Few holiday movies are as iconic as 1954’s White Christmas. Even those who haven’t seen it all the way through have probably glimpsed it while channel-surfing. It’s always somewhere.
The film came about because Paramount felt it was time for another Berlin tour-de-force, and the prestigious songwriter was happy to comply. Conveniently enough, he was able to incorporate into White Christmas parts of Stars On My Shoulders, a collab Berlin wrote with Norma Krasner that was never produced. Factor some new numbers and new arrangements of old numbers, and the result was a Franken-musical that was one of the highest box office draws of 1954.
For those who may not be familiar with the plot, and there isn’t a whole lot of it, but here goes: Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) are prestigious song-and-dance men and producers after World War Two. Phil thinks Bob needs a woman in his life, so much to Bob’s chagrin he’s always on the lookout for possible setups.
One night they go see a sister act, Betty and Judy Haines (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen), supposedly as a favor to an old pal from the Army. After helping the ladies out of a jam, Phil wheedles Bob into following Judy and Betty to Vermont, where they’ll be performing at an inn over the holidays. Their current show is on vacation anyway, and Vermont is supposed to be America’s snow playground.
Upon arrival at Pine Tree, the group is shocked to see there’s no snow. Bob and Phil are shocked to learn their old commanding officer, General Thomas Waverly (Dean Jagger) owns the inn the Haines are booked at. Since there’s no snow, the place is, as the General’s housekeeper Emma (Mary Wickes) puts it, “a Tyrolian haunted house.”
Bob and Phil bring their show up to Vermont, hoping to help the General attract business, working the Haines sisters into the proceedings. On the side, Phil and Judy work on Bob and Betty because they think Bob and Betty are perfect for each other, and naturally intrigue and misunderstandings ensue. Will it ruin the show? Will there ever be snow? Who can tell.
So why is this perennial classic worth watching for the first time? Or the hundredth, as the case may be? Well, let us count a few of the ways:
The promise of snow.
People who live in places that get a lot of snow might disagree with me, but I think the world always looks like a fantasyland after flakeage has fallen. It means fun, frolic, and coziness, and in White Christmas it also means a happy ending, especially for General Waverly, who feels like the world has passed him by.
The great cast.
So many winners here. Bing Crosby. Rosemary Clooney. Vera-Ellen. Danny Kaye. And we can’t forget the stellar support crew, especially Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes, who are droll and dry and wonderful.
Yet the movie could have looked very different. It was supposed to be a sorta-Holiday Inn redux with Fred Astaire playing opposite Bing, but he pulled out because he wasn’t crazy about the script. Crosby also pulled out, temporarily, after the death of his wife, Dixie Lee, but came back soon after that. Then Donald O’Connor was cast in the Phil Davis role but he pulled out due to illness, so Danny Kaye stepped in. Whew.
The dance numbers are pretty darned amazing.
The wonderful Vera-Ellen carried most of the lead dancing in the film, ably backed by Danny Kaye and John Brascia. While the bulk of the sequences are crisp, precise tap dances, there’s also plenty of fifties-era hot jazz and modern dance. While my mom has never been a fan of that last item, I like the way White Christmas makes fun of modern dance while not making fun of modern dance. Some think that those parts were developed by Bob Fosse, but that’s not true–Robert Alton was the sole choreographer on the film.
Michael Curtiz, who was no stranger to filming musicals, presents the dance sequences in much the same way he did in Yankee Doodle Dandy–they’re fairly fluid with not a lot of cuts or insert shots, and they allow the dance to be the star. The finished product looks very robust and confident, which is one of the reasons they still hold up almost sixty years later.
There are so many classic numbers in White Christmas, like “Mandy,” “Abraham,” “Blue Skies,” and of course, the title number sung by Bing Crosby, which remains one of the top-selling songs of all time. The tune didn’t take off right away when it was released in 1942, as “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” generated more of a buzz. What’s interesting is that “White Christmas” was originally a song of longing for home and simple pleasures, but not necessarily for yuletide, but for yuletide it became. It wasn’t until November of that year that momentum for the song began to build, making it the firm holiday staple we know and love.
Musically, Crosby and Rosemary Clooney are the film’s biggest treats, as their partnership is legendary. Recording their songs must have been a dream because it was a collaboration between two artists who not only respected each other’s gifts, but could sing in the same keys. Their warm rapport was evident all through the movie even when their characters were on the outs, and after the film wrapped they stayed friends.
Clooney also got to stand out on her own more than once, particularly in “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” which Berlin wrote specially for her. She loved making the film and thought it was like heaven.
Yep. Warm, comforting, fun, and as much of a welcome tradition as cookies for Santa.
In a letter to Irving Hoffman, Berlin said this of White Christmas:
It is the first movie that I’ve been connected with since Holiday Inn that has the feel of a Broadway musical. Usually there’s little enthusiasm once you get over the first week of a picture. But the change in this setup has resulted in an excitement that I am sure will be reflected in the finished job. In any event, as of today I feel great and very much like an opening in Philadelphia with a show.
It would be interesting to see what Irving Berlin would say if he could see what kind of staying power and excitement White Christmas still generates sixty years later. Chances are he’d feel very proud indeed. It is a film not to missed and one to be revisited, Christmas or not.
Hope to see you all on Wednesday, when I’ll be posting an entry for Crystal and Michaela’s Fred and Ginger blogathon a wee bit early. Thanks for reading, all, have a good one…
The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin. Edited by Robert Kimball and Linda Everett. Winona, Minnesota: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2005.
Crossland, Ken, and Malcom Macfarlane. Late Life Jazz: The Life and Career of Rosemary Clooney. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.