White Christmas (1954)
In September, 1954, Variety wrote that “White Christmas should be a natural at the box office, introducing as it does Paramount’s new VistaVision system with such a hot ensemble as Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and an Irving Berlin score.”
Variety was right; White Christmas was a “natural” and became the highest grossing film of 1954 by a big margin, raking in 12 million dollars (that’s over 102 million in today’s money). Fun fact: The film that came in at the #2 spot in 1954 was The Caine Mutiny, which earned 8.7 million dollars.
When White Christmas was released in the fall of 1954, Bing Crosby was the #1 box office star in the country, and his co-star, Danny Kaye, was #3. That box office power, Paramount’s widescreen VistaVision system, and the Irving Berlin score made the film a pretty sure thing. The title is no accident, either; Berlin’s song “White Christmas” was the most successful song in American history, and was already indelibly linked with Crosby.
Berlin wrote the song in 1940, and Crosby sang it on Christmas 1941 on his radio show. Crosby then recorded it in early 1942, and he also performed it in the film Holiday Inn (1942). The song topped the charts and won the Academy Award for Best Song. It skyrocketed back to #1 twice in the 1940s, and became the best-selling single in history, a record it held for over fifty years. Fun fact: Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” with its altered lyrics honoring Princess Diana knocked “White Christmas” out of the top spot in 1997.
So “White Christmas” was not at all new in 1954. It had already conquered radio and records, and Crosby had already sung it in a movie! But the song, and Crosby’s version of it, remained exceedingly beloved.
Speaking of beloved, fair warning! I love this movie. I can’t remember the first time I saw it, but I was probably six or seven years old. I loved it then, and it is now a familiar, wonderful memory/movie that I can’t believe I get to watch whenever I want! It’s very special to me. So this is a long post!
Although Danny Kaye was a big star at the time, he wasn’t the first choice for this role. Paramount first began thinking about this movie in 1949, and hoped to re-team Crosby with his co-star from Holiday Inn, Fred Astaire.
But Astaire refused the role because he didn’t like the script, and Paramount slotted Donald O’Connor into the part. But O’Connor fell ill as production loomed, and the studio replaced him with Kaye.
Fun fact: Kaye reportedly asked for a very generous sum to do the movie ($200,000 and 10% of the gross), and was shocked when Paramount agreed! The studio calculated that waiting for O’Connor to recover might cost them just as much as Kaye was asking, so they went for Kaye’s princely deal in order to get the picture made.
I like this photo of Michael Curtiz, Kaye, Crosby, and Danny Thomas, a visitor, laughing between takes.
Fun fact: Curtiz had been at Warner Bros. since the 1930s. This was his first film after leaving that studio and striking out as an independent director. White Christmas would also become his biggest hit (quite a distinction, as Curtiz also directed such classics as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945)).
This movie claims another first: it was the first film to be shot in Paramount’s new widescreen format, VistaVision, which was the studio’s version of Fox’s CinemaScope. But instead of using anamorphic processes, VistaVision was created by running 35mm film horizontally, which made a huge, wide image with higher resolution than other formats. For more, visit this great website on 1950s widescreen formats.
Although most of the film is bright, colorful, and sparkling in glorious Technicolor, White Christmas opens in a very dark place. It’s Christmas Eve, 1944, close to the front lines in the bombed-out ruins of a town. American troops gather for a Christmas show starring former entertainer, current Army Captain, Bob Wallace (Crosby), assisted by Phil Davis (Kaye).
Their commanding officer, Major General Waverly (Dean Jagger) has been re-assigned, and tonight is his last night with his division. So he sneaks into the audience to watch Captain Wallace sing a song. Guess which song? “White Christmas,” obviously. The men become pensive and still as they listen to Wallace croon about home and Christmases as they used to be. The contrast between Crosby’s song and the men’s reality is incredibly poignant. If you’re looking for “Christmas spirit,” this is it. The rest of the movie doesn’t approach this kind of emotion. (It also doesn’t deal much with Christmas the way that modern “Christmas movies” do.)
