“White Christmas”: Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie
Although it may seem almost too obvious to include the 1954 film version of White Christmas on a list of movies to view during the Christmas season, it is nonetheless recommended here, but not for the reason you might think. White Christmas isn’t just a holiday movie but one of the most expertly done films of the 1950s, directed by one of the great studio men of Hollywood’s Golden Age—none other than Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce). Curtiz’ accomplishments are so associated with 1930s and 1940s Warner Bros. classics, that it is often overlooked that he continued to turn out colorful and superb films in the 1950s. He was adept in any genre—adventures, melodramas, film noir,
spectacular epics, and even musicals. Just think of the Oscar-winning Yankee Doodle Dandy.
By 1954, Curtiz was freelancing, and his expertise was appreciated by all the major film studios. His genius was subtle but nonetheless ever-present, as he gave each film he worked on the royal Curtiz storytelling treatment. It’s no doubt Paramount assigned White Christmas to him because of the importance of the project.
The song “White Christmas” was by then the best-selling record of all time. Some reports say the Bing Crosby version had sold 100 million copies by 1954, while covers by other artists hovered around 400 million. With such a recognizable title, a film version was almost certain to be a major hit; therefore all the stops were pulled out and an “A”-class movie resulted.
The perennial Christmas favorite was not written for this film but rather was part of an original Irving Berlin song score for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, a black & white wartime musical that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. “White Christmas,” which won the Oscar for Best Song for 1942,
struck a universal chord among thousands of soldiers who profoundly related to its beautiful but slightly melancholy tune and its concise lyric of loneliness and an idyllic dream of home. Its popularity only grew in the post-World War II era. It even took on a nostalgic flavor for the sacrifices of “the greatest generation.” This feeling would be passed on to their children of the Baby Boomer age.
Paramount, which had produced Holiday Inn, re-teamed Crosby and Astaire after the war in another Irving Berlin tuner, Blue Skies. This time the great stars were crooning and toe tapping in glorious Technicolor. It was another enormous musical success and Paramount began planning a Technicolor version of Holiday Inn for Bing and Fred but this time with the title White Christmas.
It’s unclear if Paramount meant White Christmas to be a re-make or a sequel. But it definitely was to feature Crosby and Astaire with a new Irving Berlin score. Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank were top writers at Paramount and very adept at identifying the zeitgeist of the 1950s. By the early ’50s, they consciously or subliminally knew that the song “White Christmas” had nostalgic wartime edge to it, so they refashioned the Holiday Inn story completely to be about the post-
war era. And unlike, Holiday Inn, it was to take place entirely during the Christmas season. The subtle artistry and genius of Irving Berlin complied beautifully by writing 10 new songs, several of which dealt head-on with post-war soldiers. There is even a subtle but clear political slant to the story.
The film’s main point of conflict is that a one-time
great general has been “put out to pasture” and forgotten by his country. Many today may think of this is a reference to the Eisenhower era (Eisenhower was the U.S. President in 1954) but it’s actually a reference to General Douglas MacArthur, who had been “forced to retire” by President Truman as commanding general of the Korean War. By 1954, MacArthur was, in his own words, “fading away.” It seems clear that even though Irving Berlin loved Eisenhower (he wrote his theme song, “I Like Ike”), he supported MacArthur even more. This might have also been true of the writers Krasna, Panama, and Frank, and even Bing Crosby. They must have been good Republicans all. So, the film White Christmas is not only a perfect time capsule of the political and moral mainstream of the mid 1950s but unabashed American political propaganda.
What role Fred Astaire was to play in all this seems unclear, but by 1954 Astaire was having his own career zenith, having a field day playing singing and dancing romantic leads over at MGM, where it was the glory days of the MGM musical. Back in the ‘40s when Astaire had costarred with Crosby, he was cast as “the guy who didn’t get the girl,” a kind of “second banana.” By 1954, Fred always got the girl even if it was a 21-year-old Audrey Hepburn or an 18-year-old Leslie Caron. Likewise, by 1954 Bing Crosby was at his super-stardom peak over at Paramount. Therefore, Astaire, probably sensing that this was a Bing Crosby vehicle, opted out of the project.
Paramount then looked to Hollywood’s best and brightest “second banana” at the time—none other than the incredibly talented Donald O’Connor, who had supported Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin’s
Call Me Madam (1953) to spectacular effect. In Call Me Madam, O’Connor was also teamed with Vera-Ellen. The choreography was by Robert Alton. Vera-Ellen was Alton’s protégé, and was generally accepted as the best female dancer in Hollywood—which is quite a compliment considering the talent roster there. If you don’t believe me, just ask Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, if you happen to run into them.
Vera-Ellen and Donald
O’Connor’s dance routines in Call Me Madam are considered by many, such as the musical film historian Miles Krueger, as the best partner dance numbers on film—even surpassing Fred and Ginger! If you pay close attention to their movements in that film you might easily agree. Alton was set to stage White Christmas and the reassembly of the fabulous threesome was all set.
