White Christmas (review)

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It Happened One Christmas

White Christmas is billed as a remake of Holiday Inn, but the only thing these two films have in common is Bing Crosby singing the most beautiful secular Christmas carol, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” (which was originally written for Holiday Inn). White Christmas isn’t as delightful as its supposed predecessor, but if for no other reason, it’s worth seeing for a gorgeously simple arrangement of the title tune, which Crosby croons accompanied only by a windup music box.

Song-and-dance men Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby: Going My Way) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) teamed up during the war to put on a show for their fellow troops in Europe on Christmas Eve, 1944. Back home in the States, they made a go of it professionally, and now, ten years later, they’re a runaway success. The Wallace and Davis Show is a hit on television, and they’re producing, writing, and starring in wildly popular Broadway revues. Personally, they’re a bit of a mismatch, however: Phil’s something of a playboy, with a taste for slinky young chorus girls, while Bob is serious and quiet. Phil, who thinks Bob is “a miserable, lonely, unhappy man,” is forever trying to fix his friend and partner up with one of the many women of his acquaintance.

“When it comes to conniving or finagling, you can’t beat” Phil, says Bob, but they both meet their matches in the Haynes Sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen), singers and dancers who perform together. Judy tricks the famous Wallace and Davis into attending one of their shows in Florida, where the guys were also performing. Naturally, the four of them hit it off… sort of. Bob and Betty — both stubborn and solemn — butt heads a bit, and Phil and Judy instantly make it their job to get these two together, all the while oblivious to the fact that they’re also falling for each other.

The girls are heading to Vermont for the Christmas holidays, where they have a gig at a hotel, and Phil snookers Bob into following them. White Christmas is like an all-singing, all-dancing version of It Happened One Night at first, with not one but two chemically combustible couples on a road trip from Florida, but once the film lands them all in Vermont, it morphs into a gee-whiz, let’s-put-on-a-show comedy fueled on eager-beaverness. See, it turns out to be 68 degrees in Vermont. No snow means no tourists, and no tourists means no show for the Haynes Sisters. What’s more, the tragically empty hotel the four of them land in happens to be owned by retired General Waverly (Dean Jagger), whom Bob and Phil served under during the war. So they cook up a scheme not only to bring in mobs of paying customers but also to cheer up the poor general, who’s bored with retirement.

It’s hard to believe that White Christmas was directed by Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz, or the songs written by Irving Berlin. The overall feeling is one of strained earnestness, like everyone — behind the camera and before it — is just trying a little too hard to generate fun. There are a few moments that transcend that, as when Bob and Phil lip-synch to a Haynes Sisters’ signature tune. Their limp-wristed, feather-boaed dance in imitation of the girls may not be politically correct, but it is pretty amusing. And Kaye and Vera-Ellen have a funny scene together in which she forces him to confront the fact that maybe, yeah, he might could give up his playing the field for her — but then, Kaye was always an insightful comic actor.

Fortunately, the amazing rendition of “White Christmas” I mentioned is early in the film, so you don’t have to fast-forward too far to get to it.

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