Thursday, 24 December 2015

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | Day 11: "White Christmas" (1954)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz, White Christmas (1954) opens on Christmas Eve 1944, somewhere in war-torn Europe, as soldiers of the U.S. Army's 151st Division enjoy a show put on by song-and-dance men Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). After the war and over the course of ten years, the duo make it big in nightclubs, radio and then on Broadway, eventually becoming successful producers. On the same day that their new revue, Playing Around, opens in Florida, Bob and Phil receive a letter from their mess sergeant from the war asking them to look at an act his two sisters are doing. When they go to the club to watch the Haynes Sisters, Bob is instantly smitten with Betty (Rosemary Clooney), while Phil is attracted to Judy (Vera-Ellen).

When Phil deftly persuades Bob to follow the sisters for a Christmas booking at a ski lodge in Vermont, they discover that the inn is run by their former commanding officer, General Waverly (Tom Jagger). The general has invested all of his savings into the lodge, which is now in danger of going out business due to an unsual lack of snow in the area. To save the inn from bankrupcy, Bob and Phil bring their entire production company to Vermont to help them put on a show along with Betty and Judy. Bob also calls Ed Harrison (Johnny Grant), an old Army buddy, now a successful variety show host, to arrange a televised invitation to all the men that have served under General Waverly to come to the lodge on Christmas Eve as a suprise. Nosy housekeeper Emma Allen (Mary Wickes) eavesdrops on Bob's conversation with Harrison and mistakes the broadcast for a plan to generate free advertising for Wallace and Davis. Emma reveals what she thinks she heard to a shocked Betty, who grows suddenly cold towards Bob and then leaves alone to New York. When Betty catches Bob's televised plea, however, she realizes she was wrong about him and returns to the inn just in time for the Christmas Eve show. As hundreds of veterans and their families fill in the lodge, snow finally begins to falls and Bob and Betty declare their love for one another, as do Phil and Judy.

Phil Davis: My dear partner, when what's left of you gets around to what's left to be gotten, what's left to be gotten won't be worth getting, whatever it is you've got left.

Irving Berlin's iconic song "White Christmas" was first introduced to the general public by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music Hall on December 25, 1941. He subsequently recorded it with the Ken Darby Sisters and John Scott Trotter's Orchestra in May 1942, four months before he could be seen signing it in Mark Sandrich's hit musical Holiday Inn (1942). Soon, "White Christmas" was at the top of the Your Hit Parade chart and it remained there until well into 1943, when it won the Academy Award for Best Song. A composition that combines melancholy with comforting images of home, "White Christmas" acquired special significance during World War II as a song of hope and yearning. In 1945, the tune reached #1 again and the following year Crosby performed an excerpt of it in Blue Skies (1946), which reunited him with his Holiday Inn co-star, Fred Astaire. By 1947, "White Christmas" was back at the top of the charts.

With the continuing popularity of "White Christmas" (and Bing Crosby) throughout the 1940s, Hollywood was eager to capitalize on it yet again. As early as 1949, preparations for a film appropriately titled White Christmas were taking place at Paramount Pictures. Commisioned for $300,000 plus a percentage of the profits to work on the film, Irving Berlin recycled parts of the Holiday Inn story and combined them with pieces of an unproduced musical he had written in collaboration with Norman Krasna called Stars on My Shoulders. He envisioned a story starring Crosby, Astaire, Ginger Rogers and "another younger girl, perhaps Debbie Reynolds." Known for screwball comedies such as Hands Across the Table (1935) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), Krasna went on to be hired by Paramount to turn the new story into the screenplay for White Christmas. Writing duo Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, who had received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope vehicle Road to Utopia (1947), were later brought in to aid Krasna in his job.

Vera-Ellen, Kaye and Crosby on the set
When White Christmas was finally greenlighted in early January 1953, Fred Astaire had just finished filming Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953) and was in no hurry to rush into another picture so soon. He was not particularly enthusiastic about the script either, so he turned down a role in White Christmas. At the same time, Crosby bowed out as well, citing the recent death of wife Dixie Lee and his desire to spend time with his son Lindsey as reasons for his departure. Later that month, however, Crosby returned to the picture and Paramount announced Donald O'Connor as Astaire's replacement. Just as filming was about to begin in September 1953, O'Connor became ill and doctors said he was likely to be sidelined for months. Producer Robert Emmett Dolan then approached Danny Kaye, who asked for a then-exorbitant sum ($200,000 plus 10 percent of the gross), expecting to be declined. After calculating that delaying the film for O'Connor would cost the studio just as much, Paramount signed Kaye and paid him the salary he had asked for. 

At one point, the idea of signing Rogers and Reynolds was scrapped and the female leads were eventually offered to Vera-Ellen, who had made her screen debut opposite Kaye in The Wonder Man (1945), and Rosemary Clooney, in what would become her fourth and final film role. It was actually Crosby who suggested Clooney for a part in White Christmas when the picture was still in the development stage. "How about a dame called Rosemary Clooney? Sings a good song and is purportedly personable," he wrote in a letter to the producer in the summer of 1951. Clooney would later say that she took the role so that she could work with Crosby, whom she had admired for years.

