Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review: White Christmas

Directed by Michael Curtiz. 1954.

Today, the Eve of Christmas, is the anniversary of the birth of cinema's perhaps most overlooked great: director Michael Curtiz. It is a regrettable coincidence, then, that it is today so appropriate to discuss what is surely not his greatest movie, White Christmas.

The movie is not bad, per se, but then with a competent director helming a cast of Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, and Rosemary Clooney singing and dancing to the music of Irving Berlin, how bad could it be? Still, the film is a testament to two tenets of the performing arts. The first: when there is music, most people don't much care about the plot. Second, if you start well and end well, most people don't care or remember what happens in between. These truths are immutable, it seems, for even I came away from this slight picture with a favorable impression.

Those first and last shots, though, pack a wallop, both zooming out from a tableau. The first pulls back from a team of musical corporals (Crosby and Kaye) entertaining their division through Christmas Eve on the European Front during World War II. The slow zoom out is effective at slowly pulling us out from the faux-snow of their stage and revealing the flashing shells and burnt out landscape behind. We meet the permanently grinning Phil Davis (Kaye) and the restrained crooner Bob Wallace (Crosby) giving a moving send off to their beloved departing general. The direction here is spot on, a meticulous balance between gravity and cheer. Who would expect that ten minutes later Phil and Bob would be dancing in drag in a Florida nightclub?

You see, the two become after the war a singing duo which gets entangled with a sister act escaping a conniving landlord when Phil bails out the gals by giving his train tickets to them which leads to additional confusion until the foursome ends up in Vermont at the hotel run by their former general. Did you see that coming?

There's not much to say about the shenanigans and Phil's constant nudging of Bob and Betty (Rosemary Clooney) into an item. They certainly wouldn't hold the picture together without the musical numbers, which come varied and frequently as the team brings their show to General Waverly's hotel to drum up business. The numbers are flashy and the footwork and sets outshine the music, whose lyrics are especially ridiculous. More entertaining is the chemistry between Kaye and Crosby, the latter of whom plays a convincing straight-man, sober but not flat, to Kaye's boundlessly energetic finagler. They make a good pair, Bob indulging the buddy who saved him during the war and Phil trying to set his curmudgeonly, reluctant partner up with a gal to settle down. Rosemary Clooney was just right for the role, too. Always looking like she is about to say something you want to hear, we're convinced that her Betty could get the cool, but always gentlemanly, Crosby to pursue.

When the whole battalion shows up at the hotel to honor General Waverly and Betty returns, we're all set for the big Christmas musical revue which comes and doesn't disappoint. The final shot zooms out from a snowy tableau in which the foursome, clad in the scarlet outfits of Mr. and Mrs. Claus, sings White Christmas after the lucky pairs smooch behind the tree. That's not an unsatisfactory parallel, either. The opening shot pulls back from a set of false snow to reveal the horror of war around them and the final shot pulls back to reveal the peaceful Vermont snow. The opening shot honors the outgoing general in wartime and the final shows that he is remembered in peace. The opening shows the two bachelors, the final two incipient husbands with their brides-to-be. We begin and end with Crosby singing the gentle winter-tide White Christmas. I'll take it.

No comments:

Post a Comment