Two talented song-and-dance men team up after the war to become one of the hottest acts in show business. One winter, they join forces with a sister act and trek to Vermont for a white Christmas.
Most composers would consider themselves lucky – okay, blessed – to have one film built around a song they wrote, but Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas' became such a popular holiday standard it spawned two film musicals with yuletide themes. The first, 1942's 'Holiday Inn,' marked the introduction of Berlin's soon-to-be iconic anthem by the quintessential crooner, Bing Crosby, who put such an indelible stamp on the song it would be forever after associated with him. Twelve years and millions of record sales later, Paramount went back to the Berlin well and approached the prolific tunesmith about mounting another Christmas musical. This time, 'White Christmas' wouldn't just be a part of the score, it would be the movie's title, and Bing would be back to star and sing once more. The result proved just as irresistible as 'Holiday Inn,' and in the intervening 60 years, 'White Christmas' has become an equally beloved and revered classic. In my house, we all feel like Ebenezer Scrooge if we don't give this warm and sprightly flick an annual viewing each December.
I love 'White Christmas' and never tire of watching it, but, let's be real; when matched up against such immortal musicals as 'Singin' in the Rain,' 'Meet Me in St. Louis,' 'An American in Paris,' and 'Gigi,' it pales in comparison. With as much subtlety as a Mack truck (director Michael Curtiz did a great job with 'Casablanca,' but he's no Vincente Minnelli), a trite and predictable script (paging Betty Comden and Adolph Green), and, with the exception of the title tune and a few others, a bunch of second-rate songs (sorry, Irving, but your 'Holiday Inn' score is far better), 'White Christmas' remains very much a typical genre entry, but the enthusiasm and talent of its first-rate cast and intoxicating seasonal allure make it seem far better than it is.
Much like the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland let's-put-on-a-show backyard musicals it so closely resembles, as well as Garland's 1950 vehicle 'Summer Stock,' 'White Christmas' tells a showbiz story sprinkled with romance and schmaltz. (Christmas is merely a backdrop and plays a very minor role in the proceedings.) After aspiring song-and-dance man Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) saves the life of headliner Bob Wallace (Crosby) during a Nazi strike in World War II, the two men team up and form a highly successful nightclub act. Their tour brings them to Florida, where they encounter Judy and Betty Haynes (Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney), the comely sisters of one of their old army pals. Ready to hit the big time but in need of a break, Judy and Betty finagle their way into Phil and Bob's good graces, and the quartet heads up to Vermont for the sisters' holiday gig at a country inn, which they soon learn is run by Phil and Bob's former army commander, General Waverly (Dean Jagger). Lack of snow and balmy temperatures threaten to close the struggling hotel and bankrupt the general, but Phil and Bob hatch a scheme to revive business and restore their respected leader's decaying sense of self-esteem. Yet pulling off the plan without upsetting the general's pride and their own burgeoning romances with the Haynes sisters proves to be quite a challenge.
Light and airy, with plenty of comic situations and big-time production numbers, 'White Christmas' tries its best to dazzle and entertain, and for the most part, it succeeds. Even mediocre Berlin tunes outshine some of his colleagues' finest work, and Crosby, Kaye, and Clooney give each their all. The charming 'Sisters' is performed straight by Clooney and Vera-Ellen, then given a hysterical drag twist by Crosby and Kaye. (Watch as Bing totally cracks up as a result of Danny's over-the-top prancing and swishing – one of the movie's high points.) Ballads such as 'Count Your Blessings' and the torchy 'Love, Look What You've Done to Me' are given solid readings by Crosby and Clooney, respectively, and Kaye clowns to perfection in the avant-garde 'Choreography' and lilting 'It Happens While You're Dancing.' (His non-musical shtick is first-rate, too.) Vera-Ellen, one of Hollywood's most accomplished dancers, taps and twirls her way through a host of demanding routines, while providing some acerbic line readings that perk up the mundane screenplay.