Confession: when I was very little, I didn’t understand this opening scene at all. I didn’t get the WWII significance, plus the set is pretty fake looking with painted backdrops and phony ruins and rubble, so I was completely lost about what was happening. I think I thought it was all a play or a dream sequence or something. I wanted the movie to get to the fun songs and dances, but now I understand, and it gets me every time. It must have been even more affecting for audiences watching this a mere nine years after the war ended.
Back to the movie. After Bob finishes his song, he gives a little speech in honor of the General. He’s astonished when the General rises from his seat and approaches the stage. General Waverly gives a speech of his own, and fortunately Bob and Phil have a “slam-bang finish” planned that’s perfect for sending their General off!
You can watch it here. The General returns to headquarters in a Jeep just as the skies open up and planes begin strafing the camp. Soldiers take cover. Bob is so busy shouting orders that he doesn’t see a huge wall teetering right next to him. Phil does, though, and drags Bob to safety beneath a truck just before the wall collapses.
Bob is unhurt, but Phil’s arm is broken.
Cut to the hospital. Bob stops by to thank Phil for saving his life, but Phil has more than thanks in mind. He’s a songwriter, and he tells Bob that he’s got a great number for him for after the war. But it’s a duet…Phil thinks that he and Bob would make a great team!
Bob isn’t so sure, but he softens when Phil (very unsubtley) winces and grabs his injured arm. Maybe we can give it a try, Bob says. So begins a long relationship, during which Phil will use that arm routine quite frequently to guilt Bob into doing something he doesn’t want to do.
The war ends, and we get a great montage of Variety headlines and vignettes showing “Wallace and Davis” rising to the top:
Once they’ve conquered nightclubs and radio, the pair turn to producing. They’re a smash!
We meet up with our stars in Florida where they’re finishing up their three-day run. It’s their last engagement before Christmas, and Bob and Phil plan to head to New York that evening to begin rehearsals for the Ed Harrison television show. But first, Phil wants to introduce Bob to a pretty blonde (Barrie Chase) in the cast:
She’s pretty, yes, but not too bright, and her voice is amusingly annoying. Bob dismisses her immediately and gets mad at Phil for trying to set him up, yet again! In a few years he wants to settle down with a wonderful woman, but now he’s too busy!
Fun fact: Barrie Chase was a dancer who performed in the chorus of many MGM movies, including Daddy Long Legs and Kismet, and she was Astaire’s partner on four of his television specials between 1958-1968.
Bob and Phil continue the discussion in their dressing room, with Bob protesting that in a few years he’ll start getting serious about finding a wife. Phil has a dire prediction:
Why is Phil pushing this issue? He thinks that Bob is “miserable” and lonely, but also far too busy. Ever since they started producing, Phil hasn’t had a moment to himself. He thinks that if Bob got married and had kids, then Phil would at least have a little more free time.
In that terrific Danny Kaye modest/goofy/stubborn way, he tells Bob he wants him to have nine children. If Bob only spends five minutes a day with each kid, that’s 45 minutes,“And I’d at least have time to go out and get a massage or something!”
These two actors are great together. They do indeed seem like best friends and they play incredibly well with each other. Variety loved the duo, too, writing that “Certainly [Crosby] has never had a more facile partner than Kaye against whom to bounce his misleading nonchalance,” and the pair “click so well the teaming should call for a repeat.”
The two guys head to a nightclub to see a sister act before their late train. They’d received a letter from Bennie Haynes, an old Army pal, asking them to go see his sisters perform as a favor. Bob and Phil don’t have much hope of enjoying the show; Bennie is better known as “Freckle-Faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy,” and that doesn’t bode well for his sisters’ looks. But they go anyway.
Of course, the sisters are both gorgeous. That’s Betty (Rosemary Clooney) in red, and Judy (Vera-Ellen) in white. They’re terribly thrilled to learn that the great Wallace and Davis are in the audience to catch their act. But Betty is suspicious about Bennie’s letter. And she’s right to be, since Judy admits to writing it herself. She knew Wallace and Davis wouldn’t come see them if she asked, but if an old Army friend asked…Betty scolds her, but Judy is unperturbed. After all, her plan worked!
