White Christmas: A Beautiful Bottom Line

Just about everything in White Christmas is designed to encourage viewers who knew World War II all too well to think of it as a moment of great cultural growth. That victory, it seems to say, is the ultimate justification for being rich, happy, and in love. For a modern viewer, the film has an unmistakable feeling of cultural superiority, of a generation made invincibly confident by victory (and why not?). In front of the screen, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) waltz around the ol’ U.S. of A making sacks of gold and glinting with what Phil calls a “Rogers and Hammerstein look.” The womenfolk remark that doing everything with an “angle” for profit is a pretty cynical way to look at things. Through them, the film sets up the illusion of discovering the true meaning of Christmas while behind the screen, Bing, director Michael Curtiz, and Irving Berlin (the composer of "White Christmas"), finagle the most spectacular angle in musical history. They turn WWII and even Christmas itself into the slam-bang movie event of the season on the back of its most popular song. Make no mistake – White Christmas never fails to illicit smiles for the simpler days of Christmas cards and firesides, even if it’s taking an admission fee with its other hand for the most glitzed-up technicolor blockbuster of its day.

The film opens with one of its most effective numbers – Crosby singing “White Christmas” in front of a canvas picture of snowy trees to a division of soldiers in a bombed-out street in the middle of somewhere. The scene elicits the film’s most treasured feeling (who doesn’t feel right at home when looking into Bing’s droopy blue eyes?). The smaller scenes tend to be the film’s most memorable, regardless of Bing and Curtiz getting that Rogers and Hammerstein look over the ones that are more wham-glam. These include not only the opening but “What Can You Do With a General?”, another Crosby solo about the cultural lostness of post-war military leaders, and “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” Rosemary Clooney’s Carousel Club feature. The film includes the biggest, smallest, and every number in between (it does so with casual grace). Yet at the same time that this gives White Christmas an all-in feeling, it also creates the impression of uneven world-building, if anyone could stop smiling long enough to notice (to the film’s credit, it’s hard to do so).

Though the screenwriters Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank set up a situation where musical numbers occur in the film’s reality, everything around the numbers also looks like a movie set. When Bing sings on a stage as Axis bombs drop around him, both the stage and the buildings look like sets. There’s a brilliant cutaway from the end of an exhaustingly delightful production number, “Mandy,” to three housekeepers clapping in an empty room full of upturned chairs. Yet, the whole lodge looks like a façade on the outside. Another number between Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” takes place on a dock that looks like a dance floor, down to the handrails and scuff marks, while a non-existent chorus of singers and instruments accompanies them.

All of that is normal for most musicals, where there is no distinction between musical numbers and reality. The weird thing about White Christmas is that it establishes a way for the numbers to fit in their reality, yet doesn’t always take advantage of it. The script’s whole concept – that the musical part happens on a real stage in the reality of the film – is not strictly necessary when even a few scenes ignore the purpose of the illusion. It ends up being as it is in the reality of the box office – an excuse to have four beautiful people sing together and nothing more. This does not make White Christmas bad. It just reduces it to its face value.

It is as enjoyable as watching colorful musical numbers starring some of the century’s greatest performers, yet cannot go beyond that in its filmmaking. It can't seem to break the barrier of the medium as Singin’ in the Rain did or create a full-fledged fantasy like Minelli made from turn-of-the-century play-pretend in Meet Me in St. Louis. If White Christmas was made to be frivolous-beautiful and light as a costume feather, it is only because those things were outrightly profitable in post-war America, a time for which we are now hungrily nostalgic and willing to mistake as innocent. Crosby and Berlin split 50% of the considerable gross; Kaye agreed to do the film after Fred Astaire and Donald O’Connor turned it down but only for $200,000 plus 10% of the take (today that would be over $30 million, comparable to the pay of the more popular Avengers). Kaye had optimized chuckle physics by this point; the film would be noticeably less fluffy without him. But the behind-the-scenes haggling still creates a loud contrast with the film’s stated intentions.

