White Christmas (Anniversary Edition)

One of the most popular holiday movies of all time, White Christmas is out on DVD in a new “Anniversary Edition.” What anniversary is it? Why, the famous 55th anniversary, of course. They blew past the boring 50th and waited for the much more important 55th. Or maybe they just decided they needed a few dollars. Either way, a new DVD with new extras is available for your holiday needs. The thing I never really thought about before, but noticed while watching the new “Anniversary Edition” DVD of 1954 musical White Christmas, is that if the title song wasn’t included, you’d have a movie that has almost nothing to do with Christmas. Take out Bing Crosby crooning the song at the beginning and a group rendition at the end and you could have an above-average Hollywood musical, rather than a perennial Christmas favorite.

Think about the plot. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are Army buddies who go on to become popular entertainers. The bachelors meet up with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, sisters with talent but not many opportunities. While the boys woo the girls, the quartet heads up to the inn operated by the Crosby and Kaye’s old commanding General from WWII (Dean Jagger). The inn is in trouble, so before you can say, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show,” Crosby and Kaye bring their whole company up to the location to put on lavish musical numbers that have absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” “Sisters,” “Mandy,” “Choreography,” “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” they all put you in the holiday spirit, am I right? No, because this is mostly a standard movie musical hung precariously on a mega-hit that Crosby had previously sung in Holiday Inn, a superior movie.

That doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining film all the same. It features a fantastic group of Irving Berlin songs. Not just the big gorilla of Christmas songs, but patriotic songs, love songs, and comic songs. Crosby and Clooney are as good as it gets in delivering perfect renditions of these tunes. Vera-Ellen is an amazingly flexible dancer, and Danny Kaye does the comic second banana as well as anyone. The film was even directed by Michael Curtiz, who had previously directed Casablanca.

Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that it doesn’t really stand out from dozens of other good musicals of the same era. In fact, without the Christmas angle ensuring an annual appearance on TV or DVD, this movie probably wouldn’t be any better remembered than a lot of others. The relationship between Clooney and Crosby has the usual misunderstanding before the final reconciliation that you often find in movies of this type. Kaye is funny, but hardly unique or remarkable. Everything just feels tough to criticize but hard to rave about.

It is better remembered, however, and it does have a tenuous Christmas hook, so it’s worth a look, especially if you haven’t seen it or haven’t seen it in a few years. Maybe your kids have gotten into Glee and you want to show them what a real, old-fashioned musical was like. It is hard to find better music than Berlin or performers than these. The 2-Disc “Anniversary Edition” of White Christmas doesn’t boast a remastered picture or really any upgrade from previous versions, but I can’t complain about the picture or sound. They are entirely serviceable, and while you won’t exclaim “Holy cow, it’s like I’m there,” that’s probably because you don’t say “holy cow” much.

This version does sport six new bonus features, totaling a little over an hour of new material. The general “making-of” featurette is calling “Backstage Stories from White Christmas.” Lasting 12 minutes, the remembrance relies on film historians since everyone who starred in or worked on the movie is dead. There is one exception; a very scary George Chakiris (Bernardo from West Side Story) talks about the one dance scene he was in as you gaze in wonder at his bizarre appearance.

Both Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby get about 14 minutes each for their own featurettes. They focus somewhat on White Christmas but talk more about the two entertainers' careers in general. Kaye’s humanitarian work as a goodwill ambassador is also discussed extensively. Both segments include interviews with the actors’ families.

While there is nothing on Vera-Ellen or director Michael Curtiz, Irving Berlin is given a short segment that focuses on his writing of the song, “White Christmas,” and discusses his career. An odd segment is provided about a Rosemary Clooney museum in one of her old residences in Kentucky. It comes across mostly as an ad for the museum, but it does show some of the props and costumes from the movie, now residing at the museum.

The final new extra is a brief (four minutes) look at the Broadway and touring musical that was adapted from the movie. It’s actually almost too short. They talk about adding songs but don’t show them, and they don’t explain how the plot is different from the movie.

The other extras are from previous releases and include “Looking Back with Rosemary Clooney,” which was, hopefully, recorded before she died. She talks about all her co-stars and the production, and it’s a nice first-hand account of her memories. Not so nice is her commentary track. Putting her out to do a solo commentary with no one to prompt her or engage her in a discussion was a HUGE mistake. It’s one of the worst commentary tracks ever. Literally. She lets big gaps go by without saying anything, and when she does mention something its often “Oh, here they are” or “Ha ha ha, ohhhh, ha ha.” I mean, why not pair her with a film historian who could give her some direction or ask her questions?

Taken together, it’s a decent package. The Clooney commentary almost sinks the whole thing, but getting more than hour of new material will be enjoyable to the older fans among us who love hearing about the stars of yore. It’s not really worth an upgrade if your older copy is in good shape, but if you don’t have it and are a fan of musicals from the past, this is a pretty good purchase.