We get a lot from this dressing room scene. Betty is the older sister, a real “mother hen” to her little chick, Judy. She’s very protective of her younger, more impetuous sister. Fun fact: although Clooney plays the older sister, she was actually seven years younger than Ellen!
Another fun fact: Vera-Ellen was born Vera-Ellen Westmeier Rohe, but she went by Vera-Ellen in her show business career. Her dancing ability was recognized early on, and she danced on Broadway and with the Rockettes before coming to Hollywood.
Side-note: This movie is also special to me because of mistakes. It’s the first movie that I remember watching and noticing goofs. For instance, in this scene, Judy messes around with a pot of coffee and two mugs. In one shot, everything is on the table, but in the immediate next shot, she’s holding the pot and a mug. It’s a clear mistake, and I remember being oddly thrilled by it. It’s the first time I can remember realizing that movies aren’t real, that they’re constructed! And see where it led…
After kindly demonstrating their sisterly dynamic in this conversation, the girls put on their bright cerulean lace gowns, their matching gloves, and their monstrous-plumed, glittering fans and perform “Sisters.”
Bob and Phil are shocked at how beautiful the Haynes sisters are. There’s a cute gag when Phil remarks on beautiful brown eyes (Judy), but Bob insists they’re blue (Betty). They go back and forth until Phil realizes that they’re staring at different sisters!
“Sisters” is a delightful number with comic lyrics and adorable and amusing sororal sentiment. Lyrics start sweet, but they’re often undercut by the choreography. And of course it ends with the dire warning, “Lord, help the mister who comes between me and my sister/And Lord, help the sister who comes between me and my man!” You don’t want to know how many times my sisters and I performed this song for talent shows, camps, or just our poor parents.
Fun fact: Rosemary Clooney’s career began as part of a sister act with her sister Betty!
Fun fact: Vera-Ellen was a virtuoso on the dance floor, but not much of a singer. So Rosemary Clooney actually sang both parts of “Sisters,” though the soundtrack album has Peggy Lee singing the part because Clooney’s contract with Columbia Records precluded her from recording it. Trudy Stevens is the voice double on Ellen’s other songs in the film.
Another fun fact: Clooney was a fantastic singer, but not much of a dancer, and you can’t dub dancing. She later recalled that she had to work extremely hard to learn and perform the very simple steps in this number, and that Ellen mostly just dances around her while Clooney tries not to count the steps out loud! Kaye, an excellent hoofer, does the same thing for Crosby.
Costume appreciation break for these fabulous, almost garish gowns! We’ve got sequined lace, voluminous tulle skirts, a lace ribbon, and matching gloves, shoes, and jewelry! The costume department must have been drowning in cerulean fabric and feathers.
Edith Head outdoes herself in this film. The “normal” costumes are smart and pretty, but the “performance” costumes are incredible. She doesn’t strive for understated elegance, but goes for shimmer, shine, and color!
After the song, the girls join Bob and Phil at their table. Judy happens to have a recent photo of her brother, Bennie (“the dog-faced boy.”)
Fun fact: the photo of “Bennie” is of Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa in the 1930s in the Our Gang series, also known as The Little Rascals.
Bob seems smitten with Betty, so Judy and Phil head for the dance floor. But Bob and Betty’s tête-à-tête doesn’t go so well. Betty confesses that it was Judy who wrote the letter, which leads Bob to cheerfully but cynically proclaim that everybody has an angle! He’s not mad, but Betty is offended by his attitude, and they argue until deciding it’s hardly worth it since they’ll never see each other again.
Meanwhile, Phil and Judy have completely lost their minds outside on the smooth grey terrace to the intoxicating tune “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” (Odd how the same grey floor appears later during production numbers…!)
Ellen is a terrific “terper” (Variety‘s term for dancer from Terpsichore, the Muse of dance), but Kaye holds his own.
