Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Cheap-Arse Film Review #12- "WHITE CHRISTMAS." (4 WEEKS OF CHRISTMAS: WEEK 4)









PRICE: £1.00

This review isn't late, I just thought it'd be more appropriate to hold it off until Christmas Day. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

First, to get it out of the way- yes, I've changed the page design. I'd been contacted by a few regular readers (God, how my ego loves being able to write that...) who had expressed a problem with viewing the page the way it was previously. For some of them it was simply that white text on a black background gave them a headache, and for others it was actually causing problems with their browsers, for whatever reason. So I decided that, rather than put off people who clearly wanted to be here, I may as well give another template a go. I was never really married to the old design anyway. When I first set this up, it was more a case of thinking, "Yeah, that's alright," and starting to write. But after a while I noticed it looked a bit, well... Emo. So I probably would have ended up changing it anyway, this just made me pull the trigger faster.

Now, with that out of the way, I'd like to open this review by talking about two things I love, but society, or at least most of the people around me, think I shouldn't, that being Christmas and musicals. I love Christmas. Admittedly, I don't love the lead up to Christmas. I don't see how anyone could love that, not without having something genuinely wrong with them. But I love the day, I love the gift giving (mostly the recieving if I'm totally honest), the food, the telly (good or bad, because even if it's bad you can bond with the family by moaning about it together), having an excuse to see friends and family you don't really see that often. All of it. And that really does seem to bother some people I know. One friend in particular who really hates this time of year, and who doesn't need much prompting to go off on a rant about how it's just another day and how anybody who does enjoy it is a moron, always shoots me a very distinctive look whenever I'd try to say something positive. For the longest time I couldn't figure out what that look meant, but recently I figured it out- he's looking at me with pity.

Yes, I'll conceed that alot of what comes with Christmas is crass and exploitative. And yes, there's a case to be made for all those people you don't see very often not really liking you all that much and only doing it out of some kind of obligation they feel. But speaking for myself and myself alone, I stagger through life pointing and sniggering behind the back of all existance, and it just feel nice to have one day a year off from all that, to just let out a deep breathe, go "AHHHHHHH," and allow myself to just get lost a bit in the happiness of people around me. It helps that almost everyone in my family also loves Christmas, on a level above even me. How much do they love it? The air freshener in my toilet is currently "Mulled Wine," scented.

Think I'm joking?

Smells quite nice, too.

As for musicals, I suppose I don't have to go into too much detail about why I wouldn't shout about loving them from the rooftops. Basically, I live in a part of the world that has a very, shall we say, basic grasp on the concept of masculinity. Case in point, in 1997, an British movie came out called "The Full Monty." If you're not from the UK, there's still a very good chance you've heard of it as it was one of those movies that managed to cross social and cultural boundries and become at least a minor hit in several other territories. However, in case you haven't, the plot is essentially six out-of-work steel workers from Sheffield decide to become strippers. Along the way there are twists, turns, tears, laughs. In all honesty it's quite a formulaic and shamelessly manipulative movie, but it had a big heart, a fantastic cast and a great soundtrack that somehow managed to make both Tom Jones and Hot Chocolate relevant again, however briefly. I was 15 at the time of it's release, and I really wanted to see it. However, I kept putting off doing so. Why? Because the people I went to school with, mostly the boys, but some girls too, had decided that all this film was about was six men getting their cocks out, and if you wanted to go and see it, you must like looking at other men's cocks, therefore you had to die. Simple as that. It's difficult to describe now, but at the time I was legitimately afraid to go and see it, for fear that word would get back to the wrong people and something bad would happen to me. And I know what you're thinking, you're thinking something about being you're own man, not bowing to peer pressure, standing up for what you believe in, blah blah blah. These are the thoughts of people who have clearly forgotten what it was like to be 15, and how utterly soul-destroying it can be to feel outside the pack, especially when you're already are little bit and are scrambling desperately for a way in.