Curtiz seems to know that the movie’s appeal is in the content more than the story, a belief that makes the film watchable but also cramped, at times. This is never clearer than in the “Abraham” number, a wordless dance routine between Vera-Ellen in a now-iconic yellow dress and John Brascia, the film’s real choreographer. It happens in the film at its lowest point, as Betty (Rosemary Clooney) leaves the show, her sister (Vera-Ellen), and her love for Bob (Crosby) because of a misunderstanding. With the main dramatic thread on the audience’s mind, this frivolous dance number is an iconically misplaced sentiment. The entire pace of the film’s last act would be improved without it, yet I get the sense that showing two beautiful people doing what they do best took priority over pacing (you can almost hear a producer saying, "that's what audiences pay to see"). The normally precise Curtiz (there’s not an extra second of breath in Casablanca or The Adventures of Robin Hood) seems more concerned in White Christmas with showing everything that they bothered to film than pacing a perfect amount of it.

Yes, each scene of the film is a face value enjoyment. But it’s a testament to its cast, all scooped up by gentle plot mechanisms and dressed up for the camera like they’re posing for a record slipcover, that it has as much joyous feeling as it does. While the film sells Bing as the irreplaceable personality, it’s his specific chemistry with Kaye that motivates the film to move at a steady frolic. You would never know that Kaye was a last-minute replacement or that the script was completely rewritten weeks before shooting due to Curtiz’s disgust at the first draft – the film gives off the confident sheen of being exactly as it intended. At my house, certain lines from Kaye (“Sure, but I feel the same about my cocker spaniel”) never fail to produce laughs. During the “Sisters” reprise, where Bob and Phil cover for the Haynes sisters by lip-syncing to their floorshow, Kaye slaps Bing with an oversized costume feather in time to the music and you get the sense for all the world that Bing is laughing for real, like Kaye might have only done it in that take. Bing’s laughter is in one moment what makes White Christmas an experience invulnerable to most criticism – its play-pretenders really are just playing.

It’s the first film shot in VistaVision, a now-famous widescreen process that gave a movie twice as much surface area to work with. For White Christmas, this has the most impact on its color. When the cast comes out for their curtain call at the end (both inside and outside of the film), dressed all in velvety Santa Claus red, they seem to fill up our visual reality. You want to pick them off the shelf. But the set-like nature of the visuals doesn’t always seem to take advantage of the technology’s potential, simultaneously creating the feeling of a welcoming space and a cramped one. It’s the cinematography equivalent of a backlot tour. By contrast, one year later, Hitchcock took VistaVision to the Alpes-Maritimes in Southeast France to film To Catch a Thief. It’s that moment and not White Christmas that feels like VistaVision’s debut.

I want to clarify that a director taking the extravagant technology-obsessed musical numbers of White Christmas at the face value of their performers’ charms is not an easy task. Many romances fail to make it seem worth it that their cast is so likable, creating frustrating plot mechanisms that make me wish they’d slow down and relax into their personalities. The Mark Sandrich-directed film, Holiday Inn, which debuted the song “White Christmas” to the world, gives me that impression with allegedly heartwarming feelings that boil down to people vindictively misinforming their friend’s potential lovers so they can steal them for themselves. White Christmas doesn’t have that problem. Its plot devices are passed off as a device in the context of the movie. The characters accept them so confidently that the audience has no reason to resist.

Bob expects Phil’s finagling and rolls with it, offering only the pleasantest forms of protest in Bing-specific isms, raising his eyebrows while talking in a slow tone, with a look like his clothes got too big for him all of a sudden. In a key scene, they undress in their dressing room together, tossing each other their clothes and rattling about the current state of their friendship in dialogue that has the energy of a hibachi chef on the grill. Curtiz manages to keep the scene loaded with exposition yet powered by character. Crucially, White Christmas is never as pleased with itself as the Crosby and Hope “Road to …” films – Curtiz doesn’t establish a reality that’s totally free from winking but doesn’t resort to Looney Tunes gags to keep the audience interested.

The film instead relies on emotional situations that were teary-severe to audiences at the time and now need an ambassador to remind us of the feeling. The film finds it in Dean Jagger as General Waverly, whose emotions are the crux of the plot, including the misunderstanding (the “tactical error,” he calls it) of Bob and Betty’s breakup late in the film. This device is the only time White Christmas manipulates believability to pull off its plot. It does it as though the intended resolution is so easy that the script needed to at least try to make it seem like the characters worked for it. It feels more forced to me every year.

