"White Christmas" defined the mindset of the time in which it was made. And while the specific appeal it had when first released served its purpose and then expired, associations that successive generations have had with the movie have monumentalized it.
It all began with "Holiday Inn," a modest 1942 salute from Paramount to America’s range of festive occasions. The studio evidently underestimated when they calculated just how deep a chord this little film would strike within a public in the midst of World War II. When the film industry’s post-War fortunes began to wane, especially with the advent of television, Paramount decided to update their previous hit. This time they would focus on ’White Christmas,’ the best-selling song in history, which "Holiday Inn" had introduced. To make no mistake about it, Paramount would hone right in on the two talents behind the song’s triumph, composer Irving Berlin and performer Bing Crosby.
As was often the case with studio properties, the result would depend upon on how well it survived the many hands that shaped it. Inordinate production delays overstuffed "White Christmas" to a degree that made it perfect to introduce the studio’s brand new big screen film process VistaVision in a blaze of Technicolor. And so it did, just in time for year’s end 1954.
For a film meant to show off a spiffy new process, my first experience of it only weeks into New Year 1955 was ignominious. I watched it in a makeshift theatre with folding chairs, an elementary school auditorium on an air force base. Seating was not staggered, so the screen was mounted high enough to compromise an ideal perspective on the picture, and give you a crick in the neck in the bargain. The sound was no better than you’d have expected from a gym acoustic either.
Whatever amenities the gym lacked, it was toasty warm. A Sunday evening’s snowdrifts had not had traffic enough to cut a path. That meant soggy socks inside my galoshes. Still, any discomfort I felt was easy to dismiss. "White Christmas" was the second of only two movies that I can remember ever seeing with whole family, Mom, Dad and my two brothers. If only for this shared experience, I would forever after reflect upon it with nostalgia.
I was anxious in anticipation of Paramount’s official re-release in 1962 as I entered another station theatre on another air force base. Seven years had given the film ample time to brand itself indelibly upon the public consciousness. People knew "White Christmas" the way even an individual with an antipathy for sports knew Joe DiMaggio. How robbed I felt of my deep-set sentiment to find how banal the movie seemed now. It crushed me how unmoved I felt by it. More wounding still, I was not alone in my loss. I could not know at this time that what had originally made "White Christmas" so special had not died. It was only lost to sight temporarily in jaded times.
Nothing could extinguish the memory of that tidal wave of joyous greeting it had first been. "White Christmas" soon enough revived. It was nursed back to health over decades every year at Christmas on TV or, latterly, in every flavor of home video, including DVD with this release. Its enormous appeal cannot be accounted for in either the weight of the story it tells or in refined standards, only in extraordinary talents giving it their all.
The perspective of forty-five years brings an unexpected dimension to "White Christmas." At the start of "White Christmas" bombs detonate and there’s gunfire in the offing. Its depiction of wartime service overseas was not all that dissimilar to my own Dad’s in Northern Ireland. Though my father’s base was relatively safe from direct threat, patrol missions in which he participated were of epic proportion. The peril was very real. It took its measure in many a spent life, and this could not but have forged a fellowship amongst survivors. My mother, like many another war bride, suffered privations during the War, but it is doubtful if she herself ever knew more of my father’s experience than what official censors let by in his letters home.
While front line war service was life-altering, veterans sealed shut what they knew of it promptly upon return from active duty. The time had come to move on. Deep-seated feelings were stashed unprocessed, forgotten but not gone. When "White Christmas" was first seen, not a decade had yet passed since the end of World War II. For those who’d known the War, "White Christmas" glanced back upon it just sufficiently to stir smoldering embers, but not to a waking flame. The show took a pretext passing for a plot, fleshed it out with Irving Berlin songs, old and new, and shaped it around what the Christmas spirit is at its most essential.
The show looked first and foremost to the defenders of our freedom and paid its debt in unabashed celebration of them. "White Christmas" was elevating. It came at the perfect time to help put the lie to a current of fear running deep and dark that what was lost in war might in balance exceed what had been gained.