Edith Head went the extra mile in these costumes. She rather famously gave Kaye shoes and socks that perfectly matched his trousers so that there was a long unbroken line from leg to toe. And Ellen’s dress is a masterpiece of deceptively simple costuming. Rhinestones and sparkles drip across the bodice and skirt, which has layers upon layers. The bedazzled sheer top layer swishes beautifully against the next, heavier layer, and a darker pink petticoat flashes when Ellen twirls.
It’s a heavy but floaty dress and Ellen works it in this dance, especially when the pair somewhat bizarrely end up on top of an overturned canoe. The whole set is clearly fake, just like the war set, but to me it just makes everything more magical.
They even do some pole dancing and zip-lining:
Their furious but graceful terping ends in a deep dip. These shots show another error that I caught as a child and pointed out to everyone I knew. Phil and Judy land in their final pose just a few feet from the water, but in the next shot with Betty, they’ve somehow moved quite a bit closer to the doors.
A lot of people point to another error, claiming that Ellen trips over Kaye’s foot at the very end of the dance before recovering and landing in the dip. She does catch his foot ever so slightly as she twirls around him, but in my opinion it doesn’t qualify as a trip. She certainly doesn’t falter in her steps.
Betty’s dress is something special, too, though we don’t get to see it in action. It’s got mohair detailing along the skirt and a matching wrap.
Betty scolds her silly sister for getting carried away, and lets Phil in on a minor but necessary subplot. Apparently the sisters’ landlord claims they burned a hole in the rug, and he wants $200 for it. They say they’re innocent, plus they don’t have an extra $200 lying around.
The landlord has sent the sheriff to collect the girls after they finish their last performance. But Phil has an idea. He helps the sisters pack their things (how they get these huge dresses in two suitcases I’ll never understand), gives them his train tickets, and sends them off in a taxi. But then he’s got to do something to stall the sheriff long enough for the girls to get on the train…
Which brings us to this amazing scene:
Bob and Phil lip-synch to a recording of the Haynes sisters, both delighting the perplexed audience and fooling the sheriff, who’s waiting in another room. He assumes that the sisters are performing live.
It’s a very funny scene, not least because of the sock garters. (For more on those, visit my History Through Hollywood: Fashion!)
Fun fact: apparently, both Crosby and Kaye could not get through this scene without cracking up. The take that ends up in the movie is the best one, but it still contains some very real laughter.
This was not an isolated occurrence. Kaye reportedly made everybody laugh during filming, and you can sometimes catch them fighting laughter.
The guys have to flee the scene when the Sheriff figures out the trick. They barely make their train, and of course, they have no tickets because Phil gave them to the Haynes sisters! He still hasn’t told Bob about that, and there’s a fraught moment when Phil bumps into the girls’ door and it pops open. But Bob doesn’t see them.
Phil and Bob bunk down in the club car, where Bob complains to Phil about their evening and uncomfortable conditions. How cute is Danny Kaye? His voice breaks and gets really high whenever he’s nervous. Adorable!
Soon, the boys are joined by the very grateful Betty and Judy.
Soon Bob forgets he was grumpy about the cross-dressing and the tickets, and agrees to change their holiday plans. He and Phil had intended to go to New York, but instead they will join the Haynes sisters in Vermont. The girls are booked at a ski resort.
Before we know it, all four are harmonizing in an ode to “Snow” and the glories of winter weather.
You can watch it here.
Fun fact: “Snow” was originally a song entitled “Free” written by Berlin for his show “Call Me Madam.” (Vera-Ellen had just starred in the 1953 movie version.) But “Free” was cut from the show in out of town tryouts, and Berlin re-worked the words for this film. For example, “Free–the only thing worth fighting for is to be free” and “Free–a different world you’d see if it were left to me” became “Snow–it won’t be long before we’ll all be there with snow,” and “Snow–I want to wash my hands, my face and hair with snow.”
