Head’ was worshipped by many a female star, despite the fact Edith preferred to dress men over women. Nevertheless, Head’s styles set trends for women’s clothing; her ‘design philosophy’ well documented in two self-authored books. Head, among her many attributes, was nothing if not a shameless self-promoter; by far, the most easily identifiable designer of her generation; trademarking an inimitable look bordering on self-parody: a jet black mane severely rolled into a bun, school marm-ish/business woman classic chic suits cinched at the waist – immaculate in taupe, grey (and once, in a very long while – red), and finally, dark blue-lens glasses to add an air of inscrutability. Edith Head may not have been the greatest costumier of all time, but she decidedly was the most easily identifiable and publicized; a distinction no less afforded the movies she worked on. “You can spot an Edith Head picture a mile away,” contemporary designer, Bob Mackie has commented. Indeed, Head built a peerless in-house style for Paramount over her 43 year career; bidding the studio a fond farewell to follow her greatest collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock, to Universal in the early 1960’s; a move that, at least in retrospect, benefited Hitchcock more than it did Head. 
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is a seminal movie for Paramount in another way. It took three years to get off the ground, by far the lengthiest gestation of any Paramount feature during this period. Intent on recreating the magic of 1942’s Holiday Inn (the movie that introduced the Oscar-winning and million copy selling title song to audiences), a minor wrench was thrown into the works when Fred Astaire politely declined to partake in this follow-up project. It remains a mystery why Astaire bowed out. The unofficial ‘rumor’ is Astaire felt he was getting ‘too old’ for movie musicals. But this really makes no sense, especially as Astaire would continue to appear in three more musicals between 1954 and 1957, dancing 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 in White Christmas, opposite crooner, Bing Crosby. But just as plans were getting underway, O’Connor fell ill with a serious respiratory infection, forcing him to withdraw from the project. In the end, Paramount went with Danny Kaye, who leapt at the opportunity to work with Crosby and Irving Berlin. The studio also signed radio singer, Rosemary Clooney to a five year contract, and, borrowed Vera-Ellen from Fox. This would be Vera-Ellen’s second to last film before retiring. Spirits on the set were high. But Berlin, a stickler, suddenly became a nervous wreck. The song ‘White Christmas’ was by then a million copy seller. But would a second trip to the well dampen its appeal? Berlin really had nothing to fear. The love affair between audiences and this, his most beloved brainchild not only endured, but experienced something of a minor cultural renaissance when the picture had its premiere.
White Christmas is not 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 producer act basking in the afterglow of their first big Broadway musical review. At one point, Phil even says to Bob, “You’ve gone absolutely berzerk with work…you like it. You like being Rodgers and Hammerstein!” To this initial concept, the screenwriters added a WWII backstory. The song ‘White Christmas’ had, in fact, been written and debuted at the height of the European conflict, striking a romanticized chord with soldiers away from home and the girls and families they left behind. But the movie, White Christmas takes its sweet time getting to the heart of its story; a warm and fuzzy ‘feel good’ devoted to helping one of the war’s forlorn and forgotten men realize his life’s work has not been in vain. Otherwise, the crux of the tale is straight forward romantic comedy. 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 the not altogether successful owner of the Columbia Inn in Pine Tree, Vermont. After Phil saves Bob from a mortar blast during the war, he finagles his way into Bob’s life and career. In private, the two are frequently more oil than water, but nevertheless the perfect blend on Broadway; a powerhouse team, building an impressive roster of stage credits. Phil is constantly attempting to romantically involve the middle-age Bob with various twenty-something showgirls; suggesting he is in danger of becoming a “miserable, lonely old man”. Although Bob mildly resents the implication, he can evidently see the merits in his partner’s argument. 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 mutual war buddies - Benny, whom Phil has nicknamed “Freckle-faced Haines: the dog faced boy”, Bob and Phil agree to review a sister act at an outdoor nightclub. The boys are greeted warmheartedly by the proprietor, Novello (Herb Vigran) who wastes no time alerting the Haines sisters, Judy (Vera-Ellen) and Betty (Rosemary Clooney) that Wallace and Davis are out front to catch their act. In private, Judy reveals too much about the ruse to Betty, who wisely deduces Judy - not Benny - has forged the letter of introduction that has brought Bob and Phil to the club. The girls perform their signature number, ‘Sisters’; attracting more than just a fleeting interest from both Bob and Phil. Bob takes an immediate interest in Betty – one, Phil is determined to encourage with all his heart. But after their number, Betty confesses to Bob how they have been brought to the club under a false pretext. Bob is mildly amused – at first, but soon he becomes embroiled in a rather caustic disagreement with Betty about Judy’s motives for writing the letter. 