And anyway, I'm talking about it, so I obviously went to see it eventually, didn't I? I went with my Dad, we both laughed and agreed it was a good film. And then I didn't tell a soul I'd seen it, and even denied seeing it when asked if I had for fear of falling into some sort of trap, until I was 18. THREE YEARS! Three years it took me to think the coast might be clear on that one, and maybe we'd all grown up enough to not be so bloody judgmental and small-minded. And you know what? Some people still gave me a funny look! As if to say, "Well, that explains a few things..."

What can I say, other than "Welcome to Romford?"

No sooner had I put the disc in my player and selectrd a language than I'm informed over the Paramount logo that this is the first movie presented in "VistaVision." I have no idea what that is. I hope to God Windows isn't involved, because I would like this disc to work properly, and not ask me things like, "Are you sure you want to stop the movie?" or "Are you absolutely positive you want to pause things here?" After the opening credits sequence, we are told that it is Christmas Eve in the year 1944, and we see a song-and-dance show being performed and watched by soldiers amongst the ruins on a city, as explosions in the distance light up the sky like lightening. Straight away it's quite an arresting contrast that pulled me in, on account that it wasn't what I was expecting. I was expecting things to be all happy-go-lucky and jolly straight from the get-go, but instead we ge something (comparatively) a bit darker. And this mood remains when Bing Crosby takes the stage, playing Bob Wallace, and performs a stark, somber version of the title song. It's been said before by men much more knowledgable about these sorts of things than me, but despite whatever failings he may have had as a human being, Bing Crosby had a fucking amazing voice. I'm tempted to use a tired cliche and say it sounds like silk, but I don't think that's good enough. He very much had a man's voice, it managed to sound like it had a bit of boom to it even when he was practically whispering, but when it comes time to do duets later in the movie, he's doesn't overpower his partner. He's very giving with his talents.

Wallace finishes the song, then starts to say a few nice words about his regiment's Major General, Thomas F. Waverly (Dean Jagger), who suddenly appears on stage to hold a field inspection before telling all his boys, in his own way, how proud he is of them, and how much he'll miss them. They respond to this by singing a rousing rendition of "The Old Man," in unison (a song that's much more heartfelt than the title implies, I feel like mentioning), pausing when enemy planes drop bombs overhead, and then scattering to defend themselves when those bombs actually start hitting the base. As you can tell, all of this is actually quite grown up, which wasn't unusual for musicals of that time. They were mostly family pictures, there's no denying that, but they were family in the sense that there was something in them for everybody and they were allowed to invoke a wide range of emotions. It's only in fairly recent times thanks to Disney's adoption of the genre that it's come to be associated with children.

In the attack that follows, Wallace is nearly killed by a falling wall, only just being saved at the last moment when another soldier, Phil Davis, pulls him out of harm's way, injuring his own arm in the process. In the medical tent not long after the attack, Wallace tells Davis that he owes him his life, and that if he ever wants anything, all he has to do is ask. Does Davis want something? Why of course he does- he's written a song that he would like Wallace, who it's been established is something of a mnor celebrity in the world of music outside the army, to perform. Not only that, but it's a duet, and he'd like to become Wallace's partner, which, after some resistance and alot of arm-based guilt-tripping, Wallace agrees to. This all feels fairly convenient if I'm totally honest, even for a movie. He even has the song on him, tucked inside his uniform. Were this film to be remade today, there's prbably be a twist ending that revealed that Davis actually set the whole this up in order to convince Wallace they should team up. It would probably be some morality tale about people's desire for fame at all costs, and in the end Davis would be left on stage alone when his partner abandons him, a broken man. Directed by the bloke who did, "Step Up." Starring Justin Timberlake Chris Brown.

Davis is played by Danny Kaye, who was the third choice for the role after Fred Astaire passed on the script and Donald O'Conner couldn't perform due to illness. Now, there's not really that much shame in being someone's second choice. My entire dating philosophy is built around this belief. But knowing you weren't even that, I could see that playing on somebody's mind. If it plays on Kaye's mind at any point though, you can't tell, because he enters a spirited performance. He has good chemistry with Crosby, their voices compliment each other, and he shines during the moments he's allowed to take the spotlight on his own, especially when dancing. Sure, part of me wonders what Fred Astaire would have brought to the role, but to be honest with you, he's not missed all that much.

