23 April, 2014

White Christmas

              As you’ve probably surmised from as often as I write about them, I grew up watching movies.  Movies, TV Shows, Serials, the works.  And I mention Serials -- those great Cliffhangers of the 1940s -- because that’s when I grew up.  The 1940s.  Let me explain.

I was born in 1975, but I grew up in The 40s.  The 30s too, and the 50s, even early 60s.  As a kid growing up in the late 70s and 80s, my heroes were -- ready for this? -- Hope and Flynn and Kaye;  and Jackie Gleason;  Boston Blackie and The Falcon;  Nyoka and The Phantom;  the list goes on and on.

Of the many films my parents shared with me, one we watched traditionally was today’s Danny Kaye hit.  Yes, every Christmas, somewhere during that wonderful week or so before the holiday itself, we’d sit down and watch this.  I don’t even think it was any of ours’ favorite of Kaye’s -- mine and dad’s was always Mitty and mom’s was Court Jester -- but it didn’t matter.  There’s just something about this movie, especially watching it during the holidays, that’s, well, magical.

So far in our “Top 5 Retrospective of Danny Kaye Films,” we’ve had --

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
Up In Arms
Wonder Man
The Court Jester

And now, to top them all off --

White Christmas (1954)
w Norman Panama & Melvin Frank
d  Michael Curtiz

            The plot is a wonderfully simple one.  Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play nightclub entertainers Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen as singing-sister act Betty and Judy Haynes.  The four travel to Vermont where they encounter Bob and Phil's WWII commanding officer, General Waverly (Dean Jagger) who now runs a rustic old inn.  Discovering that The General is in dire financial straits, Our Heroes give him a hand by putting on a show.  But is everything merry and bright?  Well, in the end, there’s love in the air and a Christmas miracle, as everyone raises a glass to toast, “… and may all your Christmases be white.”

            While in my opinion Mitty is Kaye’s film, he’s admittedly most famous for Hans Christian Andersen which, I know, many of you can’t believe I didn’t include here.  But our movie today is up there;  in most people’s list of favorites, of holiday films and Mr. Kaye.  And there are a good many books and articles and (now) websites that talk about it, so I’m going to try and touch on a few stories you might not have heard.
            For a film that's well thought of as “warm, nostalgic, holiday fare” -- that is, not often considered one of the all-time great musicals -- it certainly commands a lot of star power and pop-cultural significance.  It was the highest-grossing film of 1954 (by a wide margin, the no-slouch Caine Mutiny came in second);  it was the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz' career (and remember he’d made Casablanca);  it co-starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye who were ranked the #1 and #3 box office stars in the country (respectively);  and “White Christmas” (the song) was already the most successful in American history.
            As production began, father of it all Irving Berlin wrote in a letter to his friend Irving Hoffman, “It is the first movie that I've been connected with since Holiday Inn that has the feel of a Broadway musical.  Usually there's little enthusiasm once you get over the first week of a picture.  But this has resulted in an excitement that I am sure will be reflected in the finished job.  In any event, as of today I feel great and very much like an opening in Philadelphia with a show.”

