In 1942 Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire made a movie for Paramount called "Holiday Inn" in which Crosby sang the Irving Berlin song "White Christmas." In 1954, after the song had become world famous (it's one of the most-popular songs ever written), Paramount decided to build an entire movie around the song, revising their "Holiday Inn" idea and persuading Danny Kaye to replace Astaire (who had temporarily retired). It didn't turn out as well as the original had, but like the song the newer movie became one of the most-beloved Christmas entertainments ever. If you enjoy the movie, it has never looked or sounded better for home playback than it does here on high-definition Blu-ray.
Bing and Danny play a pair of song-and-dance men, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, who meet during World War II and after the war form a musical partnership. Within a few years, the team becomes enormously popular, even producing shows on Broadway. But Phil is going a little crazy with the stick-in-the-mud Bob and thinks if he can get him married off, maybe he'll get some peace of mind. That's when the fellows meet the Haynes sisters, Betty and Judy (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen), another song-and-dance team, although a team down on their luck. Through a convoluted set of highly unlikely circumstances, the four people wind up together at an inn in Vermont, the Columbia Inn and Ski Lodge, owned by the men's old general, Thomas Waverly (Dean Jagger), who is now retired and struggling to make a living at a lodge with no snow.
Needless to say, the four principals decide that what the inn needs is publicity, so they decide to produce a show up there to draw in the crowds. Bob and Phil import their entire Broadway stage company to Vermont and hang the expense. Anything for the old general.
It's all an excuse, of course, to showcase as many Irving Berlin lyrics and music in two hours as possible. Unfortunately, the story line is so thin, it might have been better just to have presented the music as a vaudeville performance. Veteran director Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca," "Captain Blood," "The Adventures of Robin Hood") does his best to inject a little life into the proceedings, but most of it seems too threadbare for words.
Bing gets to sing "White Christmas" within the first five minutes of the movie, thus ensuring that the audience understands perfectly the nature of the show. A silly misunderstanding leads to another of the movie's absurd conflicts (and yet another way of squeezing more songs and dances into the proceedings). The movie comes off like one of those old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland affairs of years past. Oh, and there's even a little "white" Christmas in there, too.
There aren't that many actual songs in the movie, but there is a lot of music and a lot of dancing and a lot of short bits. The music that appears includes "White Christmas" (Crosby); "It's Cold Outside" (Crosby); "The Old Man" (Crosby, Kaye, and men's chorus); a medley of "Heat Wave," "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," and "Blue Skies" (Crosby and Kaye); "Sisters" (Clooney and Vera-Ellen); "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" (Kaye and Vera-Ellen); "Snow" (Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen); "Sisters," reprise (Clooney and Vera-Ellen); "I'd Rather See a Minstrel Show"/"Mister Bones"/"Mandy" (Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and chorus); "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" (Crosby and Clooney); "Choreography" (Kaye); "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," reprise (Kaye and chorus); "Abraham" (instrumental); "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" (Clooney); "What Can You Do with a General?" (Crosby); "The Old Man," reprise (Crosby and men's chorus); "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army" (Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen); and "White Christmas" again (Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and chorus).
A couple of songs, the title tune in particular, pass the test of time, but I found most of it rather clunky and awkward by the best standards of stage and movie musicals. The music here is thrown in with virtually no connection to the characters or their situations, the plot merely a clothesline on which to hang the songs. Nevertheless, the movie became one of the biggest box-office attractions of its time, and no doubt it has a legion of fans to this day. For them, this Blu-ray product may be a blessing.
Trivia: From John Eastman in his book "Retakes" (Ballantine, 1989): "This film was made chiefly as a reprise for Crosby and the song, though Berlin wrote nine new tunes for it, too. It also bore strong resemblances to a previous Michael Curtiz-directed film, 'I'll See You in My Dreams' (1952). Screenwriters Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, called in to beef up Danny Kaye's part in Norman Krasna's screenplay, recalled the filming as 'eight terrible weeks of shouting and screaming.' As third choice for his role of Phil Davis, Kaye was feeling a bit prickly about the whole thing and not disposed to taking a back seat to Crosby. The studio had wanted Fred Astaire to repeat his sidekick role as in the 1942 film, but the old hoofer decided he was now too old for such a part and refused. Then Donald O'Connor hurt his back and couldn't dance, so Kaye was cast."
Paramount filmed the movie in then-new VistaVision, a deep-focus, widescreen process, which competed with Cinerama and CinemaScope back in the mid Fifties and beyond. The studio offer it on Blu-ray using an MPEG-4 codec and a dual-layer BD50, but not in a completely restored version. Still, the picture looks quite good, with only the occasional white speck or fleck to remind us of its age. The Technicolor shows up richly, vibrantly, and realistically, with solid black levels to set off the hues. Although there is only average object delineation, the image looks clear and smooth, if a tad soft.
The audio engineers have remixed the sound for 5.1 surround using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, and it improves on the restored Dolby Digital mono track. Like the picture quality, the sound is quite smooth, with a modest left-to-right front-channel stereo spread. There is very little surround activity, however. It's a pleasant if not particularly topflight soundtrack, the vocals more than ever sounding as though the filmmakers recorded them in a separate environment.
The bonuses begin with an audio commentary recorded by the late Rosemary Clooney for the first DVD release of the movie in 2000. That's followed by a series of brief featurettes: "Backstage Stories from White Christmas" (HD), twelve minutes with film critics, historians, and entertainers; "Rosemary's Old Kentucky Home" (HD), thirteen minutes on Ms. Clooney's house in Kentucky and all it meant to her; "Bing Crosby: Christmas Crooner" (HD), fourteen minutes of reminiscences; "Danny Kaye: Joy to the World" (HD), thirteen minutes with writers, actors, and filmmakers who knew him; "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" (HD), seven minutes on the history and influence of the song; "White Christmas from Page to Stage" (HD), four minutes on the stage adaptation of the movie; and "White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney," a sixteen-minute vintage promo from 2000.
The extras conclude with nineteen scene selections; bookmarks; an original and a re-release trailer; an embossed slipcover for the keep case; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
With the exception of the title tune and a few others, the Irving Berlin music and dances in the show sound dated, old-fashioned, and a little corny today, but I'm not sure it wasn't always that way. It's not a great musical, just a pleasant little piece of fluff trying to capitalize on past accomplishments with the addition of widescreen and color. Still, for its many fans, this Blu-ray edition does it proud, and the entire production looks spanking new.