Sunday, December 14, 2014

White Christmas: The Classic Holiday Film

The Christmas season is here and that means curling up on a cold day and watching some classic Christmas films!

A Christmas film is not just any kind of film. It has to juggle the complex demands of having intriguing characters, a story that is original - but not too original that it’s not a Christmas film, and familiar – but not so familiar it’s a cliché - and blend the right amount of heart, drama, comedy and magic that the audience wants to experience at this time of year. 

A classic Christmas film does all of the above, but it has a little something extra, a delicate sprinkle of nostalgia, warmth and timelessness, when watching it year after year becomes its own Christmas tradition.

It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, The Grinch (1966), Home Alone, are among the classics, but there’s one Christmas musical classic that tops them all – White Christmas

A White Christmas in my hometown of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.

It’s a classic in every sense of the word: a film firmly planted in the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, with handsome, crooning leading men, gorgeous and graceful leading ladies, perfectly styled costumes and hair, and delightful comedy, romance and heart set to the iconic music of Irving Berlin.

Its impeccable cast, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, tell the story of two ‘dynamite show-biz entertainers’ who join up after WWII and cross paths with an up-and-coming sister-act and head to Vermont for some winter fun. Comedy and romance ensue naturally, but the story really takes off when they discover a lack of snow in what’s supposed to be “America’s winter playground” and their old army general on the verge of bankruptcy as the ski lodge proprietor. Prominent character actors, Mary Wickes and Dean Jagger, round out the cast and dancer George Chakiris, who would go on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1961 for West Side Story, stands out as one of the chorus members in the big song and dance scenes.

And speaking of song and dance, White Christmas is full of some of the best musical theatre numbers on film!

“Sisters” is a toast to the bonds of family and loyalty, performed sincerely by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, and then later on with tongues planted firmly in cheeks, by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. If you watch closely, you’ll see Crosby is actually laughing by the end of their little ‘drag’ show, but the sound is overdubbed!

“Snow”, with its beautiful harmonies and images of winter, is sung by the quartet on route to Vermont and builds the characters’ anticipation for fun together in a lovely winter wonderland. If only winter could really be that beautiful and carefree! 

“Choreography” is a lighthearted, satirical nod to the early days of Modern Dance, with its dancers clad in long, dark Martha Graham-esque dresses and high pony tails, moving in sharp, angular motions and flexing their bare feet. Danny Kaye hams up the melodrama and Vera-Ellen, all legs and high-tapped heels, literally dances circles around them, in a classic vs. modern clash of styles. It does little to advance the plot or develop the characters; it’s just a really fun little number. 

“The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” is, in my opinion, the best dance scene in the whole film. You’d hardly know it by watching it, but Danny Kaye had very little dance training prior to this number but when dancing with Vera-Ellen, one of Hollywood’s most versatile and accomplished dancers at that time, he holds his own. They are absolutely mesmerizing and perfectly matched together in their ballroom/Latin-tinged dance on a Florida terrace. Notice how the costume designer put Kaye in shoes that match the colour of his pants; the line from leg to foot is never broken. The romantic lyrics and the whimsical way Vera-Ellen twirls in her partner’s arms are tributes to the pure joy of dance. The scene has a light, spontaneous quality and it’s a magical moment of two people falling in love while dancing. What could be more classic?

Only the song the film is named for, “White Christmas”.

Irving Berlin wrote the song for Bing Crosby, and Crosby’s version is the best-selling single of all time. It bookends the film by being sung twice: once at the start and at the end as the grand finale. In a bombed-out village somewhere overseas on Christmas Eve in 1944, accompanied only by the soft chimes of a music box, Crosby’s voice has a tragic longing to it and his singing of ‘tree-tops glistening and children listening’ prompt his fellow comrades to bow their heads with homesickness.

At the end of the film, the song is warm and full, bolstered by the inclusion of the ladies and a chorus of children. With the snow finally falling in the background, ensuring a happy ending for their beloved General-turned-Hotel-owner, the beautiful red and white costumes shine on stage, the soldiers are reunited with their families and friends,and the song and its singers are truly home together.

Watching this beautiful 1954 film has been a Christmas tradition in my family for years and when its opening credits roll, it signals the true arrival of the holiday season. I know almost all the words – of the songs and the scenes – and though I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched it, it never gets old. It represents so much of what I hold dear to my heart: sisterhood, friendships renewing and strengthening, romance and love, laughter and the joy of people coming together through the arts.

And of course, that the best things really do happen while you dance! 

Merry Christmas!