A timeless musical classic re-released in special edition Blu-ray
By Jim Bray
Paramount, one of the champions at finding new ways to exploit old titles, has re-released the 1954 movie "White Christmas," a wonderful holiday classic that over the years has become one of my "desert island" discs. It doesn't appear to sport a new set of remastered and restored clothes, but it's still a darn fine presentation, and the new, diamond anniversary version includes some stuff never released before.
The Michael Curtiz-helmed film stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, with the possibly even more important talents of Irving Berlin providing the musical score. It's a song and dance extravaganza that may not be as much about Christmas as its title may hint, but which is a fantastic and heartwarming movie that gets better with subsequent viewings.
Curtiz was no stranger to classic movies, having directed such honored titles as Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood (and many others). His film has a realistic "lived in" look that shows clearly the homesickness that weighed heavily on the shoulders of the boys "over there" (the movie begins during World War II, on a European front line Christmas eve), the glamour of show business, and how even the best of us can get screwed up by not being told the context of a particular situation or comment. Heck, when it comes to the latter point, this could be used as an analogy for how today's news media is a lousy place to become informed!
Anyway, entertainment upstart Phil Davis (Kaye) saves the life of current captain and celebrated crooner Bob Wallace (Crosby) during that opening scene, then guilt trips his way into Wallace's act - taking over his life in the process - as they team up and become a huge success as performers and producers, kind of like a Rodgers and Hammerstein team who also took the leads in their own productions.
One winter, having taken their show on the road to Florida shortly before their Christmas break, they audition the sister act of Betty and Judy Haynes (Clooney and Vera-Ellen) as a favor to an old army friend, and the romantic sparks immediately fly. There are other sparks, too.
The boys bail out the broads - well, Phil does - by giving the sisters their tickets for a train heading north to New York and beyond, letting them escape from a sleazy landlord. The girls are booked for a holiday gig at a Vermont ski lodge and Davis - who wants Wallace to get married so he can have some free time (this, ironically, after he basically took over the poor man's life!) - cons Bob into heading to Vermont with him for "all that snow" over their Christmas break. Of course he wants to follow the gals and kindle some romance between the partners and the sisters; he's already well on the way with Judy, though it doesn't appear he's particularly aware of this fact.
Wouldn't you know, the ski lodge at which the Haynes sisters are booked is owned by Wallace and Davis' old army boss General Waverly (retired), played to sad-eyed perfection by Dean Jagger. His lodge is going downhill faster than the skiers would, especially since there's no skiing going on thanks to the warmest December in recent memory: no snow means no customers. Waverly is gamely going to his ruin with the place - and it's really nice! - so Wallace and Davis team up with the sisters to bring the guys' high powered star ammunition to the task of getting bums in the lodge's seats so General Waverly can stay in the black until the white stuff arrives.
The movie's great, but the songs are even greater. Not only do we get a couple of renditions of "White Christmas," but numbers such as "Sisters," "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," "Choreography," and many more, are classic Irving Berlin. There's also outstanding choreography; while Bing and Rosie aren't the lightest on their feet, Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye light up the screen with their steps and, when things get too terpsichorean, another guy pushes Kaye out of the way for even more dizzying dance.
Beyond the singing and the dancing, the acting performances are wonderful as well, including a classic Mary Wickes part and the abovementioned Dean Jagger characterization. And of course Crosby, Kaye, Clooney and Vera-Ellen are all on top of their game, even if Clooney can't dance (she admits as much if you surf the supplements).
Even the sets are first rate. You can tell the movie was shot almost exclusively on sound stages (especially with the 1080p quality of the Blu-ray medium), but that's how movies were made back then - and even the outdoor locations - the ski lodge, the WWII camp etc. - are crafted beautifully and look natural despite their artificialness. A lot of work went into how this film looks and it pays off in spades!
Parmount's new Blu-ray does justice to the glorious, widescreen VistaVision picture, though I'd love to see the studio go right back to source and do a top notch 4K (or better!) restoration and remastering (and if they've done this already, they should try again). As it sits, colors look fantastic - rich reds and greens, especially, which seems kind of appropriate, and blacks there's plenty of fine detail. Heck, you can make out all the wrinkles in the army uniforms at the film's opening and textures in the costumes. Flesh tones are a tad problematic, but it isn't a deal breaker.
So overall, this is a very satisfying 1080p/24 transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio); I'd just like to see if they can do any better, since this is one of my favorite movies of all time.
The audio is the weakest link, but that should surprise no one. It lacks the dynamics of today's digital lossless soundtracks, but on both the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track (which still sounds mostly mono) or the restored mono version the sound is thinner than I'd like. I also had to crank it up a bit from my usual default listening level. Blame the original source material, its age, and how recordings were made back then. Don't blame the Blu-ray.
New special features include a karoake-like sing a long feature on 13 songs, though when I tried it the "non-bouncing ball" was a tad out of sync. Didn't matter; I know these songs by heart anyway and so didn't need the feature. Classic Holiday Moments gives you five Christmas TV show appearances by Crosby and Kaye (and, for some reason, Michael Buble), there's a UNICEF propaganda film from 1954 (Kaye was the first UNICEF celebrity ambassador) and a photo gallery.
Old, but still worthwhile extras, include a commentary by Rosemary Clooney, some backstage stories, some other short features that focus on the stars and creators, an interesting look back with Clooney and some trailers.
And that isn't it! Paramount not only throws in two DVD's (movie and special features discs) but they even stick a Christmas CD of holiday favorites performed by the stars. The disc has nothing to do with the movie beyond being about Christmas and featuring the stars (and others), but it's nice. I'd have preferred a CD of the movie soundtrack, since I have more than enough other Christmas music, but such was obviously not to be.
Perhaps Paramount is saving that for the next special edition. Not that I'm cynical…
If you have yet to purchase White Christmas for your library, this is definitely the version to get (so far!). Paramount was even thoughtful enough to include DVD's, so if you haven't yet moved over the Blu-ray, you can buy this one and it won't be obsolete when you do. It's future proof!
Until 4K, digital streaming, memory implant…
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.