Clooney is known primarily as a singer – and remains one of the premier interpreters of American popular song – but she makes a fine dramatic impression here. Though her character is a bit too goody-two-shoes, Clooney remains believable throughout and creates a comfortable chemistry with ba-ba-ba-Bing that helps sustain the film between songs. Kaye and Vera-Ellen supply the comic relief, and their wisecracking provides a nice contrast to the gooey cooing and sullen bickering of their co-stars. The priceless Mary Wickes is also on hand as the busybody housekeeper, and her impeccable timing and dry comebacks add welcome zing to each scene in which she appears.
'White Christmas,' however, is all about Bing, and in one of his last romantic roles, the crooning Crosby seems to be having a ball. Though clearly reaching the upper limits in the leading man age bracket, he relies on charm, sophistication, and his velvet-toned voice to see him through, and the result is a wholly satisfying performance, which begins and ends with his signature reading of Berlin's holiday classic. The final five minutes of this cheery, heartwarming musical will surely have you and yours dreaming of a white Christmas, too, and no doubt inspire repeat viewings in the yuletide seasons to come.
Will I be watching 'White Christmas' again in a few weeks, with the tree lit and a yule log burning in the fireplace? Well, that's almost as silly a question as whether there's really a Santa Claus!
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'White Christmas: Diamond Anniversary Edition' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard multi-disc case, which houses the 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray disc and two standard-def DVDs (one containing the film and the other containing the special features). The case is sheathed in a slip-on, textured sleeve, and an audio CD, 'The Sounds of Christmas,' containing a dozen holiday selections by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and assorted "friends" is stuck to the back. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The Diamond Anniversary Edition of 'White Christmas' contains the exact same transfer that appeared on the 2010 Blu-ray release, which blows the standard-def rendering on the antiquated DVD out of the water, at last making this musical appear as vibrant and stunning as it surely did upon its initial release in 1954. The improvements are immediately noticeable, beginning with the VistaVision logo and opening credits. Clarity, contrast, and especially color saturation are supreme. Delectably bold reds and deep, lush greens truly pop off the screen, yet never look garish. A few white marks dot the print, but the number of imperfections sullying the image has been drastically reduced from what afflicted the previous DVD. The standard-def version looks dull, flat, and washed out compared to this glistening 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer, which truly does the Technicolor photography proud. Varying shades of blue and yellow, and the entire pastel palette are all perfectly timed and balanced so the picture always looks smooth and cohesive. Even the drab army scenes early in the film exude a faint sparkle they've hitherto lacked, and accents, like Crosby's yellow socks or Clooney's painted nails and lips, nab our attention without overwhelming the entire image.
Fine details are also much easier to discern. On the DVD, background items often appear fuzzy and slightly unstable, but the Blu-ray crystallizes even the smallest objects so we feel much more immersed in the atmosphere. Textures, such as suede, wool, leather, and satin, are very strong, and close-ups, especially those of Clooney, nicely reconcile sharpness with the cinematography's inherent warmth. Black levels are pitch-perfect throughout – just look at the inky hue of Clooney's gown during 'Love, Look What You've Done to Me' and the jackets of Kaye and Crosby during the minstrel number – and the bright whites resist blooming.
The natural grain structure remains intact, providing the desired feel of celluloid. Grain intensifies a bit in the background, and at times, various elements can look a little soft, but such minor annoyances rarely drag down the film's enjoyment factor. Noise reduction, edge enhancement, and banding are all blissfully absent, making this transfer a pleasure to watch from start to finish. Once again, this high-def effort from Paramount is a huge step up from the previous DVD and well worth the extra investment.
As was the case with the 2010 Blu-ray release, both restored mono and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks are included on the disc. The lossless track trumps the DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, but doesn't provide any real wrap-around sensation. The sound is still largely front-based, and minimal stereo separation never widens the field enough to make an impression. Dynamic range is solid, with both highs and lows enjoying fine presence and clarity. Bass tones shine whenever Crosby sings, and when his dulcet baritone slides into the lower register, we're treated to full, resonant bass shadings that add immeasurable nuance and weight to his performances. Just the familiar phrase "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas…" proves why Crosby wrote the book on crooning, and the audio here serves his marvelous instrument well. Clooney's voice also sounds warm and velvety, and good fidelity distinguishes the instrumentals. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and sonic accents like Vera-Ellen's taps and the slamming of doors are crisp and distinct.