The next morning, the gang is bundled up in their best winter gear, and Phil and Bob are referencing Nanook of the North, a 1922 documentary about an Inuk man in the Arctic. So they’re shocked to arrive in Vermont and find warm weather and bare ground. Their shock turns to dismay when they arrive at the Columbia Inn to find that the sisters’ booking is cancelled. There aren’t any guests (no snow, no skiing), and therefore the Inn can’t afford a floor show.
That’s Mary Wickes as the kind but snooping housekeeper Emma.
Our gang is about to head back to the station when a distinguished gentleman arrives carrying firewood. Why, it’s the General! Bob goes into Army mode at once.
We learn that the General is now the owner of the inn. He, his granddaughter Susan (Anne Whitfield), and Emma run it. Phil has an even funnier reaction to the General. He drops his luggage and becomes a scared Private once again.
The General won’t hear of sending the Haynes sisters away. So that evening they perform for a nearly empty dining room.
Bob, Phil, and the sisters want to help the General. The Inn might go under soon if customers don’t come. Fortunately, Bob gets a great idea! He and Phil will bring their show to the Inn–surely that will bring in customers! Emma kisses Phil and Bob when she hears the news. You can watch this whole movie and just look at Kaye’s reactions, and you’ll be entertained.
When the General returns home the next day after a trip into town, he’s confronted by a chaotic scene in front of his ski lodge.
The barn/ski lodge look familiar, too:
It’s not the same set, since this is a Paramount film and Summer Stock is MGM. But I do know that the set from Holiday Inn was re-used for White Christmas.
Bob and Phil explain their plans to the General, who seems weirdly fine with a theater troupe taking over his hotel. So on we go to “rehearsals!” There’s no word about which singers and dancers were shunted aside by the inclusion of Betty and Judy in the biggest roles, but let’s hope things were civil.
The first “dress rehearsal” we watch is for the Minstrel number. Bob and Phil start us out before the curtain rises to reveal an incredible tiered stage, as well as Betty in black and red with a tambourine.
They do some old vaudeville jokes and some basic stepping. You can watch it here.
Then the number switches to “Mandy” and things get wild. Judy rises from beneath the stage, all undulating arms and sassy pose.
She makes her way down the red steps as olive-clad male dancers jump all about, and women wearing what appear to be strips of red ribbon pose languidly. The male dancers look like stuffed olives in their red shirts and green suits, but you hardly notice them when Ellen is strutting.
She joins Bob and Phil for a quick dance before teaming up with another amazing dancer, John Brascia.
But first, some helpful dancers remove her long sparkly train, revealing a tuft of tulle like a glamorous bunny tail.
Ellen is extraordinarily quick and flexible, and she’s tossed and twirled and thrown all about. Robert Alton choreographed this film, and it must have been fun to work with dancers of this caliber. Although he worked with all the greats, so maybe it wasn’t that exciting.
The number ends after Judy is lifted in the air, thrown up and down the stairs, hurls herself into the arms of waiting chorus members, and gets hauled around upside down.
After this terrific, complex musical number with a cast of dozens and an immense stage, we cut to the “audience:”
It’s actually pretty funny.
Costume appreciation break. First Betty. Note the matching gloves, bangles, and red band along the back of the bodice. There’s also a small red insert at the front of the bodice. I can’t get enough of that glittering red tulle tail.
Now Judy. Love the handy removable belt train. Very clever. And the whole thing is dripping with sparkles and paisley cutouts. And those shimmering red gloves!
Here they are in a costume test. You can see that the top of Clooney’s dress was altered:
As you may have noticed, every single costume worn by Vera-Ellen in this film covers her neck.
Rumors have flown about this for years, namely that after suffering from anorexia for most of her career, Ellen’s neck was scarily thin and prematurely aged, so Edith Head covered it up. The anorexia part is true, sadly, but the neck stuff seems to be false. Footage of Ellen from the September 1954 premiere of A Star is Born show her in a spaghetti strap gown, and her neck looks fine. That was after this movie was filmed.
It seems more likely that it was just a “trademark” choice made by Head and Ellen for this film. Ellen does seem to have liked chokers and high-necked clothing, and she wore such styles frequently, though not exclusively. Or perhaps Ellen had an unsightly scratch or something on her neck during production, which made turtlenecked gowns, leotards, and blouses preferable.
