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White Christmas (Blu-ray Review)

15 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$26.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen.

With movies, radio and recordings making him a triple threat before golf even entered the equation, Bing Crosby was unequivocally the No. 1 entertainment figure to emerge from the first half of the 20th century. And by 1954 (with just one more chart-busting single left to go, a couple years off), he was still the obvious point guy when it came time for his home studio to launch its own variation on the latest cutting-edge screen technologies. White Christmas came equipped with a household-name title, thanks to its lead’s 1942 recording. It also had VistaVision, which in the lingo of the day, Paramount termed “Motion Picture High Fidelity” (maybe this is why its soundtracks weren’t in stereo but mono).

As a non-anamorphic alternative to such wider-screen rivals as CinemaScope, Cinerama and the coming TODD-AO, films shot in VistaVision ran through the camera horizontally instead of vertically, and for depth of field and color vibrancy — though black-and-white movies like The Rose Tattoo and The Desperate Hours remain exceptional lookers, as well — I think it is still the best photographic process ever. Martin Scorsese seems to agree with this — he says so on The Searchers DVD — and so did the patrons who used to come from out of town to see a VistaVision title whenever I programmed one at the American Film Institute Theater. Once, I even had a guy drive from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., to see a VV’d Cornel Wilde playing the lead in Omar Khayyam — opposite Debra Paget, John Derek and Yma Sumac. Now that’s devotion (or, perhaps, dementia).

Though several British films from the mid-to-late 1950s utilized the process, Paramount distributed, I’d guess, 95% of the VistaVision Hollywood titles. Thus, it’s ironic that Warner Home Entertainment has managed to bring out Blu-rays of The Searchers and North by Northwest (originally distributed by MGM) before Paramount could even get out of the gate despite owning most of the horses. But the good news is that the new White Christmas Blu-ray — whose transfer and fairly comprehensive backgrounder extras replicate what were on last year’s standard DVD — does put the Yuletide “ho-ho-ho” in Technicolor. And not just in those electric Santa-suit reds at the end — but also to those aqua boas in the "Sisters" number and even Danny Kaye’s subtler gray suit/matching-shoes combo (which impressed me sartorially even as a kid) in “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” number opposite the attractive if alarmingly thin Vera-Ellen.

I’m in the minority (though by no means exclusive) club that prefers Christmas to its Bing/Berlin predecessor Holiday Inn (1942), though it’s certainly formulaic and in some ways even clunky. For starters, Crosby equalizes Crosby, and the Christmas women (not just Vera-Ellen but Rosemary Clooney) make stronger contributions. And in a role for which he was actually third choice after a bowed-out Fred Astaire and taken-sick Donald O’Connor, Kaye is so good (the Knock on Wood-White Christmas-The Court Jester period from 1954-56 was the peak of his screen career) that he just about matches the Astaire of Inn (I’ll go to the mat on this one). There’s also VistaVision/Technicolor opposite Inn’s black-and-white, though — to fight for the other side — Inn’s score is probably stronger and the story’s pacing is snappier. Christmas runs 23 minutes longer and gets off to a wobbly start with some 1944 army camp entertainment that obviously has no room for women.

“White Christmas” — the song (introduced in Inn) was Crosby’s biggest hit. Also anyone else’s. This movie not only reprises it but also features Berlin’s final chartbuster “Count Your Blessings,” which Crosby recorded in a version that was subservient in sales (and, truth to tell, even memorability) to Eddie Fisher’s smash. Times were changing. Berlin was age 66 on his way to 101, and you just know he had no clue that “Rock Around the Clock” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” would permanently turn pop music on its ear six or eight months after this movie’s release. And if he had a clue, he wouldn’t have liked it: Berlin loathed Elvis Presley’s subsequent recording of “White Christmas” and mounted a campaign to get radio stations not to play it. In this vein, the movie exudes a kind of old- guard tone — as if it hasn’t a clue of what’s about to happen to Tin Pan Alley and show biz in general. But it caught the last-gasp Zeitgeist — much as The Sound of Music would just short of a decade later — and was the biggest box office attraction of the year. Four years later, its director (Michael Curtiz) made King Creole with Elvis.

On a handful of past DVD releases, Paramount has gone back to the original VistaVision elements for the remastering: To Catch a Thief, Funny Face and (on Vol. 2 of its Martin and Lewis sets) Artists and Models. All look staggeringly good — superior, in fact, to even Blu-rays of many current-day theatrical releases — and rank high on the list of VV studio titles that are most deserving of BD treatment (along with The Ten Commandments and One-Eyed Jacks). Paramount didn’t go that extra mile here, just one look at the “Mandy” number (featuring all four leads) with its dramatic reds and blacks should answer any questions about how super this Blu-ray looks. As a friend pointed out to me when we were in college, Hollywood phased out three-strip Technicolor in the summer of 1955 (reputedly with Universal-International’s Foxfire), and VistaVision didn’t launch until late ’54. Thus, the number of films that can boast both are very few, and this is one of them.

And for another 1954 curiosity: It’s rather startling to think that Christmas, A Star Is Born and The Eddie Cantor Story (which came out so late in ’53 that it’s sometimes regarded as a ’54 release) all featured minstrel shows and/or blackface (though, fortunately, there’s none of the latter here). Clearly times were changing: take it away, Chuck Berry.

Speaking of Bing, Infinity Entertainment has just brought out a second volume of his restored TV specials — this time a $29.98 box set of Christmas shows, including the posthumous 1977 airing he did with David Bowie. What’s more, Universal has just issued a six-pack of 1933-47 Crosby Paramounts it has long controlled (for $49.98. I’m about to dive into both.

But speaking of Bing combined with Motion Picture High Fidelity, let’s not forget that High Society (released by MGM but now controlled by Warner) was photographed in VistaVision as well. I’m waiting, I’m waiting.

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