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 now 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 this 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 their flashy attire to lip sync their signature song; a garish burlesque the audience laps up. This plot entanglement is clumsy at best and ends with Bob and Phil escaping the sheriff by leaping through an open dressing room window to a waiting cab, eventually making their way to the depot to board their train.
Bob is perturbed with Phil for giving away their drawing room to the Haines’ sisters, but is unable to transfer 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, 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 (irrepressible Mary Wickes) – a loveable busybody. Eventually, Bob latches onto an idea to drum up business and save Gen. Waverly from bankruptcy. He will bring their entire show to the inn and open it on Christmas Eve – implausible, I know. A real Broadway review would never fit into a Vermont barn, converted into a makeshift theater; much less, the inn lacking the necessary accommodations to put up the entire cast and crew, plus other paying patrons for the duration of the show’s holiday run.
The middle act of White Christmas does not really have much to say, devolving into a Broadway styled review of ‘rehearsal’ numbers that are presumably meant to be a part of the final show. In between these glossy – occasionally garish, and thoroughly unrelated – songs and dances, is fitted a screwball comedy subplot. Bob and Betty slowly begin to fall in love. But Betty’s affections turn to vinegar when she erroneously comes to believe Bob has decided to sell out the General for some free publicity for his own aggrandizement by going on the Ed Harris television show – thus making Waverly a shamelessly pathetic figure from coast to coast. Without questioning these suspicions, or challenging Bob to learn if what she suspects is, in fact, the truth, Betty abruptly 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 no one connected with the Wallace and Davis revue 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.  Ever the plotter, 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 the premiere. But when he enters the barn, Waverly suddenly realizes he is the real star of the evening; surrounded by the gallant men who served under him during WWII; a parade of familiar faces appreciatively beaming back at him. Better still; the weather has turned in everyone’s favor; a light snowfall blanketing the ground. Bob, Phil, Betty and Judy take to the stage with a reprise of ‘White Christmas’; the General toasted by his men as the evening draws to its climactic 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 rather, is garishly blown out of proportion. Crosby’s solo of the title track is briefly interrupted by a tired old music box that conks out 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, then, had become 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 Berlin ditty at best, and one not improved upon by its repetition, unlike the reprise of ‘We’ll Follow The Old Man’ serving as bookends to the story.
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 scintillating yet slightly sad, ‘Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me’ – introducing a very handsome George Chakaris as one of her male dance partners. 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 maneuvers on the dance floor. Crosby has his own poignant solo, ‘What Do You Do With A General?’ – 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 does not disappoint. But the resultant spectacle, with the four principles garbed in satiny red velvet 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 innocence and intimacy: that, plus the fact Paramount has borrowed most of the backdrop for this climax, including the pinnacle-spire plastic trees, from their 1944 flop, Lady in the Dark.
In all, White Christmas is really more of a time capsule of ‘50s pastiche than a penultimate example of seasonal good cheer, lagging in the timeless allure of its predecessor, Holiday Inn. The flash is too flashy; the numbers too obvious and decadent 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 routines (a no-no in film making). Yet, her gaze seems to be addressing no one except the audience sitting in the darkened theater, instead of the characters she is supposed to be interacting with in the story. It may sound as though I’m poo-pooing the film too much; particularly, in light of the fact White Christmas was a colossal smash hit: Paramount’s biggest and brightest moneymaker of 1954. And I do not mean to sound cynical either, because White Christmas was, is and will likely always be a part of my own family’s holiday traditions. It is a movie begging to be seen, although perhaps, with the groveling a tad too tinny and echoing. The cast is dynamite. But the real star is VistaVision. Like Berlin’s score, the cast seem to be ‘selling’ a bit too hard to thoroughly impress. The ‘feel good’ lacks warmth as it did in Holiday Inn. And despite the dissimilar plots, one cannot help but compare the two films – both dedicated to a cornucopia of Berlin standards set in an idyllic country inn far removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Yet, in the final analysis, Holiday Inn generates the tender-hearted sincerity of a cherished musical memory while White Christmas merely gives off a lot of frenetic heat.  