So anyway, they go on the road, and their act is a massive hit, so massive they eventually become producers and put on their own stage musical that runs for two years. It's after one of the performances however that we begin to see that the relationship between the two has become slightly strained. Davis attempts to set Wallace up with a dancing girl, which angers him. He says that Davis has been trying to hook him up with women for months, and he doesn't understand why it's that important to him. What an ungreatful prick. I would kill, kill, to have a friend whose mission in life it seemed to be to get me laid. I think most of the guys reading this right now would, too. Davis could be my mate any day of the week, I'd love him like a brother. He isn't just trying to pimp out his friend though, he has his reasons, one decent (he believes Wallace is either miserable, or "happy for the wrong reasons," and meeting a girl will bring him out of his funk), one selfish (he'd like Wallace to meet someone so he'll have something to do other than work, which will actually give Davis a little time off, even as little as 45 minutes). It's a scattershot, fast-paced dialogue-heavy scene, and both men manage to keep the energy up right until Wallace sadly admits that there might be some truth to what his friend is saying, but the sad truth is most of the women you meet in their line of work aren't the kind you start relationships with. Hmmm, I wonder if he'll meet a nice woman who appears just that little bit too young for him who also works in showbusiness who is the kind of girl you start a relationship with...

They the travel to a local club to audition an act, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy(Vera-Ellen), The Haynes Sisters, to come on the road with them after recieving a letter from their brother, the absolutely brilliantly named, "Freckle-Faced Haynes, The Dog-Faced Boy," asking them to. It turns out both Wallace and Davis served with this man in the army and are doing it as a favour to him, even though they don't believe any of his siblings could be attractive enough to be worth bothering with (YAY causal fifties sexism!). As it turns out, not only are they attractive, but Wallace, whilst watching them perform their trademark number, "Sisters," finds himself instantly smitten with Betty. I don't blame him at all either, she really was a striking looking woman in her youth, with big animated eyes and a pinball smile that lit up her whole face. She's talented too, a decent actress and dancer with a very good voice. Infact, she's so luminous that her co-star, Vera-Ellen, suffers when being compared to her. Unlike he fresh-faced on-screen sister, she photographs quite old, which is strange because I think her character is supposed to be the younger of the two. I was also going to complain that she doesn't do any of her own singing (Trudy Stevens and Rosemary Clooney herself provide the singing parts), but in all honesty her character doesn't really sing that much, instead focusing on the dancing side of things, where she more than holds up her end of the deal, especially when she and Davis dance together to, appropriately, "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing."

With both men impressed with what they've seen and Wallace already in love, they agree to meet the sisters after their act. Seeing that Wallace is clearly into Betty, he conspires to get them alone together, asking Judy to dance and kicking off the previously-mentioned number. However, the second they're alone, Betty can't help herself and tells Wallace that her brother hadn't sent the letter that brough he and Davis there, but instead it had been her sister's doing. Rather than be angry about it however, Wallace finds this to be slightly amusing, as it confirms his belief that all people are constantly working angles, that "everybody's got a little larceny in them," which actually manages to piss Betty off, as she tells him that's a terrible thing to think about people. Personally I would have just been happy that he's not more annoyed, as I think he'd be perfectly within his rights to be, what with the brotherhood he shared with the other men in his regiment being so shamelessly exploited. They go on like this for a while (as their two counterparts comment on how well they seem to be getting along), before deciding that, since they chances of them meting again are quite remote since they're both leaving town tomorrow, there's no point in continuing this argument. They then toast and smle at each oother in a manner that's far too cosy for to people who just had such an intense disagreement.