Ultimately, however, that was not to be. O’Connor was simultaneously starring in a string of black & white programmer comedies, the Francis the Talking Mule series—a pre-cursor to the TV sitcom Mr. Ed. Unfortunately, according to a video interview with O’Connor, he caught a rare and serious infection from the mule, and it put him out of commission for the period during which White Christmas was being filmed. All the choreography had already been staged by Alton with Vera-Ellen and O’Connor in mind. The production had to scramble to find a substitute. The solution was a big surprise. It was Danny Kaye.
At this time, Kaye was a huge solo film star on his own. He was at least as big as Astaire and Crosby. It would be unheard of for him to play “second banana.” But Kaye was savvy as well as fun-loving. He knew the greatness of Irving Berlin’s songs
and he loved Bing Crosby. In addition, he was an accomplished dancer but had rarely used that talent in his movie musicals (although it might be noted he danced spectacularly well with a chorus girl named Gwen Verdon a couple of years before in On the Riviera).
White Christmas offered Kaye a chance to hoof with his old friend Vera-Ellen,
sing some new Irving Berlin songs, and see if he could tease and amuse the otherwise low-key Bing Crosby. On all three accounts, the results were historically fabulous, and a good case might be made that Kaye never looked so relaxed performing, clowning, and supporting Crosby. Since the pressure was off of him to carry the picture by himself, Kaye seems to have incredible fun and is at ease throughout, allowing his brand of comic genius to shine through. It adds a lightness and joy to his teaming with Crosby that is unique in film.
It might be noted here that a recovered and healthy Donald O’Connor appeared later on opposite Crosby in the 1956 re-make of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Their chemistry is rather terrible and the comedic results are insufferable. So thank God Danny Kaye ended up in White Christmas.
Rosemary Clooney, the fine and fiery leading lady of the picture, said Danny Kaye would try every day to make Crosby burst into laughter on the set. And by her accounts, he well succeeded. In fact, in one truly wonderful moment of the film, we can actually see Crosby uncontrollably crack up. It’s in their parody of the “Sisters” number. At first he looks very uncomfortable performing in girlie accoutrement. But not Kaye, who pulls out all the stops. By the end of the number, Kaye repeatedly slaps Crosby’s stomach with a blue feather peacock fan. Crosby seems stunned but then is riddled with laughter. It’s a wonderful
and rare moment. Film musicals are so carefully planned and meticulously staged that you almost never see any improvisational moments. It’s so fresh and delightful here, you’ll be giggling, too. Michael Curtiz knew what a gem of a take he had and bravo to him for yelling “Print it!”
Later in the film, there is another comic gem of a
scene when Danny Kaye resists Vera-Ellen’s romantic advances. Not only is he brilliantly funny, but the scene takes on a very modern context. It’s now quite clear to most people that Kaye had a mile-wide gay streak. It’s hysterical to see him avoid Vera-Ellen and cower like a cornered gay rat while being attacked by a beautiful blonde who, by the way, was the uncredited prototype of the original Barbie Doll. But the quasi-gay content makes you wonder if in 1954 everyone subliminally knew what was going on and it was just as funny then as it is now. The truly remarkable question is “How did they get away with it?” All this and in glorious and hyper-clear Technicolor, too!
Speaking of clear, it’s important to remember that White Christmas was the first film to be photographed in VistaVision, which was Paramount’s answer to the widescreen process CinemaScope developed at 20th Century-Fox. VistaVision was the
the smartest and most economically effective widescreen process of that era. Instead of using an anamorphic lens that squeezed the picture like CinemaScope or using an expensive 70mm film negative like Todd-AO, VistaVision ran 35mm film horizontally through the camera, similar to a still camera. Therefore, the image was photographed on a negative area twice the size of a normal motion picture. The clarity and depth of vision were also doubled. The cinematographer could move and focus the picture in many more ways than were previously possible. Additionally, the print could be projected in a variety of formats. It could be cropped for widescreen or projected as a square “Academy ratio” image. Because of this, theaters didn’t have to have any kind of special equipment to exhibit a VistaVision film. In rare cases, VistaVision could even be blown up to 70mm and retain utmost clarity. White Christmas was a perfect introduction to the new process and Paramount used it for over 60 films during the next decade.
Strangely enough, however, early VistaVision didn’t employ stereophonic sound. It had “enhanced” monophonic “high-fidelity” sound but not true left or right separate channels. Presumably this was because the image was not as wide as Cinemascope or Todd-AO and there was no need for an
actor’s voice to follow the image on screen. Therefore, you won’t find any prints, videos, or audio of White Christmas in true stereo. And that’s a shame since musically the film is so well scored and sung.
In fact, it’s the excellence of White Christmas as a musical the truly elevates it above other Yuletide cheer. The mostly original (10 of the 13 songs) score makes it a true original film musical—written directly for the screen. This is a rarity in Hollywood musicals and Irving Berlin’s last original film score. Add to that the superb choreography, a tight and witty screenplay, and of course the sublime vocal talents of Bing and Rosemary Clooney (just watch “Love You Didn’t Do Right by Me”), and it’s up there with The Band Wagon, An American In Paris, Funny Face, and the other top film musicals of the 1950s. And that makes it one of the best film musicals of all time—so much more than a pretty Christmas card.
Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades, including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.