Although Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" deserves its place among the pantheon of Christmas movies, this comparative confection from 1954 still deserves special mention. Granted the plot, what there is of one, is rather thin, it is splashy good fun directed by the dependably versatile Michael Curtiz with several Irving Berlin standards and four superb variety performers in their prime. As much as Capra's film is an annual tradition, it is really this film that I look forward to the most of all the holiday classics.
The storyline focuses on two former soldiers, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, both song-and-dance men who become best friends when Davis saves Wallace from a falling building during WWII. After years of post-war success on Broadway and the nightclub circuit, they become reconnected with their gruff but lovable former army commander, General Waverly. The general now owns a Vermont ski lodge, but he is treading water financially since there is no snow as Christmas approaches. As it turns out, the Haynes sisters, Betty and Judy, are playing the lodge during the holidays, and of course, romantic entanglements ensue all the way through the big finale when all four star in a show that they hope will save the general's lodge.
All of this seems rather incidental to the musical numbers showcased in the then-revolutionary widescreen process called VistaVision. The most relaxed of actors during this era, Bing Crosby plays Wallace with his natural élan, and he croons the classic title tune early on and leads the group sing of the same song at the end. In contrast, Danny Kaye plays Davis with his mercurial style intact, though compared to his other films of the period, he is relatively subdued here. With her smoky, silken vocal skills on display, Rosemary Clooney plays Betty, Wallace's love interest, with aplomb and complements Crosby easily on "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)". She also delivers a nice torchy Berlin tune with "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me" despite some silly man-choreography.
I have to say the most impressive performer of the quartet is Vera-Ellen, a phenomenal dancer who was the equal of Astaire and Kelly at her peak. She makes even Kaye look good in their musical duets - "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" and the amusing Martha Graham riff, "Choreography". However, her best numbers are with dancer John Brascia - the elaborate "Mandy" number where her pliable, slender frame seems to be everywhere on the screen, and the brief rehearsal number, "Abraham", where she and Brascia snap, pop, clap, kick and swing with unerring military precision. It's worth noting that her singing is dubbed by vocalist Trudy Stevens, which is pointed out by Clooney on the less-than-informative audio commentary track in the DVD package. Much better is the 16-minute retrospective interview with Clooney where her natural sense of humor emerges.
There are other numbers worth mentioning in the movie - the duet, "Sisters", done first straight by the women and later by the men as a comedy routine in half-drag (Kaye steals this bit handily with his over-the-top clowning); the foursome on the vintage Berlin "Snow" and "Gee, I Wish I was Back in the Army"; and of course, the title tune at the end. Way over on the sidelines, Dean Jagger lends his warm dignity to the role of the retired general, and Mary Wickes plays Emma the housekeeper in her typically sarcastic manner. Special mention needs to be given to Loyal Griggs's vibrant Technicolor cinematography, which makes the entire movie look appropriately like a bright red candy box, and the print transfer in the DVD almost fully captures the original visual quality. This is undemanding entertainment and a dependable holiday classic that feels like a favorite well-worn blanket.