Whether it's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) or MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), the holiday film of yesteryear had good wholesome intentions. WHITE CHRISTMAS is no exception. Although it has a holiday title, WHITE CHRISTMAS is really a show business musical that just happens to have a couple of great Irving Berlin Christmas songs and a beginning and ending that takes place on Christmas Eve. Its heart is in the right place however as two entertainers help an old friend through some tough financial times.
Once again, one of my favorite directors, the versatile Michael Curtiz, is at the helm of WHITE CHRISTMAS. WHITE is probably one of Curtiz's best known films toward the tail end of his productive career yet he shows once again how he was able to handle any type of film genre - horror, adventure, drama, western, biography, and in this case, musical. Three screenwriters got credit for WHITE CHRISTMAS - Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank. Sometimes multiple writers spells script trouble but WHITE CHRISTMAS flows nicely. The real writer for this film is songwriter Irving Berlin.
The film begins on the front lines in Europe toward the end of World War II as Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) perform for the troops on Christmas Eve 1944. The show is for their beloved commander Major General Thomas F. Waverly (Dean Jagger) who is being relieved of his command apparently for being too soft with his troops i.e. he treats them like human beings. As the show concludes, bombs begin to fall and the men scatter for safety. A wall begins to fall toward Wallace. Davis pushes both of them out of the way just in time, saving Wallace's life. Wallace asks if there's anything he can do for Davis to return the favor and Davis asks to be a part of Wallace's show when the war ends.
The film moves forward a few years as civilians Wallace and Davis return to the States after the war and take their act on the road, becoming a huge entertainment hit with their song and dance routine. As the show prepares to take a break for the Christmas holiday, they receive a letter from a former war buddy asking them to check out his sisters singing act, currently performing in Palm Beach, Florida. Davis, concerned that Wallace is all work and no fun, convinces his singing partner to go with him to check out the Haynes sisters - Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera Ellen).
The boys are immediately smitten by the two talented, beautiful women. After the show, Betty confesses that she wrote the letter to them, not her brother. Even worse, the sisters are in some trouble with their current landlord and the local sheriff is at the show looking to arrest them. Davis gives the girls his and Wallace's train tickets and the two men stall the sheriff as the sisters flee. They all end up on the same train, headed for Pine Tree, Vermont where the Haynes sisters are to perform next.
It turns out the Columbia Inn in Pine Tree is owned by the retired Major General Waverly. He runs it with his granddaughter Susan (Anne Whitfield) and the nosy but good hearted desk clerk Emma Allen (Mary Wickes). With very little snow and few guests, Waverly is in some financial stress. Wallace and Davis decide to bring their show up to Pine Tree to bring the crowds in and save the Inn with the help of Betty and Judy as well.
Bing Crosby made so many of the ROAD TO movies with Bob Hope that's it's surprising that it's Danny Kaye as Crosby's buddy and not Hope in WHITE CHRISTMAS. Ironically, Crosby's co-star was to be Fred Astaire who co-starred with Crosby in an earlier holiday film with songs by Irving Berlin called HOLIDAY INN (1942) but Astaire passed on WHITE. Donald O'Connor (SINGING IN THE RAIN) was then asked but he was injured at the time so the producers turned to Danny Kaye. Next to O'Connor, no one plays the show business entertainer better than Kaye. Crosby and Kaye's chemistry is vital to WHITE CHRISTMAS'S success and they're a winning team together. On the flip side, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen are the feminine carbon copy of Crosby and Kaye. Both ladies are believable as sisters and equally talented.
The films showcases all four stars strengths: Crosby's crooning, Kaye's comedic artistry, Clooney's voice, and Vera Ellen's dancing. Besides the four co-stars entertainment abilities, I was mesmerized by their physical features: Clooney's platinum blonde hairdo, Crosby's deep blue eyes, Kaye's rubbery face, and Vera Ellen's tiny waist. Sadly in real life, Vera Ellen did battle anorexia. I had never seen Vera Ellen in anything before but she is an exquisite dancer who partnered with all the greats in movies including Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Donald O'Connor.
The key role for me in WHITE CHRISTMAS is Dean Jagger as Major General Waverly. Although a supporting character, his performance in the opening scene paves the way for the altruistic act that Wallace and Davis pay back later to Waverly. Waverly's humanity toward his troops on Christmas Eve is touching and he has a funny scene where he sends the driver for the incoming commander replacing him the long way back to headquarters so he can enjoy the holiday show and his troops one last time. If we didn't care for Waverly at the beginning, we could care less about his financial predicament later on. But Jagger makes Waverly warm and human but not in a maudlin way. We feel loyal to him like his troops do. Hell, I'd go fight in a war for him. Although not well known, Dean Jagger won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the film TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH (1949).
Once again, director Curtiz uses an establishment as another character like he did with Rick's Cafe in CASABLANCA (1942) or Mildred's Diner in MILDRED PIERCE (1945). In WHITE CHRISTMAS, the Columbia Inn becomes a character itself, warm and genuine like Waverly. Curtiz also uses the Inn and it's barn as a place to stage several song and dance numbers as Wallace, Davis, and the Waverly sisters rehearse for the show. In a bit of film trivia, one of the uncredited dancers in a musical number with Rosemary Clooney in WHITE CHRISTMAS is George Chakiris who would find fame as Bernardo in WEST SIDE STORY (1961).
Believe it or not, WHITE CHRISTMAS is not the first film that Crosby had sung the title song. He had also sang it in HOLIDAY INN and BLUE SKIES (1946). WHITE really only has one other holiday themed song from composer Irving Berlin which Crosby sings to Clooney called Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep. Sometimes the best holiday films like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE or WHITE CHRISTMAS aren't entirely set during Christmas. What makes them great holiday films is the universal theme of giving. Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE continually sacrifices his dreams to give someone else a chance: his brother, the people of Bedford Falls, even an angel named Clarence. WHITE CHRISTMAS is all about the spirit of giving. Wallace and Davis give Major General Waverly another chance to relive the most important part of his life -- his military days and leading his men.
WHITE CHRISTMAS was Paramount's first film shot in Vista Vision and director Curtiz takes full advantage of it with his vivid color choices and composition. Curtiz cleverly opens and ends the film on Christmas Eve and with the same long tracking shot - tight on Wallace and Davis to begin with and pulling back to reveal the audience.
I would have preferred to have viewed and wrote and finished this before Christmas but my own Christmas obligations got in the way which leads to a final thought. Christmas movies should only be watched during the holidays. They don't quite have that same effect if it's May or August. So whether it's A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) or THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004) or WHITE CHRISTMAS, make sure to watch a holiday film between Thanksgiving and Christmas.