Reviewed by Robin Breon
The guilty pleasure of watching Irving Berlin's White Christmas during the holiday season is something that resonates deep within. For purposes of nostalgia, the 1954 film is situated in that post war period that saw films, plays and books like The Best Years of Our Lives, No Time for Sergeants, Catch-22, the Sunday funnies with Beetle Bailey and the Reader's Digest "Humor in Uniform" column that captured the collective experiences of all those who served in the military during the Second World War.
Here is why the film works.
We love the duo of Captain Bob Wallace (played by Bing Crosbie) as the suave and successful Broadway entertainer coupled with the frenetic Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) -- who aspires to be an entertainer. They find themselves in a forward area somewhere in Europe, under fire and hoofing it for the troops on a makeshift stage as bombs go off overhead while people generally duck for cover. As walls come tumbling down, Davis saves Wallace's life while injuring his arm (this injury becomes Danny Kaye's running gag throughout the story -- always throwing sympathy toward himself when necessary). We recognize the gruff Patonlike Major General Thomas F. Waverly who arrives at the end of the entertainment and announces that he has been relieved of his command and will return stateside. As he thanks the men under his command for their bravery, sacrifice and commitment to the cause we understand that it is the highest moment of his life. Sure enough, when next we meet General Waverly he has made an unsuccessful conversion to civilian life by becoming a Vermont innkeeper during a no snow holiday season.
We also fall in love with Judy and Betty Haynes, the sexy sister act played by Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney. They attract the attention of Bob and Phil who follow them to Vermont where the girls have a money losing gig at the General's inn. Through a clever misdirection of information facilitated by the General's housekeeper, the girls think that Bob Wallace is out to exploit the old man while he is really planning his financial rescue by appearing on national television and inviting all the old vets of the 151st Division to muster up in Vermont and participate in one last benefit performance as their final mission and tribute to the General who led them through the darkest hours of the war. The great disappointment and despair that General Waverly feels when the War Department turns down his request to rejoin the military is soon displaced by the emotional uplift he (and we) feel as the men (straining to fit into their old uniforms) march into the hall singing "We'll follow the old man wherever he wants to go...". In helping out the old man they (and we) are reminded that collectively we can work toward the greater good and that loyalty, friendship, and charity are virtues that will trump careerism, monetary gain and personal ambition any day of the week.
And throughout all of this is the wonderful music of Irving Berlin. Rosemary Clooney's underplayed, sultry rendering of Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me; Bing's Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep; Danny Kaye's hipster rendition of Chore-OG-raphy (staged by an uncredited Bob Fosse); and of course the heart rendering White Christmas. And look -- it's snowing outside! Pass the box of Kleenex, please.
And now here is why the stage version doesn't work.
In the revised book by David Ives and Paul Blake, Bob and Phil may be played by two actors (Graham Rowat and Tony Yazbeck) but their characters have been conflated into one. They can't be both cool, suave professional entertainers. Gone entirely is the hyper emotional shenanigans that Danny Kaye brought to his role along with that wonderful homoerotic subtext that was his attraction to Bob (oh come on now, don't raise your eyebrow at me -- we all knew!). The invention of a new character in the form of a screaming, gay stage manager just does not suffice. And the revised opening now has Wallace and Davis performing their act in a canteen that seems to be somewhere deep within the cloistered safety of the Green Zone. Herein rests the problem with this deracinated project. It wasn't because of a lack of funds that Anna Louizos’ sumptuous sets didn't open with a flare lit night sky that sees two entertainers on a postage stamp stage risking their lives in the middle of a full fledged battle; it was a lack of artistic understanding of what made the film great.
Although all of Irving Berlin's wonderful music remains in tact and is performed skillfully by a talented cast, the heart and soul of the thing just is not there. And some of the subtleties have also been lost. Kate Baldwin (as Betty Haynes) certainly acts, sings and dances well enough but her rendition of Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me is staged as a belter. Perhaps the thinking was that it must compete with some of the other brassier numbers in the show (I'm thinking of great work from Kate Hennig here as the General's housekeeper, Martha Watson) in order to rank on the applause meter. And then, to top it all off, General Waverly (Barry Flatman announces that he has just received word -- not from the War Department -- but from President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself -- that his application to rejoin the military has been ACCEPTED and he is to report to Washington D.C. at once! So then, if I may ask -- what the hell was the point of this whole thing?