            What I find interesting about White Christmas as a holiday movie, especially when ranked against its peers -- It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street (and I can’t help but mention the oft-missed Holiday Affair) -- is the pure fun of the thing.  White Christmas is, above all else, fun;  wonderfully blends The Christmas Spirit with music, romance and humor.  And, often overlooked, it’s its very humor that stays through multiple viewings.  Crosby & Kaye are great together.  In just this one film their snappy repartee -- the comfortability between them -- rivals even Crosby & Hope.  Indeed, the entire Cast & Crew can’t help but sparkle.  Even amid the holiday schmaltz -- and, admittedly, it’s here -- it just plain feels good.  Great timing and delivery by all involved carry the film over the plot pitfalls;  after all, that’s just a framework for the spirit of the thing.  Nobody sings the title song as does Mr. Crosby, and few croon as well as Ms. Clooney.  And dancing here?  Only Vera-Ellen.  (See her fast-tap with just her toe for nearly a minute?  She does that in Wonder Man as well.) 
And then there’s Kaye.  In a film such as this, channeling his dancing, singing, comedy, the works;  well, I hope you can see why I picked it for one of his Top 5.  I genuinely feel it showcases his abundance of innate talent.  Because, to note, he’s wonderfully restrained here;  his usual over-the-top wackiness only really comes out when he fakes his injury in the last third.  He knows he doesn’t always have to be Anatole Of Paris;  and his rendering of Phil Davis does -- especially the suave “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” -- shine above even the likes of Astaire and O’Connor (and I love them both).  Indeed, looking at everything that came together so well here, it’s no surprise Mr. Berlin immediately felt the same while they were shooting.
            Moving on now to our Behind The Scenes.  Mr. Curtiz we talked about briefly in Flynn’s Robin Hood so how about our Writers?  Norman Panama and Melvin Frank grew up in Chicago and formed a storytelling team that showcased Bob Hope and Groucho Mark and crossed three decades, including multiple Oscar Nominations and such hits as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and the play A Talent For Murder (and they’d go on to Write and Direct our upcoming Court Jester).  To say they have pedigree is an understatement.  Look ‘em up and realize the rest of the hits they birthed.  Yes, “Panama & Frank” was a term of its own, and made comedy writers insanely jealous.

Now, our wonderful Supporting Cast.  There’s the always great Dean Jagger as our retiring General.  I’ve always called him my favorite character actor;  whenever I write “a wonderful old grandfather type” in something I always picture him.  Once you can spot him, you’ll be surprised how often you see him (including in our upcoming Rawhide with Tyrone Power).  Then there’s Mary Wickes.  Of her 130+ roles between 1935 and 1997 (her voice of Laverne in Disney’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame posthumous) she was the loveably crotchety “nanny.”  But did you remember she also tried teaching Lucy Ricardo ballet, and was the animation model for Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians?  Then there’s Barrie Chase.  She gets the great line “Mutual, I’m sure!” here but she’s appeared in more hits unbilled as billed.  Oh and that recognizable fellow in Rosemary Clooney’s solo number, “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me?”  Yep, George Chakiris, who would go on to win Best Supporting Actor in West Side Story.  And as Ed Harrison, the TV Host that helps Crosby “reach his audience?”  That’s Johnny Grant, Hollywood’s Honorary Mayor (bequeathed the title by none other than Monty Hall).
            Second in these Behind The Scenes, another film altogether, Holiday Inn.  It’s tough not to talk a little about that other Bing Crosby hit when talking White Christmas.  Some have said our movie today is loosely based on Holiday Inn but not really;  that said, there are a few wonderful connections.  Crosby singing the hit in that, of course, but also the set itself.  Yes, Paramount re-used the physical inn set from Holiday Inn in White Christmas.  And Fred Astaire (co-star of Holiday Inn) was originally set to start with Crosby in our film today.  But when he bowed-out, none other than Donald O’Connor was cast, but he had to bow-out due to illness.  And that’s when our very own Danny Kaye stepped in.  Oh and, for those of you that have been around a while, you remember that great old chain of motels, Holiday Inn?  Yep, named by founder Kemmons Wilson after that film.

            And third in our Behind The Scenes, the song itself.  Interestingly, “White Christmas” was originally pitched by Irving Berlin to Fred Astaire while filming another of Astaire’s hits, Top Hat.  Berlin thought the song would be perfect to write-around as a vehicle for Astaire & Rogers.  Then in May 1940, Berlin signed with Paramount to write songs for a film musical based on his idea of an inn that opened only on public holidays;  it, of course, became Holiday Inn.  And its big hit, and Oscar winner?  Yep, Crosby singing our song.  Interestingly, even that wasn’t the first time the crooner sang it.  That was on his NBC radio show “The Kraft Music Hall” on Christmas Day, 1941.  Barely three weeks after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, it became the biggest selling song in history (and still holds that title with fifty million copies).

