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White Christmas: Anniversary Edition DVD Review

White Christmas movie poster White Christmas

Theatrical Release: October 14, 1954 / Running Time: 120 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Michael Curtiz / Writers: Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, Melvin Frank

Cast: Bing Crosby (Bob Wallace), Danny Kaye (Phil Davis), Rosemary Clooney (Betty Haynes), Vera Ellen (Judy Haynes), Dean Jagger (Major General Thomas F. Waverly), Mary Wickes (Emma Allen), John Brascia (John), Anne Whitfield (Susan Waverly) / Uncredited: Johnny Grant (Ed Harrison), Herb Vigran (Novello), Barrie Chase (Doris Lenz), Lorraine Crawford (Rita), Robert Crosson (Albert)

Songs: "White Christmas", "It's Cold Outside", "The Old Man", "Heat Wave/Let Me Sing and I'm Happy/Blue Skies", "Sisters", "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing", "Snow", "I'd Rather See a Minstrel Show/Mister Bones/Mandy", "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep", "Choreography", "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me", "What Can You Do With a General?", "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army"

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It is entirely reasonable to assume that the famous Bing Crosby song "White Christmas" was created for Crosby's film of the same name. That's actually not the case. The Irving Berlin composition was earlier performed by Crosby in his 1942 vehicle Holiday Inn, winning an Academy Award. Twelve years later, the movie White Christmas came about, again employing Berlin music and Crosby's talents.

The film opens in 1944. Like many American men, Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) are stationed in Europe for World War II. After saving his life, Davis gets his captain Wallace to agree to perform a duet with him.
Upon returning home from the war, Wallace and Davis become one of the nation's busiest and most successful musical acts. One night in Florida, the pair observes the sister act of Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen). In the singing and dancing siblings, the wisecracking Wallace and easygoing Davis find love interests. Through comic circumstances, the four of them wind up on the same train, headed for Vermont.

There, the girls learn their scheduled gig won't be needed; unseasonable warmth has kept the town of Pine Tree green and void of winter vacationers. Meanwhile, the guys discover that the largely vacant Columbia Inn is run by none other than their old major general, Tom Waverly (Dean Jagger). Waverly is discouraged by his troubled business, reluctant to retire, and wanting (but unwanted) to re-enlist. In that sad combination, Wallace sees an opportunity to do good. Davis and he secretly plan to put on a big Christmas show in front of a surprise reunion of all the men from their army division.

Soldiers turned music sensations Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) and Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) have a little backstage argument over their busyness. Sisters... there were never such devoted sisters as Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen).

They don't make movies at all like White Christmas anymore. This 1954 film exists not so much to tell a story, but to entertain in a musical fashion. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are plenty comfortable as leading men, but their job involves all-purpose showmanship above routine acting and characterization. Used in ways that emphasize their strengths (Crosby's crooning, Kaye's dancing), the two effortlessly create an enjoyable atmosphere of bachelor buddy comedy. The pair is nicely complemented by the similarly gifted duo of Clooney and Vera-Ellen. The clear-cut romances between the four fuel the picture with a faux marriage engagement and a major misunderstanding.

There is the feel of short vignettes frothily linking together the main attraction: the Irving Berlin songs. Some of the numbers are straightforward stage acts that don't necessarily pertain to anything. The more substantial ones do advance the plot and characters almost incidentally. Besides the titular opening/closing anthem, believed to be the best-selling single of all-time, there are several numbers that make a firm impression on the viewer lyrically and melodically. Before this review, I'd only seen White Christmas once several years ago. And yet, song titles, rhythms, and contexts stayed with me, the sign of memorable songwriting and staging.

There isn't much weight or subtext to this film. But while that would be a drawback elsewhere, it somehow feels like an appropriate design here. Even someone impartial to song and dance showcases should find White Christmas to be a good time. This light, bouncy, and corny concoction easily achieves its modest goal to keep viewers amused.

Mutually smitten performers Phil (Danny Kaye) and Judy (Vera-Ellen) demonstrate "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing" by a genuine Florida lighthouse. Major General Tom Waverly (Dean Jagger), his granddaughter Susan (Anne Whitfield) and his busybody receptionist Emma Allen (Mary Wickes) find Vermont innkeeping challenging when the main natural attraction (snow) is missing.

