Retrospective Review: White Christmas (1954)

Year: 1954

Runtime: 120 Minutes

Director: Michael Curtiz

Writer: Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, Melvin Frank

Stars: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen

By Joan Amenn

It was 1941 and American soldiers were away from home only weeks after Pearl Harbor. On Christmas Day they heard a song written by a Russian Jewish immigrant that spoke of all their longing for home and the comforts of the holiday sung by Bing Crosby on the radio. Seventy-eight years later, “White Christmas’ by Irving Berlin has lost none of its poignancy and the film that shares its title is just as cherished. “White Christmas” is a remarkable film, especially for the two fantastic leading ladies it is lucky to claim.

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Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954) (IMDB)

Two Army pals work hard to rise to stardom after the war. As the film opens, we see their climb to success and their commiseration that their personal lives have paid a heavy price. Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) is the workaholic of the duo while his partner, Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) frets that for all their fame neither is very happy. This all changes one night when they catch an up and coming nightclub act by the Haynes Sisters, (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen). The men pursue the ladies to their next performance venue which coincidentally turns out to be a financially struggling hotel in Vermont run by a retired general, their former superior officer.

“‘White Christmas’ by Irving Berlin has lost none of its poignancy and the film that shares its title is just as cherished. “White Christmas” is a remarkable film, especially for the two fantastic leading ladies it is lucky to claim.”

Bing Crosby sings the title song he would forever be associated with as the film opens in a bombed-out area of Europe where a company of GI’s are bidding farewell to retiring Major General Waverly and trying to piece together a little Christmas cheer. This is poignantly close to the reality of an actual event where Crosby sang “White Christmas” to servicemen during a USO show before the Battle of the Bulge. Danny Kaye is not remembered as well as his co-star these days, but he manages to steal most of the scenes he is in here. That is not an easy task considering he is up against the combined talents of big band singer Clooney and powerhouse dancer Vera-Ellen.

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Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954) (IMDB)

The irony of “White Christmas” is even though it headlines the combined talents of its male leads the ladies bring down the house, apart from one scene. Vera-Ellen did not make many films but “White Christmas” and “On the Town” (1949) ensured her being a dance icon forever. Kaye is a competent dancer, but Vera-Ellen got her start as a Radio City Music Hall Rockette. In “On the Town” she is matched with a fellow Olympian of dance, Gene Kelly. In “White Christmas” her turbocharged high kicks are showcased with dancer John Brascia who strangely has no character development other than to try to keep up with her energy. Kaye and Vera-Ellen do have a lovely romantic dance sequence together but it is clear that she is leading him and to his credit, he plays to her strength.

Rosemary Clooney is chiefly remembered today as the aunt of George Clooney which is a shame since she was a huge star in her time. She and Vera-Ellen play off each other as sisters very well, the former being protective of the more impulsive latter. Clooney manages to stop the film dead with a smoldering torch song, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.” Dressed to kill in a stunning Edith Head gown that accentuated her curves and accompanied by male dancers among whom is George Chakiris, future Oscar winner for “West Side Story, she practically sets the scene on fire. In real life she and Crosby were good friends so their scene together as they discuss different late-night snacks and their potential impact on their sleep has genuine spontaneity and warmth. Maybe their chemistry doesn’t quite work because their age difference is fairly obvious, they clearly were very fond of one another.

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Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas (1954) (IMDB)

The most memorable scene of “White Christmas” has nothing to do with any holiday. Kaye shows why he was a comic genius as he and Crosby ham it up to a recording of the ladies singing their signature song, “Sisters.” Crosby barely keeps up with lip-synching the lyrics because of his partner’s mostly improvised shenanigans that keep him in stitches. Not since Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘em Laugh” in “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) has there been a more hilarious dance routine on film. Kaye typically played a lovable goofball in his films which compliments Crosby’s more laid-back deadpan humor here. Edith Head rose to the occasion of creating flattering costumes for two ladies with very different body types as well as a fleet of dance costumes for numerous extras.

“The most memorable scene of “White Christmas” has nothing to do with any holiday. Kaye shows why he was a comic genius as he and Crosby ham it up to a recording of the ladies singing their signature song, “Sisters.” Crosby barely keeps up with lip-synching the lyrics because of his partner’s mostly improvised shenanigans that keep him in stitches.”

Director Michael Curtiz is known for so many successful films it is no surprise his talent was behind the cameras for this one as well. Arguably a few scenes could have been cut, such as the questionable “Minstrel Show” and odd “Choreography.” In the same vein, Irving Berlin wrote so many beautiful songs it is completely understandable that occasionally a dud slipped past his pen. “What Can You Do With A General?” is a real head-scratcher but “Gee! I Wish I Was Back in the Army” is at least played for laughs and leads into the beautiful Christmas pageant that ends the film triumphantly.

Any film that is so old it references Alaska as being “out of the country” can be considered a bit dated but “White Christmas” is loved for the timeless sentimentality encapsulated in the lyrics of the song that inspired it. It is truly both merry and bright.

 

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