- Director: Michael Curtiz
- Writers: Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank, with Music by Irving Berlin
- Starring: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Johnny Grant, and Anne Whitfield
- Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Song – “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”)
- Where to Watch: Stream with Subscription on Netflix, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV.
The Bing Crosby recording of “White Christmas” amazingly remains the number one selling single of all time, even today. A few songs have passed it over the years (Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” for example), but “White Christmas” always pulls back ahead during the subsequent holiday season. It was the number one song of the year on the Billboard chart for three years running during World War II, striking a nerve with homesick American soldiers stationed overseas. In context, as we get it in the first scene of the 1954 musical White Christmas, sung by soldiers camped out in a ruined Italian town as bombs fall in the distance, it plays less as a Christmas carol and more as a kind of wistful National Anthem. And if there’s one thing you can’t say about the movie White Christmas, it’s that it doesn’t know its audience. It both opens and closes with the title song, and in between gives us a heavy dose of completely unexamined World War II camaraderie and nostalgia. I found myself somewhat astonished by the fact that, given the amount of this movie that involves “getting the gang back together” for a ten year reunion of a World War II army unit to honor its beloved general, never once does anyone mention the members of the unit who must have died in the war, not even a quick “here’s the guys who didn’t make it” toast. That might detract from misty-eyed veil of “glistening treetops,” I suppose.
Perhaps confusingly, from a modern perspective, “White Christmas” was introduced in a movie, but not White Christmas. In fact, the song was first introduced in, and won a Best Original Song Oscar for, the 1942 musical Holiday Inn. That movie is, probably uncoincidentally, also about a bunch of people singing random songs in an attempt to financially prop up a rural New England hotel, and also starred crooner-turned-movie-star Bing Crosby. Holiday Inn is less watched today, perhaps because it is far less of a Christmas movie (it is about a hotel that is only open on holidays), and perhaps because it includes one of the more infamous, egregious, and high-profile Hollywood uses of blackface (in the song about President’s Day, of all things), something which Crosby was smart enough later in his life to realize that he probably did not want to bring attention to.
Holiday Inn featured twelve original songs from the great songwriter Irving Berlin, but White Christmas has only two (including “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” which received an Oscar nomination in its own right, losing to the title track from Three Coins in the Fountain). It is basically a jukebox musical, not so different from modern versions like Jersey Boys or Rocket Man, with a whisp of a plot to hold together the requisite songs. The big difference is that Irving Berlin was one of the most prolific and important songwriters in American history. He actually had several jukebox musicals made of his work, which I was going to say is impressive but feels less so in a world where there are multiple Mamma Mia movies.
It’s likely that at least some of our readers do not realize just how many of Berlin’s songs they know. He was born in 1880s Imperial Russia, in a Jewish shtetl in what is today Belarus. He emigrated with his family to New York at age 5, and eventually worked his way up in the music business through sheer talent. It would likely startle large sections of America to learn that both “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” were written by a Jewish immigrant from Russia. A very abbreviated list of his other hits would include “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Easter Parade,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Happy Holidays,” “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better),” “Blue Skies,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” He lived to over 100, and presided over White Christmas as part of a deal that gave Paramount half the profits, and split the other half between Berlin and Crosby. And there were a lot of profits to go around, considering that White Christmas became, by far, the highest-grossing movie of 1954 and the most profitable movie musical made up to that time.
Many essays could be written about Crosby himself, who was not only a wildly successful recording artist but had a very successful movie career, including a 1944 Best Actor Oscar for Going My Way. I know that at one time he was considered quite the hearthrob. In the parts of this movie where he’s not singing, I was a bit at a loss for what appeal he might have. The singing, in his spectacular, deep voice, entirely different from entertainers before him (such as Berlin’s former collaborator Al Jolson) who had grown up in a world without microphones, is top notch. Looks and charisma-wise, though, it seems almost unfair to put Crosby next to his co-star in this movie, Danny Kaye, but I fully admit to not being a 1940s/50s teenage girl.
The plot of White Christmas, such as it is, involves Crosby and Kaye (as the fictional singing duo “Wallace & Davis”) attempting to put on a show to prop up their general from World War II (played with square-jawed dignity by Dean Jagger), while simultaneously getting involved with a “sister act” (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) they meet in Florida and subsequently become entangled with after the girls are forced to flee a vengeful landlord (it doesn’t make sense in the movie, either). Kaye and Vera-Ellen are determined to set Crosby up with Clooney, for reasons seemingly no more substantial than “I wish they were out of my hair,” to the point of at one point announcing their own “phony engagement.” After some low-level Shakespeare-style mistaken nonsense, everyone gets together at the end and sings “White Christmas” again, it snows in Vermont for Christmas, and that’s more words than the plot of this movie deserves.
Clooney was a singer by trade, with this by far her most famous movie role. She was a big pop star in the early-50s era just before the rock’n’roll revolution really kicked in, and kept her career up on the TV variety circuit for decades. Her nephew, George Clooney, of course eventually became a bigger star than she ever was. This is also by far the most watched movie in the career of Vera-Ellen, who had a brief but bright career as a dancing partner to some of the biggest stars of the era, including Crosby in On the Town and a post-Ginger Rogers Fred Astaire in a couple of movies. She was a dancer, not a singer. In my view, some of the best parts of this movie are where they just let Vera-Ellen go to town. It’s the sort of dancing you don’t really see these days this side of So You Think You Can Dance? (is that still a show?). But she is the only member of the cast whose singing was dubbed, mostly by Trudy Stevens, though weirdly the choice was made during “Sisters” to have Clooney sing both parts. Shortly after White Christmas wrapped, she would marry millionaire Victor Rothschild, and sadly their first child would die at the age of three months as a result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. At this point Vera-Ellen withdrew entirely from public life, appearing in only one movie for the rest of her life.
I do want to comment on one bit where Crosby and Kaye show up on stage to lip-synch to “Sisters” (in order to give the girls more time to escape the landlord). The joke is that they’re dressed up as girls, but… they’re not really? They sort of wear flowers in their hair and have garter/stocking things on, but it’s not like they’re wearing dresses. I mention this not because it’s offensive or anything, but more because I just found it confounding. Even the audience in the movie seems unsure if they’re supposed to laugh or not. I was almost left wondering if the script had them dressing up as girls and Crosby refused to do it. There are several other scenes where everyone acts as if they did dress up as women, but they really don’t. It’s bizarre.
Anyway, the parts of White Christmas I liked the most were the bits with no relationship to the plot whatsoever, the non-sequitur musical bits. Anytime I squint too hard at it, it mostly falls apart for me, but from a production standpoint, everyone’s hoofing it and having a great time. Its appeal at the time seems have been mostly nostalgia-based, but today it’s mostly as a chance to see some great performers at the top of their respective games.