After Davis and Judy have finished dancing, Betty comes to collect her sister so they can do thier final performance, only to be informed by one of the club's waiters that the Sheriff's in the manager's office with a warrant for their arrest, due to the fact that their landlord is trying to scam them out of money. Davis, who had been told by Judy that the pair had planned to go to Vermont for the month to spend the holidays in the snow and was now seeing whatever chance he had of pairing off his partner going up in smoke, decides to help them out. There's some wonderfully funny dialogue in this scene, the best being Davis' response to what he would get out of helping them- "45 minutes all to myself." His plan is also superb in it's own way- sneak the girls out with his train tickets, and he and Wallace drag up and perform the girl's number, miming over a record of them singing and doing their full routine. Well, I say "drag up," but that aspect is very lackluster. The best they manage is some shorts and some tiara-looking things. I was going to suggest that maybe that was as far as you could push that particular angle in mainstream American movies in the 50s, but then I remembered "Some Like it Hot," came out in 1959 (although, to be fair, that movie was lightyears ahead of it's time in almost every way). It's still an amusing scene though, due to the fact that two grown men more than old enough to know better swanning about with feathery fans can't not be funny on some very base level. After that, they get on their train, with Davis convincing Wallace to buy two tickets to Vermont instead of where they wanted to go originally. Wallace eventually discovers he's been duped by his partner into going where the Haynes sisters are heading, and after initially being miffed about it, they all meet up in the club car, and suddenly all is forgiven. They then sing a song about snow, entitled, imaginatively, "Snow," where they take turns singing about how much they're looking forward to reaching their destination and seeing all the (have you guessed yet?) snow. In my opinion this is the worst song in the film. It goes nowhere, and it goes on forever. I also refuse to buy that four grown human beings could get that excited about snow. Sadly, the truth is, when you grow up, snow is no longer something you get excited about. Snow is nothing but an inconvenience. And, inconveniently, after all that singing, they get to Vermont and are greeted by... no snow. It's apparently unseasonably warn (hello, Al Gore). So what do they do? Start singing about snow again! It's not here, folks. Get over it.

They arrive at the local lodge, only to discover that it's owned by Thomas Waverly, the guy's old regiment leader, now retired (although he still rides around in a jeep, seemingly for the louls). The girls had expected to perform there as the floor show, but found out the second they arrived that their show had been cancelled, and that the lodge itself was on the verge of going out of business due to lack of custom, due to lack of... do I really have to say it? I don't want them to start singing about it again. Wanting to do good by their old chief, Wallace and Davis decide to try and save the lodge by bringing their entire stage show there, all the sets and performers included, to open on Christmas Eve. I don't know how they'd fit an entire broadway production into a hotel floor show, but just go with it. They convince Waverly it's a good idea, inbetween him throwing out some wonderfully-gruff yet good-natured putdowns, and suddenly we're off into rehersals!

The first big performance is heralded by a black chalkboard with the name of the number they're about to run through on it. On of those words, though, is a word that can make the the stomach of even the most vaguely liberal person in the room fall into their big toe.

That word is, "Minstral."

Thankfully though, it's not that kind of Minstral show. I kept looking to see if any of the background dancers were in black-face, but I don't think they were. All it is, is a crisp song-and-dance number with some comedy thrown in, performed by women in flowing dresses and men in ludicrous tuxes. I guess the lack of the words "Black & White," does away with all that. Everyone shines here, Crosby and Kaye seem to be have the time of their lives, Vera-Ellen does some great dancing, and Clooney seems to be having a ball getting throwing down and trading sung quips with the boys, and also looks drop-dead gorgeous.

Inbetween other rehersal-based performances, there's some main-and-sub-plot action going on. The romance between Betty and Wallace continues to heat up whilst they bond over working together, to the point where they actually kiss.For some reason I was suprised when they kissed each other.Most modern films make a big deal aboutt kissing and try to make it this big, climactic thing. But here, even though it's interrupted, it's treated as what it actually is in most cases, that being the start of something, rather than the goal. ALso in that scene, Wallace and Betty perform "Count your Blessings Instead of Sheep," the ballad that got this film it's lone Oscar nomination for Best Song. The fact that, of all the songs in this film, this was the one the Academy liked really perplexed me. I mean, it's not a bad song, don't get me wrong, but it's a very slight one, very much in the shadow of some of it's more robust, showstopping siblings. The only thing I can think of is, since this is a Jukebox Musical, this may have been the only song in the film written specifically for it.