            Okay, quick trivia question.  Crosby actually sang “White Christmas” in three films.  What’s the third?  (Hint, it’s also an Irving Berlin show.)  Enjoy the search …

            For now, we’ll stay on songs for a bit, but back in our Danny Kaye hit today.  Going chronologically (as they appear in the film) there’s “Sisters,” first “straight” with Clooney & Vera-Ellen, then “camp” with Crosby & Kaye.  Regarding Crosby & Kaye’s send-up, it was not originally in the script, but they were clowning around on the set and Curtiz thought it was so funny he added it.  And on a DVD Commentary track, Clooney reveals Crosby’s laughs in it are genuine;  he simply couldn’t hold a straight face to Kaye's comedy.  (They obviously had a good time as we can see Kaye laughing as well.)  The song “Snow” was originally written as “Free” for Call Me Madam but was dropped in out-of-town tryouts.  Its melody was kept, but the lyrics were obviously changed.  “Count Your Blessings” was nominated for Best Song but didn’t win.  Also interesting about that scene -- Crosby and Clooney talking sandwiches and buttermilk -- it was, Clooney remembers, mostly improvised.  The song “What Do You Do With A General?” -- which Leonard Maltin has famously called Berlin’s least memorable -- was originally written for an un-produced project called Stars On My Shoulders which Berlin wrote with Norman Krasna, hence his pseudo Writing Credit here (that I have opted to ignore).  And at some point for our film today, Berlin wrote "A Crooner, A Comic" for Crosby and his then-planned co-star Donald O’Connor, but when O'Connor left the project so did the song.  Crosby and Kaye also recorded (another Berlin song) “Santa Claus” for the opening WWII Christmas Eve scene, but it was cut during filming.
            We should also -- at least briefly -- touch on the fact that this was the first movie released in Vista Vision.  What is that, you ask?  Simply Paramount’s answer to Cinerama;  that is, in the early fifties, studios were battling the popularity of Television by trying to get audiences back into theatres.  How?  Because movies were bigger, and therefore had to be shown that way.  There was White Christmas and (upcoming) The Court Jester and To Catch A Thief to name a few (Mr. Hitchcock actually liked the format).  But, by the late fifties, the process was more or less obsolete.  Sure, “wide screen” was the new hit, but the last film to use Vista Vision specifically was 1961’s One Eyed Jacks.
            When White Christmas was released, it was wildly successful, earning $12M at the box office.  To put that in perspective, that’s about $110M today.  In fact by last count -- this would include international theatrical -- it was $30M (or about $270M today).  It’s remained so popular that, from 2004-2011, it became a worldwide Tony Award-nominated musical;  and, in 2010, Paramount released the first Blu-Ray of the film, from a brand new Transfer.  Needless to say, even modern day reviews were ecstatic.
You can tell Paramount loves this movie as much as we do, because they put time and money into it.  It’s magnificent.
While watching it, I felt like a kid again.
I grew up watching this movie every year and have subjected my kids to the same tradition.  Schmaltzy?  You bet!  Dated?  You bet!  Glad some things never change.
The performances cannot be bettered;  Bing and Rosemary make a delightful singing screen couple;  while Kaye and Vera-Ellen make the perfect matchmakers heckling on the sideline.  Mary Wickes is hilarious and Dean Jagger elegantly strong.
‘White  Christmas’ remains the all-time classic Christmas movie.  Featuring a fantastic cast and superb Irving Berlin score, it's a heartwarming and lavish musical.
            I opened this write-up talking about how my parents and I watched this movie every year;  that -- for all the movies we watched together, often second and third and fourth times -- this was one that, as it did for so many others, became a tradition.  So I can’t help but share that my wife Diana was kind enough to get the two of us tickets for it;  it being part of The Academy’s wonderful Oscar Outdoors series (this was December, 2012).  Talk about magical … If you’re a cinephile and have the opportunity to see a rerelease with an audience, go.  Chaplin or Sunset Boulevard or Back To The Future, doesn’t matter.  See it with a crowd just as excited as you to be there.  My parents have both passed, but Diana was with me.  In fact, so magical was this Academy screening that, at the end, when the doors are opened and General Waverly gets his Christmas miracle, so did we.  Yes, The Academy blew real snow out over us.  “Schmaltzy?”  You bet. 

I too am glad some things never change.

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