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 tune by the quintessential crooner, Bing Crosby, who put such an indelible stamp on the song it would forever after be associated with him. Twelve years and millions of record sales later, Paramount went back to the Berlin well and approached the prolific songwriter about mounting another Christmas musical. This time, 'White Christmas' wouldn't be just 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 56 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. Also aspiring entertainers, 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, 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' arrives sheathed in a festive slipcase that houses the standard Blu-ray plastic packaging. The BD-50 inside flaunts a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, as well as the original restored mono. The static main menu pops up immediately and features the same photo that resides on the cover of the slipcase.
I always thought 'White Christmas' looked pretty darn good on DVD, but this Blu-ray blows that relic 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.
Both the restored mono (also an option on the DVD) and a brand new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track 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; 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.
Paramount supplies a fairly hefty extras package, improving greatly on the previous DVD release with a host of new featurettes that are all presented in high definition. All the supplements from the DVD have also been ported over.
'White Christmas' is one of Hollywood's most beloved holiday classics, and its arrival on Blu-ray is good news indeed. 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 new supplements, this is one disc that would brighten even Ebenezer Scrooge's day. It's also a huge step up from the previous DVD, and well worth owning on Blu-ray.