This is Paramount's second Blu-Ray release, sporting the identical and simply gorgeous and reference quality 1080p transfer as was previously made available. For years, White Christmas on home video looked careworn, faded, sharply contrasted and abysmally grainy. But now we get a superb hi-def scan with colors so vibrant they simply glow off the screen. Fine detail and image sharpness take quantum leaps forward. A curiosity: the final camera pullback away from the stage where Crosby, Clooney, Kaye and Ellen are all warbling the last few lyrics to ‘White Christmas’ continues to appear slightly out of focus and a tad heavy on film grain, I suspect because it might be a dupe, interrupted by the optical printing of ‘The End’ and a dissolve to the Paramount logo. Given how razor-sharp the rest of the image quality is, the effect is slightly jarring. But, on the whole, this truly is 'motion picture hi-fidelity' at its best. Prepare to be astonished, unless, of course, you already own the previously issued Blu-ray. Alas, the audio continues to fall short of expectations, perhaps because no original stereophonic elements exist to provide a tru-HD stereo remix. What we do get is a DTS rechanneled stereo offering. It's adequate, but I still prefer listening to the cleaned up mono mix. It just sounds more indigenous to its source.
Now, about extras…most, if not all, are directly ported over from the previously issued Blu-ray release. Disc One features the movie with a ‘new’ sing-a-long track. Ho-hum! We get the same Rosemary Clooney audio commentary as before. Paramount has gone to the well for some archived ‘Classic Holiday Moments’; TV Christmas specials of Crosby warbling ‘Silent Night’ in 1948, ‘White Christmas’ in 1976, and the horrendous ‘Natalie Cole-esque teaming of Crosby with Michael Bublé from 2012. Danny Kaye and Nat King Cole are featured, doing ‘Jingle Bells’ from 1963, and Kaye appears again in segments of A Christmas Carol from 1965. There’s also an ‘Assignment Children’ featurette, with an intro from Bublé (aside: I have no idea how or why Michael Bublé has suddenly become the co-host and authority on this movie). The featurette provides a brief backlog of snippets and sound bites about the making of White Christmas. Other extras have already been made available on the previously issued Blu-ray, including Bing Crosby: Christmas Crooner, Danny Kaye: Joy to the World; another featurette exposing the fact Irving Berlin wrote a prologue to the song ‘White Christmas’; Rosemary's Old Kentucky Home; a tour of the star’s Augusta, Kentucky house; White Christmas: From Page to Stage, exploring the aegis of creating a Broadway show based on the movie, and, finally, the vintage featurette, White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney. Paramount tops off the extras with new photo galleries and two trailers.
The padding out continues with three superfluous discs: 2 DVDs – basically containing the same content as mentioned above – except in standard def (pointless toss away), plus a bonus CD. It is one of Paramount’s grotesque oversights that White Christmas was never given an official cast album – a source of contention for the movie’s many fans ever since. So herein, Paramount has instead corralled a small sampling of time-honored Christmas songs recorded elsewhere by its stars.  There are twelve tracks in all and most will be familiar. Bottom line: if you already own the previously issued Blu-ray I don’t see much point in dipping twice for this reissue. Yes, there are a few new extras. But they are mostly disposable swag and not altogether engaging in and of themselves. As I grow older - and hopefully wiser - I am more inclined to press the studios into releasing catalog as yet unavailable in hi-def rather than remain contented with their chronic regurgitation of reissues such as this.  If you do not already own White Christmas on Blu-ray then this is easily the best version to buy.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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