Also, we find out that Waverly, missing the Army, has sent a letter to a friend of his there with some pull, looking to see if he could have him called back up. He recieves a reply that Wallace reads to im, in which his friend gently breaks to him that his survices will not be required any time soon. I've really not talked enough about Dean Jagger's performance as Waverly. As previously stated, he's excellent when verbally cutting Wallace and Davis down to size, but here he shows another side of he character- he's too strong to show how disappointed he is at being turned down, but you can see it all over his face. He's a strong-man trying desperately to hide the fact that his heart is broken and he feels like he's been forgotten, and he does it masterfully. Wallace, wanting Waverly to know that he's still appreciated, decides to try and get as many of the surviving members of their regiment together for the opening night, by putting out an appeal on the Ed Harris show. This is where the conflict in the relationship plot is amped up, when the lodge's busybody housekeeper listens in on that call at just the moment when the person on the other end of the line suggests they comedown and film the show to be broadcast live, thus gaining Wallace and Davis a boatload of free publicity, and just so happens to ang up before Wallace sets the guy straight. She then tells Betty about it, who, convinced the boys are just working and angle and only helping their old friend for selfish reasons, decides she no longer wants to be in the show.

Now, y'see, I've said this before in other reviews, but films keep coming back to this, so I suppose I'm going to have to keep addressing it- maybe it's me, but even if that was the case, even if he was going to have the show broadcast from the lodge, I don't see why that's something to get so angry about. They'd still be doing a good thing, putting on a show that'll hopefully pack out their old friend's place of business with paying customers. Would getting a little something for yorself out of the barguin invalidate that? I honestly don't think so. It's just this weird morality thing that crops up all over the place that states that all acts of kindness have to be selfless, and I don't buy into it. An act of kindness is still an act of kindness, whether you're alone when it happens or in a crowded room. Just my two pennies worth.

Anyway, off my soapbox and back to the movie. Seeing the aftermath of the seeming lover's tiff between Betty and Wallace, Judy telly Davis she believes the reason Betty's suddenly gone cold is because she's dedicated her life to looking after her sister and wouldn't want to settle down with anybody until she was setled down, too. This leads her, in a rather predatory manner, to try and convince Davis to pretend they're engaged, so she wouldn't feel obligated to be alone anymore. Danny Kaye is hilarious in this scene. It's obvious through the whole movie that he has a real gift for comedy, but this scene may be his tour de force, as he tries to weasel his way out of having to do this, the thought of even pretending to be engaged to someone almost paralysing him with fear, describing himself as, "... not the marrying kind... I'm not the engaging kind either... I'm more the, "I don't mind pushing my best friend into it, but I'm scared stiff when I get anywhere close to it myself"-ing kind." However, when reminded that they'djust be ding it for their friend/sister, and obviously thinking about that mythical 45 minutes alone, he agrees to it, although he wants no public annoncement and no kissing, uless it's absolutely necessary.

The nex scene is the per-show party for the cast and crew, and when it becomes obvious that Betty and Wallace are still having problems, Judy talks Davis into reluctantly announcing they're engaged. Judy congratulates them, andlater that night Judy not-so-subtly starts mentioning that, now she's engaged, she doesn't ave to feel responsible for her anymore, and she can do whatever she wants. Betty takes this as permission to, literally, fuck off, leaving the lodge, and causing the show to be one performer down. Davis and Judy come clean about their sceme, and about ho they're sure they accidently drove her away, and so Wallace heads to New York, where Betty's gone, to try and bring her back. When there, he sees her in her new stage show, performing a very pointed song called, "Love, You Didn't do Right by Me." It's another great song, and Jesus Christ does Clooney look smoking performing it, all white gloves and purple satin dress. This woman was amazing. I think I'm developing a crush on a dead person. Wallace trys to convince her to come back, and he seems to be making some headway, until they're interrupted by somebody informing Wallace that his cab to the Ed Harris Show has arrived, and Betty, getting the wrong end of the stick again, goes cold. Thankfully the truth is finally revealed when when she sees his appeal to the other soldiers of his regiment, and returns to the lodge just in time to perform.