The situation is this. Betty leaves because she suspects Bob of taking advantage of the General’s vulnerable emotional state for money. This isn’t true – the housekeeper (a seemingly ageless Mary Wickes) nosily listens in on one bit of a phone conversation, which makes it seem like Bob has an “angle” on the whole merry Christmastime festivities, a point Betty had expressed being sensitive about earlier. Bob seems to confirm her suspicions when he suggests turning their romantic fireside lullaby, “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)” into a number for the show. That scene should have been perfect. But the problem with this whole setup is that the audience knows that Bob is innocent. The film suggests that he views show business like a mercenary (“Everybody’s got an angle”), but he never demonstrates it through his actions. He’s reasonably generous throughout the film. This makes the misunderstanding seem like her fault since she doesn’t clarify the situation (one conversation would do).

Since it's her belief that he's not a "shining knight on a white horse" that makes the situation heavy, it should have been her misunderstanding, not the starchy housekeeper misinforming her, that leads to her leaving. It’s so disjointed from the characters’ real natures that from Bob’s perspective, when Betty kisses him at the end, he has no idea what happened. If asked, he would probably shrug his slumped shoulders and warble, “Womenfolk sure are odd.” Only the audience has a clear picture. The device doesn’t work because the script wanted to give Bob a redemption arc worthy of a Christmas film without giving BING CROSBY any character flaws.

They might have thought this device was necessary from a production standpoint because without it, the film has almost no “conflict.” There’s never any doubt that the General will get the Christmas present he deserves. Yet the part never fails to get tears from me because of what Jagger is able to pull off at a glance, which is the mix of nostalgia and humility of a man who has accepted no longer having a place in a society that no longer needs him. When he looks around at the world he helped save, he has the gentle understanding of a parent forgiving their child for forgetting to call. There is almost no tension in anticipating his Christmas gift, yet the audience has no need for any. He went through a war – he doesn’t need to endure a plot as well (neither did the audience).

Conflict is not why White Christmas itself has endured. Its performers’ confidence in their little universe, particularly their nonchalant wealth, brings joy to each new decade in proportion to how far away it is from feeling that good. It’s a fairytale that prioritizes ease of use. The film is ironically not most magical when the characters sing together (the film is so aggressively dubbed that it sometimes comes off as a con). Instead, it’s brilliance is in the quips, in Clooney’s VistaVision-encompassing smile, in Crosby’s way of saying even the most important plot dialogue with the wistful certainty that a normal person would say, “well, you can’t take it with you.” Only Vera-Ellen seems to have a smaller share of the talent pie between the four of them – despite being a bogglingly functional dancer, she has the voice of someone who “had” to sing, in a film among singers. Mercifully, Trudy Stevens dubbed her voice in “Sisters” (some sources say Clooney sang both parts). Vera-Ellen’s real voice only appears in the “Snow” number on the train and the shift is noticeable.

Of course, I’m forgetting someone. No one would argue that Danny Kaye was the greatest singer or dancer of the 20th century, but he does both like he’s enjoying being mistaken for it. That energy adds the “something” to White Christmas that irons out the whiff of profitability. He’s able to reduce his time period to playing around, a sensation that works particularly well in a film established explicitly to take the most heartwarming feelings in Western society and rake them over the coals of a perfect marketing plot. I doubt audiences at the time noticed that fact any more than Phil Wallace seems to regret it. After fighting that war, what could possibly bother you?

Watching the film every year brings the unmistakable sensation of wish-fulfillment. But it doesn’t make me wish I was married to Rosemary Clooney or Vera-Ellen, or playing the part of the general in a society that has no room for him, or even living the Rogers and Hammerstein dream as Bing Crosby. It barely even makes me wish for Christmas. It just makes me want to be Danny Kaye for an hour a day. The thing they planned the least ends up being the thing that works most, like giving the perfect present. It’s never the one you planned the hardest, spent the most on, built the most sets for, or utilized the fanciest technology to pull off. It’s the one that made you smile, automatically and simply as children do, just thinking about someone opening it. Not to burst the Bing-Berlin bubble, but that feeling is free.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Paramount Pictures

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