Anyway, after this magnificent “rehearsal,” our four stars gather at the piano. Betty and Bob have a moment, and Judy and Phil have an idea. (You can really see the detail and hanging crystals on Ellen’s costume in this shot, too.)
Phil and Judy concoct a plan to throw Betty and Bob together. Late that night, they encourage Betty to go get some sandwiches when they know that Bob is at the snack bar. The two meet and gaze and talk about “knights in shining armor,” and they sing the beautiful song “Count Your Blessings.” You can watch it here.
Phil and Judy’s plan goes swimmingly. Fun fact: although it’s not too noticeable (not at the Gary Cooper/Audrey Hepburn level), there was a twenty-five year age difference between Crosby and Clooney. He was fifty-one, and she was twenty-six when they filmed this movie.
All is coming along just fine until the General gets some bad news. He’d gotten bored with inn-keeping and applied for active duty. But his request is politely dismissed. He’s too old.
This gives Bob another idea. He wants to get as much of the old division together as they can and surprise the General on Christmas Eve. They can honor him the way they did in 1944, and show him that he has not been forgotten.
Bob goes to call Ed Harrison to ask if he can come on his TV show and spread the word about the Christmas Eve surprise. Ed thinks it’s a great idea, but he wants to broadcast the Christmas Eve show on TV, too. Bob shuts it down, as he doesn’t want to commercialize the General’s disappointment, nor turn a genuine chance to honor their leader into crass publicity for Wallace and Davis. All he wants to do on TV is ask members of the old division to come to the Inn on Christmas Eve.
Unfortunately, Emma listens in on the call but only hears Ed pushing Bob to televise the whole thing. She’s interrupted and has to hang up before she hears Bob’s refusal. So now she thinks that Bob plans to use the General for his own gain! She tells Betty what she heard…
Meanwhile, Phil is rehearsing “Choreography,” a send-up of modern dance. It’s very amusing with lots of funny faces, too-serious gesturing, and expressive, abrupt, machine-like movement.
After Kay sings that “chaps who did taps aren’t tapping anymore, they’re doing ‘choreography,'” a lovely lady in fuchsia drops from the ceiling and taps!
It’s Judy, of course, in another great costume. The feathered fascinator lends a jaunty air, the dyed fur muff is that perfect touch of irrationality, and the ascot and sash keep things dignified. She’s even got matching ruffled bloomers beneath her tiny skirt, and of course her tap shoes are appropriately dyed.
Soon she is joined by a “chap” who dances with her in jazzy, classic tap while Kaye and his darkly-dressed minions do “choreography.” It’s very funny, especially when one considers that in the upcoming number “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” the black-clad dancers’ choreography would not have been out of place in “Choreography.”
You can watch it here. Here is choreographer Robert Alton rehearsing this number with Ellen.
Back in the real world, Betty is distraught. The man she thought she knew and with whom she was beginning to fall in love has deeply disappointed her. Rather than confront the situation and talk to Bob, thereby quickly unraveling their misunderstanding, she just gets pissy and refuses to rehearse. Bob is confused. Last night he and Betty kissed, but today she can’t stand the sight of him.
Phil and Judy watch Betty storm out, followed by Bob, who stalks away in the other direction. And Judy misunderstands the misunderstanding. She assumes that Betty is fighting her feelings for Bob because she doesn’t want to get married before Judy is taken care of. The old mother hen/little chick dynamic.
So Judy thinks of a plan. She suggests that she and Phil get engaged, just for show, and just for a week or two, so that Betty can be let off the hook mother-hen-wise, and fall unreservedly for Bob.
It’s a great scene. Judy slowly inches towards Phil as she explains her plan, and Phil backs away until he’s cornered.
Phil agrees to the phony engagement, as we knew he would. Phil and Judy are destined to fall in love, too, obviously.
