Retro Review: White Christmas (1954).
Perhaps the most famous Christmas musical, White Christmas is a better movie than it is a musical.
Musicals are back in fashion in Hollywood recently, with La La Land proving that they can be critical and commercial successes. Given the season, it’s only fitting to revisit one of the best loved Christmas classics, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. Filmed in glorious VistaVision, White Christmas holds up visually like a dream. The musical numbers are a mixed bag, ranging from classics that have stood the test of time and some misfires that were re-purposed from other projects. While it is not Irving Berlin’s best musical, it has plenty of songs and laughs to entertain audiences to this day.
White Christmas (1954).
Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) is an aspiring performer in the same army unit as Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby), a famous singer. The two bond while putting on a farewell show for the retiring General Waverly, and become partners after Phil saves Bob’s life during an air raid. Back in the states after WW2 ends, they become a national sensation. Looking for talent for their next musical production, they go to see The Haynes sisters perform. Phil and Judy (Vera-Ellen) hit it off immediately and scheme a way to set up stodgy Bob and overprotective Betty (Rosemary Clooney). All four wind up in Vermont where they discover that General Waverly is running an Inn that is about to go under. To drum up business, they hatch a scheme to move their musical to Vermont and invite their entire army unit to celebrate Christmas with the general.
White Christmas was the first film to use the VistaVision format, and it looks gorgeous. This format changed the orientation of the film, allowing for higher fidelity images to be captured on 35 mm film stock. While it didn’t last very long as a format, it did produce beautiful images that were unrivaled at the time. The colors pop, especially the vibrant reds and greens of the Christmas pageant at the end of the movie. The resolution lends itself especially well to digitizing the original, meaning the version you can see today is every bit as sumptuous as the original.
While the film quality has stood the test of time, the musical elements are very much a product of the era. At this point in his career, Irving Berlin was about as famous as you could get and the film seems to be looking for excuses to cram as many of his songs and dance routines in as it can. Other contemporaneous musicals feel much more integrated than White Christmas, even earlier Berlin films such as Holiday Inn (from which the song White Christmas is taken.)
Here, the story is constantly interrupted by “rehearsals” for the musical within the musical, and they don’t fit the narrative or themes of the larger story. While most of the songs are catchy and the routines are lovely, they feel tacked on presents for Berlin fans. It doesn’t help that a few of the songs are either borrowed from other films or were reworked from cancelled projects. They just never feel organic to the piece.
The comedic elements of White Christmas remain lighthearted and clever, mostly due to the impish energy of Danny Kaye. By many accounts Kaye had the whole crew laughing and improvised several bits on set, one of which was kept by the director. He convinces Crosby to cross dress as the sisters so they can escape the nightclub to join the show, and Crosby can be seen and heard genuinely laughing at Kaye’s antics in the scene. He has a strong chemistry with both Crosby and Vera-Ellen, which helps to glue the production together. Vera-Ellen dances but doesn’t sing, Crosby sings but rarely dances, so he is a crucial bridge between the role players.
Kaye was brought in at the last moment, so several of his scenes had to be reworked to add his comedic style and make up for the fact that he couldn’t dance like Fred Astaire, who the role was intended for. Kaye was certainly no slouch when it came to singing and dancing…but Fred Astaire is freaking Fred Astaire. Some of his new numbers hit and some miss, but his infectious charm and humor suffuse the production and give it much needed levity.
Scheming of a White Christmas.
It’s hard to imagine this story without Kaye’s comedic timing, since the plot is thick with layers of manipulation that would feel cumbersome otherwise. Phil and Judy are trying to push Bob and Betty together, Bob is trying to orchestrate the reunion without the general finding out, and a nosy innkeeper is constantly spoiling all of their plans. The whole misadventure romance angle is certainly not new, but the many layers of deception and secrets can get wearisome…except that the chemistry between the leads is so good and the story is paced excellently, so you don’t get frustrated by all of the maneuvering.
Let It Snow.
Growing up in a household that loved musicals and being a fan of Danny Kaye from a young age, I feel that I enjoy White Christmas but can see where it falls short. Holiday Inn, with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, is a stronger musical by Berlin. The Court Jester is a funnier musical with Danny Kaye. Classics like The Music Man and The King and I integrate their songs and dance with much better grace than White Christmas manages.
For all of that, this is still a lovely movie.
There are several songs in it that remain powerful and the VistaVision format ensured that the visual quality of the film is tremendous. All of the performers are endearing and have a dynamic that transcends the machinations of the plot, making them endlessly entertaining. There’s ample reason why this film has become a holiday staple that continues to delight more than 70 years after its release.