I just wrote a brief review of Holiday Inn, Mark Sandrich’s famous musical of 1942 starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Before you read this review, you have to read that review. This is because the substance of this review will be founded on important topics that I brought up in that one. The greatness of White Christmas lies not in the fact that it is a sweet or uplifting holiday classic. It is found, first and foremost, in an examination of its place in history and its position as a piece of cinema in juxtaposition with the films that preceded it. One of the great criticisms of White Christmas is that it is just “a pleasant little piece of fluff trying to capitalize on past accomplishments.” (So wrote Movie Metropolis’ John J. Puccio.) But, it is far less a consumerist attempt to spin-off of an older masterpiece than it is a completion of the tale left untold; it is, in essence, the post-war companion piece to its war-time counterpart.
It’s wartime counterpart, Holiday Inn, is about a song-and-dance duo who perform holiday songs at a New England hotel. In particular, it is about trying to find the source, or origin, of a nostalgic dream; and by finding that source, one can find its fulfillment. This was designed in particular for a war-worn audience, who longed for a peace that seemed all the more significant and real at Christmas time. The soul of the American people was made bare in the movie’s centerpiece musical number: “White Christmas.”
In “White Christmas” the song, people longed for the Christmas of their youth, marked by innocence. In White Christmas the movie, people get some of that youth and innocence back, but are continually reminded of that time when they were in darkness. This is what makes the movie so great. When the movie was made in 1954, the war was long over. People were no longer longing for a way out of the darkness of war. They were already out. It was now time to understand what that meant.
White Christmas is, like Holiday Inn, about a song-and-dance duo who perform holiday songs at a New England hotel. Originally written as a reunion film for Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, the movie was to invoke everything that was invoked in Holiday Inn.
The reunion, however, was doomed from the beginning. Crosby withdrew from the role in order to mourn the passing of his wife. Astaire also withdrew after reading the script; he didn’t like it. Further casting attempts fell flat, but were revived again when Crosby decided to get in on the film again. Astaire’s replacement would be difficult to find. He would have to be a dancer. The original selection was Donald O’Connor, who two years earlier had entertained throngs in his role as Gene Kelly’s sidekick dancer in Singin’ in the Rain. Several sequences were written with the intent to be performed by Crosby and O’Connor, but O’Connor ended up dropping out. The sequences with O’Connor were dropped, and in his place came the famous comic, Danny Kaye.
Kaye had become a household name of sorts with earlier performances in such films as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Inspector General. (You didn’t know the Ben Stiller movie was a remake did you?) While not nearly as good a dancer as the two predecessors to his role, Kaye was comedicly genius, with the timing to counterbalance Crosby’s charm. This was not unlike an earlier formula that Paramount had put forward: Crosby had teamed up with Bob Hope for one of Paramount’s most lucrative and critically acclaimed franchises, the “Road To…” movies.
Unlike the occurrences of Holiday Inn, the two main male characters of White Christmas don’t find themselves competing for the love of a single woman. Instead, these two are drawn to a pair of sisters who, in “all kinds of weather…stick together, the same in rain or sun,” with “two different faces, but in tight places…think and…act as one.” These sisters are practically mirrors of the dynamic that was established in 1942 with Holiday Inn and that lived on in White Christmas. Just like how Crosby and Astaire/Kaye were, respectively, a singing man and a dancing man, we have, in White Christmas, Rosemary Clooney as the singing sister and Vera-Ellen as the dancing one. (In no other sequence is this more noticeable than in the performance of “Sisters”; Rosemary Clooney actually sang both parts in the number, acting as Vera-Ellen’s voice dub. In all the other songs, Vera-Ellen’s overdub was performed by Trudy Stevens).
The foursome start performing at a special inn in Pine Tree, Vermont because the inn is owned by Crosby and Kaye’s old commanding officer, General Waverly, and the inn is in danger of going out of business because of the lack of snow that year. The two men have great love and fealty to the General (a fealty that is well-established at the film’s outset), and take it upon themselves to save his business.
This is the most important differentiating factor between White Christmas and Holiday Inn. In Holiday Inn, we have a black-and-white film that takes place during World War II. The black-and-white shows well the darkness of the war period, and gives added depth to the words of “White Christmas.” In White Christmas (the movie) we are taken to a full color film (the first ever film in VistaVision), out of the war and into a peaceful America. Finally, there can be a white Christmas, just like the ones we used to know. But, one cannot forget what happened before. One cannot forget the sacrifices that allowed this white Christmas back into the American life. One cannot ignore the scars that remain from that period of darkness.
Some will criticize White Christmas for being overly sentimental. But, like its predecessor, this movie has a special propaganda-like presence. And, in White Christmas, the explicit use of military characters, we have a film that attempts to illustrate what it’s like when we finally get that white Christmas back, and how to best show our gratitude for it.
This is what makes the movie so great. It, like its predecessor, is more than a Christmas movie. It is a movie about how to live. At the start of the film, we hear two songs that will be reprised at movie’s end: “White Christmas” and “We’ll Follow the Old Man.” The two songs bookend a film full of great song and dance numbers, comedic bits, and romance. They give the film its guiding light throughout. As the characters in this movie strive for a “White Christmas” of their own, they are drawn to help the general whose leadership gave them the opportunity to have a free and preserved America.
Christmas is supposed to help us be more grateful. It is also supposed to encourage us to give and to serve. That is what White Christmas is all about.