Curtiz (right) and the cast of White Christmas
Directing White Christmas was Michael Curtiz, whose services on the film had been requested by Paramount just prior to his break with Warner Bros. in early 1954. Born in Hungary, Curtiz began his career as an actor and director at the National Hungarian Theatre in 1912. After World War I, he moved to Vienna, where he enjoyed a prolific career, before Jack Warner brought him to America in 1926. He soon rose to be one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood, reaching his peak with Casablanca (1942), for which he won an Academy Award. In the late 1940s, his partnership with Warners began to deteriorate and he eventually left the studio to become a freelancer. White Christmas was the first of six films Curtiz directed for Paramount. Other films helmed by Curtiz include The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Captains of the Clouds (1942) and We're No Angels (1955).

As with Holiday Inn and Blue Skies, the thin plot of White Christmas was simply an excuse to showcase a vast array of old and new Irving Berlin tunes. The composer wrote about a dozen new songs for the film, including "Sisters," "The Best Things Happen While Your Dancing," "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)," and "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army." The titular "White Christmas" is heard twice in the film first in the beginning, sung by Crosby to the soldiers in the 151st Division; and then at the end, performed by the entire cast at the Christmas Eve show at General Waverly's lodge. Berlin was also given an office on the Paramount lot, where he stayed while the dramatic scenes were being filmed. According to Clooney, Berlin "wasn't interested in the drama." He was, however, a concerned presence for the musical numbers, including rehearsals. One day, when he looked especially tense while watching intently what was happening in front of the camera, Crosby put an arm around Berlin's shoulder and said: "Don't worry, Irving. We can't do anything to hurt your picture. It's already a hit." 

Crosby and Kaye performing "Sisters"
Initally performed by Clooney and Vera-Ellen, "Sisters" also received a reprise, lyp synced by Crosby and Kaye in a comedy act that was not originally in the script. They were clowning around on the set and Curtiz thought it was so funny that he had the silly routine written in. According to Clooney, Crosby's laughs in his and Kaye's "Sisters" number are genuine. Many takes were attempted, but Crosby's was unable to hold a straight face due to Kaye's comedic dancing. The scene that was ultimately shown in the film was the best take they could get (which includes some laughter from Kaye as well). 

Although the Legion of Decency gave White Christmas an A rating, the Breen Office was somewhat alarmed by Crosby and Kaye's takeoff on "Sisters," in which they used big blue feathers and simpering smiles. In a letter to Paramount, the censors warned the studio that there should be nothing to "lend a flavor of 'pansy' routine to this bit of business." Still, as Clooney recalled, "Danny whapped Bing with his folded fan and enjoyed it so much that he kept whapping him on the beat, even when it didn't fit the lyrics."

Principal photography took place between September and December 1953 on the Paramount lot, except for the train scene, which had to be shot at Fox, the only studio to house a standing train set. The Vermont inn is actually the remodeled Connecticut lodge from Holiday Inn. White Christmas was the first picture to be shot in VistaVision, Paramount's widescreen answer to Fox's CinemaScope. This newly developed process used single-strip Eastman color film and a new camera with a double, or 70mm, frame. This large-area negative, exposed horizontally rather than vertically, was then used to yield finer-grained standard-sized 35mm prints and projected in the usual "vertical feed" fashion, which resulted in a more consistent picture quality. The film also introduced the Perspecta directorial sound system, which used three inaudible tones in order to pan the monaural sound into either left, center or right. Because this method did not require a new sound head for the projector, it was a cheaper alternative to the magnetic stereophonic soundtracks available at the time.

The closing number in White Christmas

Just as Crosby had predicted, White Christmas was a massive success upon its premiere at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on October 14, 1954. In fact, the box-office gross of $12 million would make White Christmas the most popular film of that year. Critical reviews were generally positive as well. Variety commented that "Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, along with VistaVision, keep the entertainment going in this fancifully staged production, clicking well. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was divided in his assessment of the film. On the one hand, he noted that the screenwriters "have shown very little imagination in putting together what is sometimes called the "book" [...] It is a routine accumulation of standard romance and sentiment, blessed by a few funny set ups that are usually grabbed with most effect by Mr. Kaye. And the music of Mr. Berlin is a good bit less inspired outside of the old 'White Christmas.'" On the other hand, he did praise the use of VistaVision, which "has made it possible to endow White Christmas with a fine pictorial quality. However, Crowther still lamented, "It is too bad that [the film] doesn't hit the eardrums and the funny bone with equal force.

Girl Singer: A Memoir of the Girl Next Door by Rosemary Clooney with Joan Barthel (2002) | Irving Berlin's Show Business: Broadway, Hollywood, America by Harry N. Abrams (2005) | The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz by James C. Robertson (1994) | IMDb | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review

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