Unfortunately, some surface noise remains audible during quieter scenes, and during Clooney's 'Love, Look What You've Done to Me' some static-laced pops disrupt the torchy song. Such interference continues to rear its ugly head during subsequent musical numbers, marring enjoyment somewhat. Still, this is a good quality track that honors the Irving Berlin tunes that help lend 'White Christmas' its classic status.
A few new supplements are the major drawing card for this release, and they nicely complement the hefty extras package from the 2010 Blu-ray edition, which is also included here.
NEW! Vintage Television Clips: "Classic Holiday Moments" (SD/HD, 20 minutes) - The best new extra on the disc, this captivating collection of five holiday television performances by Crosby and Kaye is sure to get even the crustiest Scrooge in the holiday spirit. First up is a clip of Bing in his penultimate Christmas special singing - what else? - 'White Christmas.' The color may have faded on this classic snippet (originally broadcast on December 1, 1976), but Crosby's voice remains as dulcet, velvety, and resonant as ever. That bit of musical magic is followed by a bit of technological magic - a virtual duet of 'White Christmas' between Crosby and contemporary crooner Michael Bublé that aired on Bublé's 2012 holiday special. Bing's portion was lifted from his 1971 Christmas special, and the newcomer wisely takes a backseat to the legend, as Bublé allows Crosby to dominate the track, treating his musical hero with respect and reverence. The next rarity dates back to December, 1948, and finds Bing singing the lovely 'Silent Night' with a boys choir on a television program shot six years before Crosby would film 'White Christmas.' The fourth clip is lifted from Kaye's weekly variety series in 1963, and finds the comic performing a jazzy, irreverent duet of 'Jingle Bells' with the one and only Nat King Cole. And to top everything off, this collection concludes with Kaye reading an excerpt from Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' on a 1965 episode of his eponymous TV show. Recalling his role as Hans Christian Andersen, Kaye casts a riveting spell with a beautiful, simple reading that's a bona fide treat for those who appreciate Dickens and revel in the warm-hearted joys of Christmas.
NEW! Vintage Short Film: 'Assignment Children' (SD, 19 minutes) - Michael Bublé returns to introduce this touching 1954 color documentary that follows Kaye on a goodwill UNICEF tour through India, Japan, Korea, Burma, and Thailand, and chronicles how the organization tries to fight infectious diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, in underdeveloped countries. Kaye would be a UNICEF ambassador for the rest of his life and work tirelessly on behalf of children's welfare, and to honor his commitment, a portion of the proceeds from the sales of this edition of 'White Christmas' will be donated to UNICEF.
NEW! Photo Galleries - Divided into four sections - Rehearsals, Behind the Scenes, Filming, and Publicity Shots - these still galleries contain a total of 54 black-and-white images, all with captions that identify both the principals and less recognizable personnel.
NEW! Audio CD: "The Sounds of Christmas" - I'm a sucker for great Christmas music, and this wonderful CD, featuring a dozen holiday selections by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and a couple of legendary guest performers, will certainly get more than a few spins in my house this yuletide season. Highlights include a pair of Crosby duets - he teams with Judy Garland for a high spirited take on 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' and Ella Fitzgerald for a smoothly mellow 'A Marshmallow World' - Clooney's beautiful renditions of 'Winter Wonderland,' 'The Christmas Song,' and 'Home for the Holidays,' and Kaye's jazzy duet of 'Jingle Bells' with songstress Peggy Lee. Bing also shines on the sprightly (and unknown to me) 'Just What I Wanted for Christmas,' and closes the disc with a heartfelt reading of 'The Night Before Christmas,' with musical accompaniment. Conspicuously absent from this collection is Crosby singing - you guessed it - 'White Christmas,' but complicated rights issues may have prohibited its inclusion.
