White Christmas (1954) – Michael Curtiz

Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas (1954) is hokey and cheesy and far too straightforward for these cynical times, and by “these cynical times,” I mean “human existence.” It’s full of schmaltzy songs introduced by awkward transitions so sweet that you have to visit the dentist afterward. Its plot is so predictable and ham-fisted it strains credulity, and its sets and landscapes are so sterile and fake they can hardly be believed, with an emotional crisis so invented and flimsy that it frustrates. Corny jokes, antiseptic message, undeniably Christmas.

The genre of Christmas movies is full of mawkish entries that have their devotees but disappear quickly from public consciousnessWhite Christmas sticks around because it’s so genuine (genuine in its artifice, but genuine just the same); it wins you over with its persistence and unyielding commitment to its sweetness. This is a musical comedy that produces as many eye rolls as it does wry smilesthat would feel absolutely ridiculous to watch in June but in December, feels perfect. That does diminish it from legitimately great holiday movies such as It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), which holds up to the scrutiny of spring and fall, but White Christmas must only pass the test in the season of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men, which it does.

Part of its success has to do with the quality of its performers who include Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye, all of whom sell the material with the utmost fealty. Crosby and Kaye play army buddies Bob Wallace and Phil Davis. Wallace was an established crooner as a civilian, and Davis, the opportunist, saves his life and guilts him into allowing him a tryout, which, being Danny Kaye, he passes. When the war is over, the two become the biggest act in show business, and they go to Florida around Christmas to scope a new act, the Haynes Sisters, Betty (Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen). Davis, who wants the bachelor Wallace to find a girl, can’t help but notice his partner making eyes at Betty, and he, with the help of a silly and unneeded arrestescape plot element, finagles himself and Wallace on a train to Vermont to accompany the sisters’ next show. When they arrive in New England, it’s discovered that the Green Mountain State is unusually green for that time of year (“It was 68 yesterday”)and the ski lodge that booked the girls is cancelling because their business, like the snow, has been nowhere to be seen.

As it turns out, the owner of the ski lodge is Wallace and Davis’s beloved general from the war, Tom Waverly (Dean Jagger), who has had a hard time since the fighting stopped. Though they haven’t seen him in ten years, the boys decide to join the girls’ act and to invite all the rest of their troupe to come to the lodge and honor their leader. During rehearsals, Wallace and Betty and Davis and Judy fall for each other until a miscommunication (which could have been cleared up with impossible ease, but still) tears Wallace and Betty apart and the idea of a snowless Christmas threatens the magic of the performance. All the while, the plot snakes around a dozen musical and dance numbers, the best of which are “Snow” on the train as the foursome anticipates their winter wonderland, and the titular closing number, which is so wonderful and iconic that it requires a Scrooge-like resolve to not fall under its spell.

The numbers are the movie’s saving grace, the plot of which doesn’t rise much above that of an ABC Family Original Movie but with better costumes. Crosby oozes wholesomeness but never seems smarmy, even while arranging the Hey-Kids-Let’s-Put-On-A-Show-And-Save-The-Old-Man’s-Farm benefit. He reminded me of Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (1953), both for his constant professionalism and because he seemed slightly over-the-hill (at 52, he was twice Clooney’s age), but when he brings out “White Christmas,” it’s a joy. Clooney is the most interesting characterbut she has to betray her intelligence by following along with the communication mix-up and acting rashly without consulting anyone.

Vera-Ellen is a lovely dancer, and she and Kaye share a gorgeous duet in Florida, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Kaye, however, does end up with the fuzzy end of the lollipop with the corniest lines and the worst jokes, but he delivers them with the verve and desperation of Donald O’Connor’s famous “Make Em Laugh” from Singin’ In the Rain (1952), though O’Connor, whom Kaye resembles, had better material. Some of it is painfully dated or embarrassing (I’m thinking of a minstrel act and a co-ed number about the army where the men pine for excitement and the women pine for handsome men)and many of the songs are unimpressive or even annoying (The Haynes Sisters’ signature tune, “Sisters,” is grating the first time and doesn’t need the reprise it receives), but when it has a good one, like with the title tune or the wry satire “Choreography,” the foursome and director Michael Curtiz make the most of them.

Curtiz was a professional chameleon who directed some of the most famous titles of all time, but he has never loomed large with the critics of the auteur theory. He never developed a style of his own despite excelling in various types of movies, from romantic dramas (Casablanca [1942]) to swashbucklers (The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938]) and big-production musicals of all different styles (in addition to White Christmas, he directed Yankee Doodle Dandy [1942] and the Elvis vehicle King Creole [1958]). Here he deftly improves the excellent staging (by Robert Alton with choreography by Bob Fosse), making sweeping but organic moves with the camera that add an extra punch without taking away from the performances.

White Christmas is not a great movie, but it has a quality that makes it perfectly suited for its subject, which is that indefinable quality of holidays that allows for unjaded enthusiasm. It tries so hard, but not for itselfso it eventually warms you. Warm is a good word for White Christmas, which is like the ugliest, most festive sweater in the closet: gauchely straight-forward, out of place without context, and comforting and satisfying at just the right time. 

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