The 1950’s were a rough time for Hollywood.
Televisions, and those damned New Yorkers, were dominating the national discussion, people were staying home, and the Big 5 studios were struggling through an identity crisis after the 1948 US v. Paramount Supreme Court ruling that destroyed their monopoly. So, what did the top minds at the big studios do to draw in audiences in a way they’d never needed to before? A number of things, but for the most part it they put a new focus on spectacle and gimmicks. This was the decade 3-D movies first got their stride, and the introduction of what Paramount called VistaVision. Basically VistaVision refined the quality of film stock and allowed for a larger frame, kind of like a proto IMAX thing.
Yes, Paramount’s response to television basically amounted to, “what if we made the screen bigger?” But that wasn’t the only thing that got bigger for Hollywood! The movies did, too. MUSICALS! People like those, right? So let’s make them HUGE. And in COLOR. My god, they’ll have to come see our movies now, right?!
I mention VistaVision as a way of introducing my Holiday recommendation. You see, the very first time “Presented in VistaVision” proudly came on screen was in 1954, in front of White Christmas.
On a snowy Christmas Eve during World War II, dynamite entertainer Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) puts on a show for the troops of the 151st Division of the U.S. Army. His motive is twofold, to entertain the troops, and to throw a little going away celebration for their General, John Waverly (Dean Jagger), who’s being replaced. The General is able to arrive in time to give a teary farewell before a sudden bombing causes the troops to run for cover. The blast throws Bob Wallace together with Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), an aspiring entertainer who has a song he’d like Wallace to perform in. After a bit of conniving from Davis, Wallace agrees, and the two hit the big time!
What follows is a delightful story that leads the two through many songs, a sister act (by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen), and to a ski lodge in Vermont where it isn’t snowing, owned by their favorite General.
The film is directed by one of the titans of the old Hollywood Studio system, Michael Curtiz (he of Casablanca fame), and runs very much like one of those studio films: efficient and effective. The movie features some fun on-screen chemistry between Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, where everybody gets a few scenes to shine in.
Is it dated? Absolutely, very few movies from that era aren’t. But I can tell you from personal experience that the movie sneaks up on you. Bing Crosby’s old school charm and Danny Kaye’s rambunctiousness grow on you during the two-hour runtime, the songs are very catchy, and when you finally reach the final performance of “White Christmas,” you can’t help but smile. A lot of the dialogue scenes in the film are actually improvised, which was an anomaly during that era, and it’s a change of pace from the sometimes stilted delivery of that era, making it feel more genuine.
It is also, in my opinion, an interesting look into films from this era. The costume design is gorgeous and lavish, and it’s clear that Paramount opened up its wallet on the production design (there’s even an adorably undersized lighthouse in the background of “Florida”). There are huge musical and dance numbers that are squeezed in just for their own sake and to utilize the capability of VistaVision to “wow” the audience. To be honest? It actually kind of works.
Overall, if you’re looking for something to cheer you up this holiday season, or maybe to just put on in the background, White Christmas would make a fine addition to your rotation.
Or you could just watch Die Hard for the 7,000th time, I guess. There’s no wrong answer here.