Audio Commentary – This commentary by the late, great Rosemary Clooney may not rank high on anyone's list of stellar efforts, but it's wonderful to hear the recollections of this accomplished singer, which are all presented in a delightfully honest, matter-of-fact manner. The large gaps in the beginning are off-putting, to say the least, as Clooney merely chuckles at the action on screen, but as the film progresses, she opens up a bit more, praising Irving Berlin, discussing a typical shooting day, and exulting Bing Crosby's style and impeccable preparedness. There's not a whole lot of substance here, and the gaps do continue throughout, but fans of the film will still enjoy watching the movie with Rosie, who comes off more as an enthusiastic aunt or grandmother than a high-falutin' movie star.
Featurette: "Backstage Stories from 'White Christmas'" (HD, 12 minutes) – This easygoing featurette examines the film's casting (and how Danny Kaye got his part over contenders Fred Astaire and Donald O'Connor), the vitality and talent of the four leads, the impact of dancer George Chakiris (best known for his Oscar-winning turn as Bernardo in 'West Side Story') in his brief appearance with Clooney, the VistaVision process, and the film's universal and lasting appeal. A number of film historians weigh in on these topics, and we're also treated to Chakiris' own personal perspective.
Featurette: "Rosemary's Old Kentucky Home" (HD, 13 minutes) – Clooney's brother (and George's father) Nick and other relatives discuss the singer's bond to her girlhood hometown and how her residence was turned into a museum after her death. A tour of the museum's exhibits comprises the bulk of this interesting featurette.
Featurette: "Bing Crosby: Christmas Crooner" (HD, 14 minutes) – Bing's family and biographer talk about the musical influence and personality of the actor/singer, and the importance of the song 'White Christmas' to him. We also get a few glimpses of Crosby's boyhood home in Spokane, Washington and archive at Gonzaga University.
Featurette: "Danny Kaye: Joy to the World" (HD, 13 minutes) – Actor Robert Wagner, Kaye's daughter Dena, and composer Leslie Bricusse, among others, pay tribute to this "renaissance man" of entertainment, as well as his considerable charitable work. Kaye's wide-ranging talent and commitment to UNICEF is explored through rare film clips in both black-and-white and color.
Featurette: "Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas'" (HD, 7 minutes) – The story behind one of the most famous holiday songs ever written is chronicled in this slick featurette. Berlin's daughter provides first-hand accounts of her father's background, how he composed, and the impact of his work.
Featurette: "'White Christmas': From Page to Screen" (HD, 4 minutes) – The artistic team behind the stage adaptation talks about transforming the classic movie musical into a Broadway show and the changes necessary to make it work.
Featurette: "'White Christmas': A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney" (SD, 17 minutes) – A holdover from the previous DVD release, this standard making-of featurette showcases Clooney's memories, which run the gamut from casting and her relationship with Vera-Ellen to the chemistry between Kaye and Crosby and an impromptu on-set visit by the king and queen of Greece.
Theatrical Trailers (HD, 5 minutes) – The original theatrical trailer and a re-release trailer are included.
'White Christmas' is one of Hollywood's most beloved and enduring holiday classics. Though the story may be trite, the talent and enthusiasm of the accomplished cast keeps this musical fresh and lively throughout repeated viewings. With a lush video transfer, solid lossless audio (despite a few glitches), and a healthy spate of supplements, this is one disc that would brighten even Ebenezer Scrooge's day. Unfortunately, this Diamond Anniversary Edition only brings a few new extras to the table, so if you already own the previous 2010 Blu-ray release, there's no need to upgrade. But if this chipper yuletide musical doesn't yet occupy a spot on your shelf, then by all means, it's time to get acquainted with Bing, Danny, Rosie, Vera-Ellen, and about a dozen classic Irving Berlin tunes. Highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.