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Just in time for Christmas, it’s White Christmas. The Starz Filmcenter is showing a restored 35mm print for one week only.

How come you’ve never seen White Christmas when you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life four times? Well, White Christmas isn’t the holiday classic you might think. It’s a slightly racy studio musical from 1954.

A Backstage Musical

Not the movie you might expect, if you only know the title
Not the movie you might expect, if you only know the title

Bing Crosby stars as Bob Wallace, a Broadway singer who is joined by his old army buddy Phil (Danny Kaye). They travel to Florida one December to catch a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) they might use for their show. Phil spends a lot of time trying to hook up Bob with one of the sisters. (This year’s Sideways shares the same excuse for a plot — a guy goes off looking for two girls — one for him, one for his reluctant buddy who, one can say in 2004 but not 1954, needs to get laid.)

The boys had intended to return to New York, but the girls are going to Vermont for a Christmas gig, and Phil convinces Bob to join the girls in Vermont, which is experiencing unseasonable weather this year.

They find their old army general running the ski lodge in Vermont where the girls are to perform. Because of the weather, tourists are staying away in droves. If our heroes can’t think of a way to draw people to the lodge, their favorite general might lose his livelihood. Luckily, Bob and Phil just happen to be big Broadway performers. Et voila, we have a backstage musical.

Eyes, Legs, and Skin Color

Even though the movie isn’t as memorable or moving as other holiday classics, there are plenty of reasons to see it (not the least of which are Vera-Ellen’s legs).

The color is gorgeous. It was filmed in Technicolor and “VistaVision” — Paramount’s widescreen filming process that results in a negative twice as big as CinemaScope, giving the image finer detail and richer colors. Bing Crosby’s Technicolor blue eyes pop off the screen, looking beautifully unnatural.

Many of the dance numbers are surprisingly good for a movie not known as a great or important musical. Fred Astaire was invited to play Kaye’s role — he and Vera-Ellen danced together in 1950’s Three Little Words — but he turned it down. Instead, Vera-Ellen dances with (and around) Kaye, giving the movie its most kinetic moments.

The movie even offers a fascinating bit of cultural baggage. One of the musical numbers in White Christmas is a “minstrel show” number — a show by white people performing in blackface. In 1954, apparently there was just enough race sensitivity to keep them from doing the number in blackface (thank goodness), but not enough to keep them from doing the number. There is a big backdrop of two red-gloved hands playing a banjo — it looks as though the Sambo face had just recently been taken down. The cast dons green jackets and red gloves and the same goofy, broad gestures you’d see if they were in blackface. It’s a weak defense of a racially insensitive form of entertainment — as though they’re saying “we don’t just parody blacks, we also parody people who are green and red.”

Amber Time Capsule

If not for the lasting popularity of Bing Crosby’s voice singing White Christmas, this movie would have been forgotten to all but the most loyal fans of Turner Classic Movies. Instead Fate chose this average piece of eye candy for posterity. (That it was Paramount’s first film in VistaVision gives it another claim to fame.) It’s like the fly preserved in amber. There was nothing special about the fly that it deserves to be remembered today. It’s just happened to be in the right time at the right place at the right time. There were dozens of other films from the early 1950s no better and no worse than White Christmas. But if you can only see one of them on a big screen, it may as well be this one.