Friday, December 19, 2014

Bing and Danny Trim the Tree

We attended another Fantom Event - this time a screening of White Christmas (1954), starring Bing Crosby  and Danny Kaye, a film which certainly deserves a big screen viewing.  It's Christmas, 1944.  Captain Bob Wallis (Crosby) is saved from a falling building by Private Phil Davis (Kaye), a budding performer.  Reluctantly, Wallis consents to talk to Davis about a partnership after the war (Davis saved his life after all).  The partnership is a rousing success, with Wallis and Davis becoming major performers; Wallis even takes them into the producing arena - again, they strike gold.

Davis, however, would like a break.  Bob works 24/7 and expects Phil to do the same thing.  So, Phil decides it is time for Bob to marry - then maybe Phil will get a 45 minute break after the wedding.  So, when the pair meet the Haynes sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Julie (Vera-Ellen), Phil and Julie begin a conspiracy to unite Bob and Betty, so they can both get some time off.  At Phil's urging, Wallis and Davis follow the girls to a small ski-lodge in Vermont, only to discover it is run by their old commander Major-General Thomas F. Waverly (Dean Jagger).  Of course, the General has a problem - it hasn't snowed at all, and General Waverly is going broke.  So, the boys concoct a plan to bring their entire theatrical troupe to New England, and use the show to publicize the inn.

By 1954, the motion picture industry was seeing television as a huge threat, in a way that radio had never been.  This film is interesting in that it shows us a television broadcast (and our heroes using TV to spread the word about General Waverly's difficulties).  But what is also intriguing is that we (sitting in the dark, in a theatre, seeing the film on a huge screen) watch others watching a television.  So, on this large, gloriously colorful VistaVision screen, we watch folks crowded around a small, black and white television.  It makes for a fascinating - and pointed - contrast.
 
My husband was interested in some of the military details from the prologue to the film.  We're told that the army is waiting for a battle to begin in Monte Cassino at Christmas of 1944.  However, the battle of Monte Cassino took place was over by May of 1944, and Allied troops safely installed in Rome.  It is more likely that the big battle would have been The Battle of the Bulge (which was December 1944 through January 1945), but since that would have conjured up more of a sense of loss among the viewers, it seems likely the writers brought up the name of a more successful campaign.

The dance numbers are also something worth noting, and this TCM article gives a hint as to why.  Originally, Fred Astaire was to reprise his partnership with Bing Crosby.  However, Astaire was not thrilled with the script, so he bowed out of the production.  Donald O'Connor was quickly substituted, but he became very ill and had to leave the production.  Paramount turned to Danny Kaye (who requested a huge paycheck - and got it).  As a result, some of the dance numbers feature neither of the stars.  Crosby never was a dancer, and while Kaye could dance (his ballroom number with Vera-Ellen is quite good), he would not have been able to keep up with Vera-Ellen in a tap number, so dancer John Brascia (as Joe) filled in.  Also, we have George Chakiris in two numbers (a little bit of a goof here - we see him as part of the Wallis and Davis troupe, then we see him in New York dancing with Rosemary Clooney).  Take a look at the photo above.  Many a young lady saw that pose, and hearts went aflutter.  Chakiris noted (in the interview that accompanied the film) that he became quite marketable as a result of that quick glimpse.
Also on hand are Mary Wickes as housekeeper (and resident troublemaker) Emma Allen, and a brief look at Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer.  He's the brother of the Haynes sisters, and served in the military with Wallis and Davis, who refer to him as Bennie, the Dog-Faced Boy.  The photo, of course, is not very flattering!  But the film is really all about the stars, and while the script is merely an excuse for musical numbers, they are such good numbers - with such excellent performers - one really doesn't care.

Let's end with some musical numbers.  Above, are Ms. Clooney and Ms. Ellen performing the "Sisters" number, with Ms. Clooney singing both roles (Trudy Stevens sang the rest of Vera-Ellen's songs).  The men did a reprise of the number (below).  Mr. Crosby, it seems, was somewhat uncomfortable with the performance, so Mr. Kaye began hitting him with his fan.  Crosby broke up and director Michael Curtiz kept in the impromptu performance.  It's great!  In fact, they both are, so treat yourself by taking a look.