My wife Joyce gave me an early Christmas gift a couple of weeks ago - the new boxed-set edition of "White Christmas," which includes a letterboxed version of the 1954 movie, the original soundtrack album on CD, a copy of Rosemary Clooney's original working script and a photo-laced booklet with Clooney's comments about working on the picture with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen.

Being a Danny Kaye fan, and because I enjoy this particular movie so much, I had been dropping hints about this new video release . . . probably none too subtly. So, Joyce decided it would be fun to have around during the run of the Christmas season, rather than to simply open it on Christmas Day and then, the next day, put it away for another year.Murphy's Movie Law being what it is, however, I've had to see about 25 films during the past two weeks and couldn't find time to sit down and fully enjoy this very special gift until Christmas weekend anyway. But you can bet that while you're reading this, I'm either listening to or watching "White Christmas," with whichever of my children I can tear away from the video games. (I am assuming, of course, that you haven't put off reading the newspaper until New Year's Day.)

If you aren't a fan of "White Christmas," you probably wonder why anyone would care about this particular bit of extravagance. And I'm the first to admit that the film itself is little more than a commercial reworking of the superior 1942 musical "Holiday Inn" (which also starred Crosby, along with Fred Astaire, and which marked the debut of Irving Berlin's biggest hit song, "White Christmas").

But as with many things we treasure in life, my fondness for "White Christmas" owes more to nostalgia than to the film itself.

I grew up in Southern California, where the Christmas season is a pretty goofy time of year. As I remember it, everywhere you go there is the pretense of cold weather and snow - pictures of people in mufflers in store windows, plastic snowmen on front lawns, etc. Meanwhile, it's 70 degrees outside.

When I saw "White Christmas" for the first time, at the Crest Theater in Long Beach, Calif., I was about 10 years old - and the film transported me to a world of changing seasons, warm romance, sprightly song and dance - and to a place where the colors of everything from turquoise dresses to red Santa suits were brilliant and startling.

With help from the theater's air-conditioning - yes it was December, but this is California, remember - I felt like I was really there, frolicking in the snow of Vermont during the holiday season. (One of the film's plot points is that it is a dry year, and there is speculation as to whether the vacation inn that is the film's setting will receive any snow; it finally arrives, of course, just in time for the film's climax.)

Personally, I tried to identify with Kaye, admiring his character's brash self-confidence and wacky sense of humor, as he manipulated Crosby and played matchmaker between him and Clooney.

And I must confess to having had a pre-adolescent crush on Vera-Ellen. And years later I was crushed to learn that she didn't sing in her movies, but was instead dubbed by a studio singer.

During that holiday run of "White Christmas," over a two- or three-week period, I became a steady customer and probably saw the movie five times or more. Ironically, it was several years later before I saw the film again, when it showed up on television. (And it was many years later before I lived in an environment that actually experienced real snow.) Of course, these days "White Christmas" shows up on television every year, almost as much as "It's a Wonderful Life," and has been on video for quite some time.

Anyway, when at last I sit down to enjoy the "White Christmas" boxed set, watching the movie, listening to the CD and reading the screenplay and booklet, it won't simply transport me to Hollywood's version of a Christmas with snow in Vermont.

This is my passport to return to the Crest Theater in Long Beach, circa 1958, where I'll sit in the dark of an air-conditioned auditorium, basking in Berlin's music, laughing at Kaye's mugging and ogling Vera-Ellen as she dances (and someone else sings for her) - along with 500 strangers on a warm December evening.

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Or at least I'll be there until the phone rings or the kids get into a fight or some studio calls because a last-minute movie has been scheduled or. . . .

On the other hand, maybe I'll take the phone off the hook, put in some earplugs and lock the door.

Thanks, Joyce - it was the perfect pre-Christmas gift.

And happy holidays to all.

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