WHITE CHRISTMAS begins and ends with the song, and those who grew up watching this annually on TV may be forgiven for misting up a tad with the finale rendition, so strong is the nostalgia gene. The bright Technicolor makes it all look grand, and Vera-Ellen’s dancing is a kick (and can she ever!), and those retina-rewarding reasons for a rewatch provide cover for the limp plot, weak jokes, a 16-song array that includes some real groaners, and needless padding (several numbers are reprised) that stretches it out to 120 minutes. Grouching isn’t necessarily Grinching, but wouldn’t Santa want you to tell the truth?
Old WW2 army pals, the song & dance duo of Wallace & Davis (Bing Crosby & Danny Kaye) click with ‘The Haynes Sisters’, sib act of ‘Betty’ (Rosemary Clooney) and ‘Judy’ (Vera-Ellen), who team up and—seen coming by miles—pair off. The boys-meet-girls folderol (these actors are no longer boys or girls) is their blanket for putting on a Big Show to save the finances and raise the fighting spirit of the guys beloved ‘Major General Tom Waverly’ (Dean Jagger). Now, if someone could just put on a show to raise interest in watching Dean Jagger…
Not sated by the success of 1942’s Holiday Inn and the song that helped make it a hit (that chestnut wartime flick also saved by dancing, from Fred Astaire) and the harvest of record sales, Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby basically re-tooled the older movie for a new decade. Berlin wrote a slew of new tunes, and Bing is flanked by Danny Kaye (for yocks), Rosemary Clooney (for notes) and Vera-Ellen (for gams gone gaga). Paramount expended $3,800,000 for talent & trimmings. The farmhouse set is brought back, jazzed up with color and Paramount’s premiere of VistaVision, their widescreen answer to CinemaScope. Loyal Griggs camerawork does justice to Edith Head’s costumes, including that yellow outfit that emphasizes Vera-Ellen’s 20-inch-waist (watch out for this lanky Yankee, Scarlett O’Hara).
Michael Curtiz directs with uninspired efficiency (Robert Alton staged the dances and songs), but the script is a present best left in the chimney, co-conspired by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. Crosby and Kaye do what they can to goose life out of material that felt old hat when they were younger. Bing, complete with pipe, was 51, his face-making co-star no sprout at 43. Talent trumps desperation, but for better period work, Bing also scored in ’54 with an Oscar nomination for The Country Girl, and Kaye outdid himself the following year as The Court Jester. *
Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen were at the top of their games, at 25 and 32 respectively, though Clooney plays the older sister. She gets to sing, alone and with the others, but they’re all saddled with bland numbers like “Snow” and “Sisters”. Those and the refurbished “Minstrel Number” (gratefully minus blackface this time) are gone one worse by “What Can You With A General”. That one, along with “The Old Man” and “Gee, I Wish I Was Back In The Army” lop side the boy-girl plot enough to make the movie seem like a commercial for the service, apparently needing extra p.r. from Hollywood & Berlin (the Irving one) after the Korean War.
Besides the ambient color and general affability, what really scorches chestnuts is the dancing from Vera-Ellen; her jazzy athleticism, feline reflexes and limbs akimbo high kicks make everything everyone else does look pasty.
Critics were not impressed, but the Eisenhower Era public trooped in by divisions, making it 1954’s biggest hit, grossing at least $30,000,000 domestically, with a healthy overseas take as well. The song “Count Your Blessings” pulled an Oscar nomination, but the title tune to Three Coins In The Fountain carried that home.
With Mary Wickes, Anne Whitfield, Johnny Grant, John Brascia, Barrie Chase, Sig Ruman, Percy Helton, Herb Vigran, Grady Sutton, Gavin Gordon. Among the dancers spot George Chakiris,19, six years away from leading ‘The Sharks’.
* Clooney: “It’s impossible to overemphasize how much this was Bing’s picture. His word was always the tie-breaker. There was never a raised voice, but Bing set the tone. He was always in charge.”
As to the script that Norman Krasna came up with to make Berlin and Der Bingle’s idea float, his-co-writers had two 2-bits worth, with Norman Panama saying “It was a torturous eight weeks of rewriting”, and partner Melvin Frank offering “writing that movie was the worst experience of my life. Norman Krasna was a talented man but… it was the lousiest story I’d ever heard. It needed a brand new story, one that made sense.”
2 thoughts on “White Christmas”
Another nice write-up, Mark- but I beg to differ with you on a few points. You appreciate the lovely ladies more than I do, so maybe that’s why you didn’t mention the creepy-crawly guys in those modern dance numbers. Ugh! The only way we can sit through this movie – and we do, every year – is by fast forwarding past those, including “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.” I do enjoy the more traditional dance number by Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye at the Florida nightclub.
As a girl, my sister and I had fun singing the “Sisters” song, so that’s a highlight- fortunately since it’s in there a lot (3 times?). I also like the vaudeville-esque “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army.” And the song for General Waverly. So basically we like the movie for the opposite reasons. Something for everyone!
As an aside, I’m not so sure about the foregone conclusion that Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye are a couple at the end. She’s got ambition. And I’m not sure what he wants but it’s not to get hitched. I’ve always suspected that their embrace at the end is showmanship.
I did not know Vera-Ellen was the older of the two women. Simply assumed they were cast by age, which shows how little I know about the movie biz.