Waverly, who's been tricked into wearing his own uniform, shows up at the barn to be greeted by his old men, standing to attention andonce again performing "The Old Man," as he tears up. It's a shamlessly sappy moment, but the look on Jagger's face is so heartbreakingly real that you can't help but be slightly moved by it. He then gives them one last dressing down, before declaring, "I've never seen anything look so wonderful in my whole life." It really is... lovely. There's no other word for it. Lovely. The show goes off without a hitch, it finally snows, the two couples declare their love for each other, we get one more rendition on "White Christmas," and that's all she wrote.

As musicals go, this was a very good one. Not the best I've ever seen, but it has alot going for it.Most of the performances are quality, the script is loaded full of great lines, it's beautifully shot and most of the songs are at the very least hummable. It has flaws though, two in particular that stand out above the rest. Firstly, it's a bit too long, five minutes under two hours, and this was from a time when films didn't really have closing credits, so this is 115 minutes of almost wall-to-wall story. I don't really know if that was the normal running time for musicals of that era, but I can't help but think it must have been something of an epic for it's time. And when I say it's too long, I don't mean they should be hacking out whole chunks of narrative. 15 minutes would have been fine, and honestly there were a few things here that sem a little indulgant and could have been cut. Towards the end there are a couple of numbers that just don't advance the plot in any way shape or form, particulary the "Choreography," number. It's actually a vert clever piece, in that's it's Irving Berlin's pointed critique of modern dance, and his fear that it would lead to the death of the old-time song-and-dance performer. I can see the point he's trying to get across (even if I'm not sure I agree with it), and everybody involved seems to be having a blast, especially Danny Kaye. But it just feels so tacked on, and at odds with the message of the rest of the movie. It's like the people involved in making this had a message they wanted to articulate, and the almost didn't care what movie they said it in.

The second complaint is bigger. Infact, it could make or break what I do with this film. Some of you may have noticed it already reading this review. If you have, well done, I didn't until I was about an hour into my first viewing. The fact is, this movie doesn't really have much to do with, you know...

... Christmas.

I mean, yes, it starts on Christmas Eve, it ends there, and it's bookended by performances of the title song, but that doesn't really make it a Christmas movie. Most of the way through, it's just your typical musical love story. Christmas is barely even mentioned. Infact, I'm convinced you could have eliminated the all references to this holiday altogether, and it would have had no effect at all on the quality of the end product. It's very misleading, to the point where I'm convinced it wasn't originally going to be a Christmas film at all, but was made so just for marketing reasons.

I would bin a comedy for not being funny. I have binned a horror movie for not being scary (amongst other things...). By that logic, I should bin a Christmas movie for having almost nothing to do with Christmas. Can I? Can I actually do that?



No, I can't. Because this movie works on two levels- as a Christmas film, it's pretty much an utter failure. However, as a musical, it's nothing but a complete success. And it's that superiority in one area that allows it to rise above it's faults in the other, in my opinion. so there was have it. My little Christmas present to myself.

Until next week, I'm The Cheap-Arse Film Critic, and Mery Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


jeffrey said...

This one still gets air time on TV (atleast in the US). It manages to squeeze itself between airings of A Christmas Story, Home Alone, Die Hard, Scrooged etc. I have to absolutely agree with you that it totally fails as a "Christmas" movie but is interesting enough as a "musical" entertainment/variety type musical.

Btw, my eyes thank you for the new page format (easier to read).

The Cheap-Arse Film Critic said...

I honestly don't know how I stuck with the old format as long as I did. This one is so much better it's not even funny.

The Lam said...

I like the Christmas get-up you gave Marv. A real nice touch!

The Cheap-Arse Film Critic said...

I was hoping someone would notice that. He looks so charming in that get-up, I may leave him like that for a while. Either that, or I'll dres him up occasionally to fit the theme of the movie I'm reviewing.