This Christmas I did not watch as many Christmas movies as I usually do, though I had a huge list of films I intended to see (someday, I really am going to watch It Happened on 5th Avenue and the 1951 A Christmas Carol). Partly, this was because I went out of town for the holidays. But the day before I departed, I was able to watch one last Christmas film with my friend, Andrea Lundgren. We watched White Christmas.
In general, I tell people that I prefer Holiday Inn to White Christmas (partly because of Fred Astaire), but I do enjoy White Christmas and my cousin – who is just discovering classic movies – recently told me that he loved White Christmas, particularly the dialogue, and since I watched it with my friend who also loves this movie, I was in a highly receptive frame of mind.
I think what I appreciated most this time around is the interaction between Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. They play Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye), who meet in the army during WWII. When Davis saves Wallace’s life, he uses it as guilt leverage to wheedle his way into a musical partnership with the already popular and famous Wallace. Fortunately, it turns out well, because Wallace and Davis become an even bigger hit as a duo act, then go into musicals and become producers. In fact, their success is so far beyond what Davis had ever hoped for that he now wants Wallace to ease up a bit and stop working so hard and give Davis a little free time.
How Davis intends to accomplish this is to get Wallace married with tons of kids and he keeps pushing girls at him without success, until they hear the Haynes Sisters perform: Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen). That finally does it, with Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes attracted to each other…which is fortunate, since Phil Davis and Judy like each other. As Andrea wondered, what would have happened if they both liked the same girl? Awkward.
Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes are pretty slow movers when it comes to relationships, but between the mutual machinations of Phil and Judy, they manage it so all four of them spend Christmas in Vermont at a lodge that turns out to be owned by their former general, General Waverly (Dean Jaggers). General Waverly’s having a tough time, though. There’s no snow in Vermont and his ski lodge is empty of custumers. He’s also feeling a bit cast off and useless, put out to pasture while the world moves on. But Bob, Phil, Betty and Judy set out to help by putting on a Christmas show (“let’s put on a show” is another venerable classic movie tradition).
White Christmas is kind of a conglomeration of bits and pieces of story ideas, songs, and performers, cobbled together to make one story, but that is part of its charm. Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney provide the vocals; Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye dance. Crosby and Kaye bounce off each other in bromance fashion and Clooney and Vera-Ellen play close-knit sisters. We start out in war-torn Italy in 1944, move to the Florida of nightclubs and musicals and end up in cozy Vermont. There is the war, the ambition of entertainers, the desire for family and a home, and the pain of being passed over in retirement.
Even the music is cobbled together by composer Irving Berlin from his vast oeuvre. The title song, “White Christmas,” was originally introduced in Holiday Inn by Bing Crosby in 1942 (a song that resonated across the country and among the servicemen abroad) and most of the other songs were introduced in previous films and musicals. “Count Your Blessings,” however, was specifically written for this film.
One of the things I particularly noticed this time was Bing Crosby’s delivery of dialogue. It’s not that he isn’t believable as a romantic lead, but it seems like he is at his absolute best in a buddy picture scenario. His best partners are guys: Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye. He brings an apparently spontaneous, easy-going, free-flowing and entirely natural sounding dialogue and dynamic to his interaction with these men that is unique to him. As my cousin told me, what he liked most about the film was the dialogue. He felt it was still relevant today; how people actually talk to each other.
While Andrea and I were watching, she wondered how old Rosemary Clooney was. Neither of us knew, but it turns out that she was the youngest of the four lead actors. She was only twenty-six and playing the older sister to Vera-Ellen, who was around 33. At the same time, Bing Crosby was around 51 and Danny Kaye 43. I recently watched Susan Slept Here, starring Dick Powell at 51 and Debbie Reynolds at 23 (they were supposed to be 35 and 17 respectively) and one of the first things anyone mentions about that film is the age gap, but I’ve never heard one comment about White Christmas. But as Andrea observed, Rosemary Clooney has a natural “gravity,” which makes her seem more mature. It also goes to show that in movies, age is often relative. It’s how it appears more than it how it actually is.
Side note: I did not realize that Michael Curtiz directed this film. What an incredibly versatile and seriously underestimated man. He’s probably directed more classic favorites than any other director: Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Captain Blood, Angels With Dirty Faces…he directed the kind of classic films even non-classic film lovers know.
No review of White Christmas is complete without a few musical clips. This scene always cracks me up; watch how Bing Crosby can hardly keep a straight face while Danny Kaye hams it up with zest. Rosemary Clooney recorded both parts in this song, singing for both herself and Vera-Ellen.
Trudy Stevens dubbed all the singing for Vera-Ellen, except the “Sisters,” number, which was done by Rosemary Clooney. “Snow” was originally written for “Call Me Madam” and was titled “Free.” It wasn’t used, however, and Berlin later scrapped the lyrics and added different ones for White Christmas.
I think this performance pretty accurately captures why the song struck such a chord during the war, particularly among servicemen away from home.