Judge Bill Gibron didn't think asking Santa for a white Christmas would result in a holiday special as plain vanilla as this one.
I'm dreaming of a…better Christmas DVD.
There are some names that are synonymous with certain occasions; none more so than during the Christmas holiday season. When you think of undeniable images and sounds surrounding the yearly Saturnalia, the merest mention of these individuals provides near-instantaneous recall: Nat King Cole mellowing his way through "The Christmas Song"; Elvis working his wounded, wicked magic with "Blue Christmas"; modern musicians like XTC singing their "should be a standard" celebrations like "Thanks for Christmas," or Glen Campbell's unsurpassable and moving "Little Altar Boy."
But for most, there is only one song and one singer that sums up the holiday season. Composed by Irving Berlin for a movie entitled Holiday Inn, that film's star was the first to introduce this amazing musical moment to the world, and it soon became the most popular record of all time (only recently surpassed by Elton John's Princess Diana tribute, "Candle in the Wind '98"). So it would seem like a no-brainer to feature a certain Bing in a tribute to Tannenbaum-trimming and bell-jingling. And for years, Crosby was a staple of the Jesus B-Day bash. Sadly, Christmas with Crosby and Kate is not an example of said wonderful wassailing.
Not really a Christmas special, per se, but an episode of that Ed Sullivan wannabe The Hollywood Palace (if those last two concepts are completely foreign to you, maybe you should stop reading right now) themed around the holidays, Christmas with Crosby and Kate is a disappointment from beginning to end. Advertising a compendium of acts as diverse as performing dogs, traditional Russian dancers, a high wire artist, and an appearance by some strange-looking puppets, this is the very definition of the variety platform. Topping the bill is that stalwart popular crooner Mr. Crosby and his vocalizing costar, Ms. "God Bless America" herself, Kate Smith. The fact that we don't hear that classic alternative anthem, or that Bing saves the standard "White Christmas" for a half-assed, pre-closing credits breeze-through indicates the amount of Yuletide fun you'll get from this "special." If you don't mind the atonal caterwauling of a famous singer's offspring, or some incredibly underwhelming caroling, then you may actually enjoy this excursion into mediocrity. But anyone looking for a fine first Noel should, perhaps, dig a little deeper into the universal DVD catalog.
In staying with its premise of presenting more than just decked halls and boughs of holly, Christmas with Crosby and Kate is more about its varying vaudeville acts than its O Holy Nighting. Indeed, if you removed the segments with Crosby and Smith, you'd have very little idea that this was a holiday episode of Palace. Originally presented on Christmas Eve, you can feel the lack of enthusiasm everyone had for having to work on said celebration. Bing—whom many consider a staple of the season, along with fruitcake, eggnog, and credit card debt—seems especially listless, blowing lyrics (or stumbling through some hastily scribbled "alternative" versions) and seemingly bored with his own singing. Smith belts out some crappy wannabe seasonal standard and then uncomfortably joins her host in bland, basic renditions of hoary old standbys. Similarly, when Crosby brings out his clan, they also treat us to a massacre of merriment as the "shouldn't be allowed to sing in public" kiddies bleat and belch like wounded goats.
The other acts have an equally run-of-the-mill quality. Bob Newhart, once considered the cutting edge of stand-up brilliance, proves that time can reconfigure even the most steadfast legend, while movie musical mainstay Cyd Charisse does an interpretative dance about the death of a marionette (how cheery!). Some tightrope walker (who is introduced as having just recovered from a near-fatal fall) shows why he took that previous plunge as he bumbles along the wobbly wire, and the pack of prancing pooches do everything possible to prove PETA right. Only the crazy Cossack dancers, doing their best Ukrainian Highland fling, impress with their talent. Out of 46 minutes of mediocrity, one four-minute performance cannot save this show (by the way, our promised puppets never make an appearance—dammit!), and if you think you'll be trimming your tree with retro revelry thanks to this DVD, you're not just away in a manger, you're out of your mind. Christmas with Crosby and Kate is about as welcome a holiday gift as a stocking full of coal. Someone may find it fascinating, but others will view it as dress pants instead of slot cars on Xmas a.m.
As if to make up for the fallacy of festiveness that was supposed to be part of Crosby and Smith's showcase, Passport Video provides us with a bonus of sorts. Presented as part of the Chrysler Shower of Stars, we get a 1954 version of that immortal holiday haunt, A Christmas Carol. Starring Fredric March as Scrooge and Basil Rathbone as Marley's ghost, the famous Hollywood faces, and the British author they are channeling, have all seen better days. This adaptation of the miserable old miser who finally learns the true meaning of giving is pretty much of a botched job, from the incredibly bad plotting (Scrooge basically has his change of heart halfway through his second spectral visit) to the inclusion of incredibly bland songs (though penned by renowned composer Bernard Herrmann, these so-called seasonal standards are dour, dull dirges). Instead of inspiring us with hate, March's skinflint is just a dullard, a man misguided by his own wayward insularity. Rathbone is much better, playing tortured soul Jacob Marley as if he really were in pain. Had the tunes been scuttled, the third act expanded (Scrooge more or less "stumbles" upon his grave) and the Cratchit family reduced to the paupers they're supposed to be (here, they have more food than Scrooge), this may have worked. Sadly, A Christmas Carol can't compensate for the lack of entertainment on this disc. As a matter of fact, it easily undermines the amusement all by itself.
Technically, Passport is once again passing off by-product as the real thing. Each episode is a horribly messed-up kinescope, filled with fuzzy imagery, a complete lack of contrasts, and almost no detail whatsoever. While the '54 Carol was perhaps always monochrome (though the introduction proclaims the presentation is "in living color"), Hollywood Palace was definitely broadcast in color. As a result, these 1.33:1 full screen sins are just horrendous, almost unwatchable at times. The same goes for the sound. While Palace can seemingly survive thanks to the mostly musical ideal, much of the dialogue in A Christmas Carol is lost in a murky mix of sloppy sludge. Half the time, you just have to resign yourself that there must be nothing worth noting in the conversations on screen. And in keeping with the bare-bones brazenness at work here, there are no bonus features at all.
The holidays have indeed become a crassly commercialized chore, where keeping up with your neighbors means spending yourself into the poor house and sending your family into a shame cycle when and if you fail. Still, there may actually be a reason to own a copy of Christmas with Crosby and Kate. One look at the seasonal misery being beamed out from both of the Yuletide disasters included here will have those who are hurting realizing that their Noel ain't so nasty after all. It could be worse. It could be the celebrations showcased in this incredibly bad DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
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