That evening at a cast party, Phil and Judy attempt to force a reconciliation between Betty and Bob, but their “dance-and-talk-it-out” routine fails. This guy keeps trying to cut in on Betty and Bob, for one thing. It’s Grady Sutton, whose permanent hangdog expression makes him a great hopeless love interest.
Quick costume appreciation. Judy is in white sparkles (turtleneck, of course) and Betty is in dark green velvet:
But the main obstacle to a reconciliation is that Betty thinks that Bob is a terrible person. So Phil and Judy try Plan B. They announce their engagement:
Betty is shocked, but happy. We think.
At bedtime, Judy tells Betty that now that she is taken care of, Betty can pursue anything that she might have been pondering…hint hint. But Betty pretends to be sleeping. Another thing I remember thinking when I was a little kid is that I hope Betty doesn’t get her glossy red lipstick on the pillow. It looks great in the closeup, but it’s terribly unrealistic.
The next day, Betty has somehow already gotten a new job at a club in New York. So off she goes without telling a soul. She leaves a letter for Judy, though, who reads it after performing a whirlwind dance to “Abraham” with Brascia:
You can watch it here. It’s such an energetic number that it makes me tired just watching it.
Judy is shocked by the letter. Fortunately, she just had a manicure:
Well, Phil and Judy have to come clean to Bob about their fake engagement plan. He’s furious. He was already going to New York to appear on the Ed Harrison show, but now he adds a second stop at the Carousel Club.
But here’s the weird thing: in her publicity photo, Betty is dressed in her “Minstrel/Mandy” costume, which she’s only worn in a “dress rehearsal” at the Inn. But I’ll allow it.
Betty sees Bob in the audience and begs the bandleader to change songs. But it’s too late. She has to step into the pink spotlight in her stunning gown and sing the torch song, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”
It’s an utterly amazing number in a movie full of great numbers. Betty sings her soul with an understated, resigned passion, while blank-faced men in black execute superbly controlled, exceptionally cool moves around her.
One of those men is West Side Story‘s George Chakiris. (She’s leaning on him in the top right image.) He’s also in the “Mandy” number as one of the olive men.
Chakiris can also be glimpsed in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). That’s him on the far right, first row.
In a movie full of show-stopping costumes, Betty’s black dress might be the most sensational. As usual, we’ve got fabulous shimmering gloves and big earrings.
But this gown drips with elegant glamour instead of bright, theatrical pizzazz. The scalloped edges, flared mermaid shape, and precise fit turn Betty into a goddess. And the huge brooch on her behind is a whimsical touch that turns this dress from beautiful to awesome.
The gown also probably makes Bob regret whatever it is he did to lose Betty’s good opinion. Fun fact: although the gloves are a stunning touch, Clooney later said that they were tricky to wear: “Those gloves were so uncomfortable. They were covered in rhinestones, so they would catch on anything I touched!”
Bob tries to talk with Betty after her performance, but he’s pulled away by Ed Harrison. So off he goes to make his case to his old Army pals.
Betty watches the show and realizes her mistake. Bob is still her knight in shining armor; she only thought he’d fallen off his white steed.
Meanwhile, the General is decidedly not watching the Ed Harrison show. Phil’s one job was to keep him away from the television set so that their surprise stays secret. So Phil fakes a fall down the stairs, which keeps the General occupied until Bob finishes his song.
Next thing we know, it’s Christmas Eve. The Inn is packed with guests excited to see the show. And backstage is crowded with members of General Waverley’s division. In a cute con, Emma sends out both of the General’s suits to the cleaner, leaving his Army uniform as his only option. He’s furious and doesn’t want to wear the uniform, but he has no choice.
There’s a poignant moment when his granddaughter sees him coming down the stairs in his military finery, and then the big, tender surprise when he walks, unsuspecting, into the dining room.
The General receives a standing ovation before Bob launches into the performance. It’s an echo of Christmas Eve, 1944, complete with fake ruins.
It’s lovely. After the General gives a speech and blows out the candles on a huge cake, the show begins.
Our four stars perform the comic number “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army.” Yes, Betty came back from New York!