Service veterans have only just begun to free their troubled recollections of wartime. Those who had engaged in combat are now, as they near the end of their lives, imparting to their children their experiences of it. The Baby Boomer generation is hearing for the first time as their own children how, quite apart from any heroics, the soul-testing social conditions of war put their parents’ goals and personal relationships to the test.
My father’s wartime letters home tell of his trying in vain to get in to see Irving Berlin’s "This is the Army" in Belfast. Berlin’s stage extravaganza traveled a circuit of major capitols within the allied nations. Those who dismiss songs like ’What Can You Do With a General?’ from "White Christmas" miss the point. Berlin, born in 1888, was a mature veteran of two world wars. His songs related to the military in "White Christmas" distilled the essence of what it was to defend his nation just as his words and music had done in the First World War of 1914-18. No other composer/lyricist would even have dared try.
Neither technical excellence nor restraint will ever be a measure of the spell "White Christmas" can weave. The show’s centerpiece was the last Minstrel show ever to feature in a major movie musical. It was the film’s most lavish and extended production number with outrageous green male costuming against a two-toned background of purple and weird off-red. Mystifyingly, it works! Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney turn on a dime right after it delivering the film’s best new number, ’Count Your Blessings,’ which brought a collective lump to the throat and was the film’s theme.
The print of origin for the DVD is free of debris and print damage, but it hasn’t a whole lot more to commend it. The last (and best) LaserDisc release claimed restoration before this one did, so you’d have expected something with a little more luster than we get here. The LaserDisc is overly pastel, yet in side-by-side comparison its first DVD incarnation makes no advance upon it. The picture is noisy and balanced to a tawny skin tone with the rest of the image following suit. The effect is muting, but pleasure does survive it.
Paramount conceded in their last issue of the film that the only audio elements remaining are mono. That said, the right wizard could whip a fundamentally solid mono soundtrack into a pleasing multi-channel mix. Engineers have only succeeded in rendering a labored acoustic they tout as a 5.1 remix. The fact that no discernable sound issues from the surround speakers can only be deemed a mercy.
"White Christmas" has been seen more often on television than it ever was on the big screen. Since VistaVision’s dimensions were a compromise, which yielded a pleasing alternative when cropped to TV ratio, it would be nice to see it as an option in any future release.
Paramount has generally given its legacy titles a solid presentation on DVD in look and sound, but rarely in terms of providing ’extras.’ Here they turn the tables. There’s a modest documentary narrated by the only star of "White Christmas" still with us, Rosemary Clooney. This so-called ’retrospective interview’ gives us a good sketch background, but the prize in the package is her accompanying commentary. It nicely freshens up an experience that for many who’ve seen this film perennial has become blazé with over-familiarity. Miss Clooney eloquently understates the film’s particular appeal to military veterans at the time of its release: "There were too many wounds that didn’t heal that quickly with people in small towns."
Miss Clooney does not talk throughout and there are long gaps between points where she makes her presence known. Now and again, she’ll chortle privately with no explanation forthcoming. Some might take issue with the fact that the spirit occasionally takes her to natter during a musical number. I would defend the editor’s choice to preserve the impulsiveness. We’re with a friend. Her warm memories pick up our spirits. She is tickled and so are we. It’s not as if we lucky DVD owners don’t have the luxury to re-watch anything we chose at the click of a button.
Apart from Dolby Digital 5.1, we have the original English ’restored mono.’ We can even listen to it en français. For the record, the English and French mono tracks are identically bland and somewhat compressed. (So much for VistaVision’s proud assertion of "motion-picture high-fidelity"! Such as it is, the 5.1 track is roomier.)
If only to see "White Christmas" in its new home, Paramount Home Video’s DVD deserves our welcome. Not even the sum total of Rosemary Clooney’s 20-minute retrospective look at the film or her commentary track add up to anything close to a definitive background to this film’s history. "White Christmas" does not benefit from inordinate scrutiny. What does enhance it is exactly what’s on offer here, spontaneous reminiscence.
"I loved it!" remarks Miss Clooney as the end credits fill the screen. "I just loved it!" she reiterates. Then she adds, only half in jest, " - Well, shall we start it over…?"