At the same time, I must confess that something about this production taps into a viewer's fatigue. I distinctly recall my first viewing including a central nap and I had to fight urges to repeat that here, settling for a short conscious break.
It's not uninterested dozing or watch-check boredom that arises. There's just something about this leisurely romp (and probably Crosby's unique voice and unbelievably blue eyes) that bears down upon one's eyelids in a not unpleasant way.

White Christmas was the top-grossing film of 1954. Today, it remains a well-known and well-regarded product of a bygone era, if not quite an inscrutable classic. Despite the title and frequent citations on "Best Christmas Movies" lists, this one doesn't deal with the holiday very extensively. Only the closing few minutes observe the feast, but at least the season stands as a noticeable backdrop.

Testifying to the title's value as a perennial seller, Paramount recently granted White Christmas a third DVD release. Whereas the first two had identical contents, this one, dubbed an Anniversary Edition (55th is emerald!) adds a number of exclusive bonus features and ups the disc count to two.

Buy White Christmas: Anniversary Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Mono 2.0 (English, French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Video Extras Subtitled
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Two single-sided discs (1 DVD-9 & 1 DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $24.98
Black Keepcase in Embossed, Holographic, Cut-Out Cardboard Slipcover
Original DVD still available with It's a Wonderful Life in Classic Christmas Collection

VIDEO and AUDIO

The highly-touted first film created in Paramount's short-lived VistaVision process, White Christmas appears in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen here. At times, the vibrant picture can be quite stunning, but it's not without some faults. Among the most noticeable are light grain, slight fuzziness, and some flickering. Artifacts can be spotted once in a while, but for the most part, the video satisfies.

The film can be viewed in either a Dolby 5.1 remix or a two-channel rendering of its original monaural soundtrack. I listened to the default former. There is definitely an aged quality to the recordings, which tend to contain light distortion and muffling.
The mix isn't opened up much either, with rear and side channel reinforcement being slim. Still, it's neither a betrayal nor a strong disappointment.

Despite the new edition devoting slightly more disc space to the feature, comparing this 2009 presentation to the one from the 2000 DVD revealed no differences to my eyes and ears. That's not a real problem, because the first White Christmas DVD transfer holds up very well. But if the studio is taking the effort to revisit a film after nine years and spend money on new bonus features, they probably ought to also invest in seeing if picture and sound can't be bettered.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Listed only on the Set Up menu, Disc 1's one bonus feature is easy to miss. It's the audio commentary recorded by Rosemary Clooney for the film's 2000 DVD debut. Clooney doesn't try to fill the air, instead only commenting briefly on the occasional line or simply laughing. What she says (and in a few instances, sings) is of some interest (like the fact that Bing Crosby never sang "I love you"), but she just doesn't say much. While it's rare to encounter a DVD audio commentary from a star of Clooney's caliber and era, this track recorded two years before her death will disappoint anyone with high expectations.

In front of a decorated Christmas tree and electronic fireplace, USC professor and go-to DVD interview subject Dr. Drew Casper acts out one of his moments from the film in "Backstage Stories." Former lieutenant governor Steve Henry shows off the "White Christmas" room of Augusta, Kentucky's Rosemary Clooney House, his co-ownership of which is one of the perks of marrying a young Miss America. The Bing Crosby statue that stands outside Gonzaga University's Crosby Student Center is seen in the featurette "Christmas Crooner."

Disc 2 kicks off with five all-new featurettes, which are presented in 16:9 and reflect a greater than usual effort from the studio (for whom a company called King Media did the work).

"Backstage Stories from White Christmas" (11:56) supplies a good general overview of the film, tackling the project's origins, techniques, charms, and reception.
Among those interviewed are critics, historians, and George Chakiris, one of the film's dancers.

"Rosemary's Old Kentucky Home" (13:27) has relatives of Rosemary Clooney (including George Clooney's father Nick) discussing the Augusta house and neighborhood the singer loved. We then get a tour of the Rosemary Clooney museum that the house's owners (a former Miss America and her husband) have turned it into, with specific attention paid to the contents of the White Christmas room, which are also commented upon from a Paramount archivist's perspective.