Unfortunately for us, we’ve already seen most of the show in dress rehearsal, so the only number left is the “White Christmas” finale. But before we get to that, we find out that it’s snowing outside! The Inn is saved, and it will be a white Christmas after all!
Enormous Christmas trees and a fake, topiary-filled backdrop set the stage for the finale.
Our stars are in shiny red trimmed in white fur, and there are choir boys and ballerinas and boughs dripping with tinsel. (Tinsel must have been the height of tree decor at the time. Just look at the wild Christmas tree in Christmas in Connecticut!) Plus that classic tune tenderly crooned.
Amazingly, despite the trees, the kids in funny costumes, and the Santa and Mrs. Claus theme, this number doesn’t come across as cheesy. At least not for me. I have a high tolerance for that sort of thing, but this number still seems beautiful and sweet and genuine.
At one point, Bob goes behind the tree, out of sight of the audience, and opens a gift that Betty slipped into his Santa sack. It’s a knight on a white horse. Cute. Then Betty joins him, and then Phil and Judy are there, too. Because every musical number includes a section where all of the leads disappear behind scenery for private discussion/make-out sessions.
They eventually reappear. The backdrop is raised and the trees slide to the side, allowing the audience to see the snow softly falling outside. Of course, it’s not snow falling outside, it’s another soundstage with another backdrop and fake snow. As Clooney later explained in the DVD commentary, “There were two stages at Paramount, and when they opened up the back (when it was snowing), that was the second stage behind us.”
But it gets me every time. Variety wrote, “The directorial handling by Michael Curtiz gives a smooth blend of music (13 numbers plus snatches of others) and drama, and in the climax creates a genuine heart tug that will squeeze tears.” It sure works on me!
And that’s the end. Merry Christmas!
This movie was in production in September through December 1953, and premiered in October 1954. It might seem strange to release a “Christmas movie” in October, but in those days Christmas movies didn’t get a Christmas release date. For example, Christmas in Connecticut premiered in July, Remember the Night (1940) in late January, and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) in May.
The non-Christmas premieres were due to the different release schedule followed in this era. The “wide” or “saturation” release that we’re used to (when a movie is released in the majority of theaters across the country at the same time), only dates to the 1970s. Before wide releases became the norm, movies premiered first in the biggest cities and theaters before slowly trickling into smaller towns and second-run theaters over the next several months or even years.
This system makes a “Christmas premiere” impossible, as a movie might not reach your town until eight months or a year after it premiered in New York City or Los Angeles. Your local theater might show White Christmas in December, or maybe the next April or even the following October, depending on a variety of factors.
Variety’s review of White Christmas concluded that “Crosby wraps up his portion of the show with deceptive ease, selling the songs with the Crosby sock, shuffling a mean hoof in the dances and generally acquitting himself like a champion.” And “Kaye takes in stride the dance, song and comedy demands of his assignment, keeping Crosby on his toes at all times proving himself an ace entertainer of virtually unlimited talent. Miss Clooney does quite well by the story portions and scores on her song chores, while Vera Ellen is a pert terper who can also handle her lines well.” It’s not surprising that this movie was a hit.
“White Christmas” had already won Best Song back in 1943, but “Count Your Blessings” was nominated from this film, though it lost to the titular song from Three Coins in the Fountain. Fun fact: Crosby was nominated for Best Actor at the Awards, though not for this film. He was nominated for The Country Girl (1954), but he lost to Marlon Brando for On The Waterfront (1954). But Crosby’s co-star, Grace Kelly, won for Best Actress!
Bing Crosby was active in show business until he died in 1977. He and Rosemary Clooney often sang together on television, radio and on tours. Clooney also continued performing until her death in 2002, including a guest star appearance on ER in 1995 with her nephew, George Clooney. Rosemary was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for her role.
Danny Kaye would remain active in film and television through the 1980s, but Vera-Ellen would only make one more movie after this one, Let’s Be Happy (1957) before retiring.
Variety quotes from “White Christmas.” Weekly Variety. 1 Sep 1954: 6. 195: 13.