"Bing Crosby: Christmas Crooner" (14:16) paints a flattering portrait of the star, covering his musical influence, his affiliation with Gonzaga University, his role as military morale booster, and his standing as a holiday icon. Not much thought is given to his other movies and the piece steers entirely clear of the controversial allegations. But, we do gain insight into the legend and, in comments from Crosby's widow Kathryn and son Harry, the man himself.

Danny Kaye enthusiast Robert Spiotto excitedly stands outside Brooklyn's P.S. 149, a.k.a. Danny Kaye School, in "Joy to the World." The lyrics to the rarely-heard first verse of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas", which sets the song in sunny California, are displayed. Before you buy your tickets, take a look at the Broadway musical in "White Christmas: From Page to Stage."

"Danny Kaye: Joy to the World" (13:10) turns the spotlight on the performer and his dance and physical comedy talents. As much time is spent on Kaye's efforts to promote the causes of UNICEF. We also hear from his daughter Dena Kaye and Hofstra University arts director Robert Spiotto takes us to Kaye's Brooklyn birthplace and other sites of relevance.

"Irving Berlin's White Christmas" (7:22) centers on the much-covered, best-selling titular song. Musicologists weigh in on the tune's appeal and Berlin's methods (he always wrote in the key of F-sharp), while Berlin's daughter Mary Ellin Barrett and others briefly discuss the rarely-heard opening verse that changes the song's setting and meaning.

"White Christmas: From Page to Stage" (4:23) gives us some looks at the recent stage musical, which has both returned to Broadway and gone on another national tour this holiday season (a fact promoted in this DVD's packaging and gladly less so here). The show's creators discuss how and why they went about adapting this film for modern theatergoers.

Shortly before her 2002 death, Rosemary Clooney took "A Look Back" at her most famous film. The re-release trailer advertises one of the original Irving Berlin songs found within. Like all of the film's posters and covers, Disc 2's main menu takes its imagery from the Christmasy finale.

Carried over from 2000 is "White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney" (16:45). Clooney takes time to share her experiences with each of her major collaborators on the film: Vera-Ellen, Kaye, Crosby, Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Berlin, director Michael Curtiz, and costumer Edith Head. Her comments are more candid and detailed than you might expect and they're complimented by linking official narration that gives this nice piece the feel of an all-purpose turn-of-the-century retrospective.

Finally, we get two White Christmas theatrical trailers. The upbeat first (2:25) touts the VistaVision format, while the re-release preview (2:10) places more emphasis on the story.

The 16:9 menus are static and silent, yet seasonable. The DVD goes for broke in the packaging department, with an embossed, holographic cardboard slipcover whose front center is cut out to reveal the keepcase artwork below. That standard-sized keepcase has environmental cut-outs of its own, along with an insert for the Broadway musical and one with a code enabling you to download 5 free songs from Amplified.com through June 2010. Aesthetically, this release pales next to the original DVD in two ways: it lacks a chapter insert (these have all but become obsolete today) and the old full-color disc art looks much nicer than the plain, dull gray text-only type Paramount now uses.

In the dining car of a train headed for Vermont, our four leads (left to right, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen) sing of the wonders of snow. Musical jokes are in order, as Wallace (Bing Crosby), Davis (Danny Kaye), and a Haynes sister (Rosemary Clooney) perform a festive minstrel show medley.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

White Christmas may not be an excellent film, but it is a fun and joyous one that's much easier to like than dislike. Paramount's new Anniversary Edition DVD stands as a clear upgrade over the movie's prior release. Picture and sound may not be improved, but they still largely satisfy, and the packaging is fancier. But the real attraction is the more than one hour of strong and diverse new bonus featurettes, which lovingly celebrate the film and its makers. If that doesn't appeal to you, you can hold onto your old copy. Otherwise, this fine, moderately-priced set is recommended and makes for a satisfactory first-time purchase of the movie.

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Reviewed November 25, 2009.



Text copyright 2009 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1954 Paramount Pictures and 2009 Paramount Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.