Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
White Christmas is a festive musical film released in 1954 and was the first film released in Paramount's VistaVision, a widescreen format that allowed a much greater resolution normally seen at the time. The film, featuring songs by Irving Berlin, stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as two former soldiers turned entertainers who team up with a pair of performing sisters in an attempt to save the lodge ran by their old commanding officer. The film also stars Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Dean Jagger and was directed by Hollywood veteran Michael Curtiz. The film was a huge success with audiences, becoming the highest grossing film of 1954 by some margin with total US takings of $30 million. It also earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.
What's it about?
On Christmas Eve in 1944, Captain Bob Wallace is entertaining the troops of the US 151st Division with fellow entertainer Private Phil Davis. When they learn that their commanding officer Major General Waverly is being relieved of command, Bob and Phil initiate an emotional farewell before being interrupted by an air raid. Phil saves Bob's life but is wounded in the process. It marks the start of a professional relationship between the two who become successful producers in post-war New York.
Receiving a recommendation to see a pair of sisters performing in off-Broadway clubs, Bob and Phil find themselves hopelessly entranced by Betty and Judy Haynes. Following the Haynes girls to Pine Tree in Vermont (where the girls are due to perform over Christmas), a confusion over accommodation forces them to head to the rundown inn now ran by Tom Waverly. Determined to help their old commander turn the business around, Bob and Phil begin to hatch a plan to stage a reunion of the 151st as well as stage the greatest festive stage show ever seen.
Major General Tom Waverly
Norman Kresna, Norman Panama & Melvin Frank
Release Date (UK)
27th December, 1954
Comedy, Festive, Musical, Romance
Academy Award Nomination
Best Original Song
What's to like?
If you're not familiar with the golden age of Hollywood musicals then this film is just one such reminder of how talented everyone was. It's well documented how good Clooney and Crosby were as singers but Kaye also demonstrates remarkable comic timing as well as impeccable dancing (compared to my shambolic standards, anyway) and Vera-Ellen delivers an incredible flexible performance as dancer and singer Judy Haynes. The four of them drop in and out of song at a moment's notice, stopping the story to trip the light fantastic before dropping back into narrative. And because the songs are penned by the irreplaceable Berlin, each number has a punchy enthusiasm that gets you energised.
The film doesn't just sound amazing but looks fantastic as well, mainly due to the use of VistaVision which floods the film with deep, glowing colours. The film seems saturated in shade with blushing reds, blinding whites and shocking blues seemingly reaching out of the screen and helps White Christmas deliver on the festivities front. Compared to more contemporary musicals like Chicago, the film has a blissful innocence about it and the characters who behave more like children during the romantic subplots.
- Although the film is named after Bing Crosby's famous song White Christmas, this is actually the third film where Crosby performs the song. He first sang it in 1942's Holiday Inn and again in Blue Skies in 1946.
- Vera-Ellen's singing voice was dubbed by Trudy Stevens, a friend of Clooney's who regularly dubbed the actress. The only time Vera-Ellen's singing voice is actually heard is very briefly at the beginning of the scene where the train arrives in Pine Tree.
- Despite the film's popularity, an official soundtrack has never been produced. Decca Records held the rights to the film's soundtrack but Clooney was signed exclusively to Columbia Records. Both labels published imitation soundtracks - the former replacing Clooney with Peggy Lee while the latter featured Clooney singing with her sister, Betty.
- The Vermont Inn is modelled to resemble the Connecticut Inn seen in Holiday Inn. Since Holiday Inn was in black-and-white, the set was painted grey to match the look of the earlier film. This film was intended to be a proper sequel but Crosby's co-star Fred Astaire turned the film down, having temporarily retired.
What's not to like?
Not being an avid viewer of musicals from the Fifties, I can only really compare White Christmas to one other film, Singin' In The Rain. Unfortunately, this doesn't make for a fair comparison as that has come to be regarded as one of the very best musicals Hollywood has ever produced. Certainly, the songs don't feel as memorable as those of Singin' In The Rain and the dance sequences definitely lack the joyous spontaneity brought by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Conner. The only real classic moment seen in White Christmas is at the end when the whole cast join together for a rousing performance of the title song.
I also feel that this film has one or two other issues. Narratively, the film feels a bit confused with numerous plot threads running throughout that don't necessarily meet in the middle. I also couldn't help shake my head at the slight age-gap between Crosby (who was 51 at the time of filming) and Clooney who was just 26. That's a 25-year difference in a romantic pairing, probably the biggest gap I've seen since Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment. It does give the film some plausibility problems, even a film like this where Christmas magic can seemingly explain a number of things.
Should I watch it?
White Christmas may have its problems but through sheer talent and force of will, it remains joyously old-fashioned festive fun. The cast give the film every ounce of enthusiasm they can muster and it turns a fairly forgettable musical into something the whole family can enjoy and sing along to (if you're of a certain age, at any rate). It's not exactly my cup of tea but I understand why people do enjoy the film - no-one can resist Bing whenever he starts to sing what has become arguably the ultimate Christmas song.
Great For: your grand-parents, helping younger viewers realise how devoid of talent Hollywood is these days, Christmas family viewing
Not So Great For: Scrooges, action fans, Goths
What else should I watch?
Of course, for all my dismissing of Hollywood's talent pool these days, occasionally they do spring a genuine surprise of you. Despite almost winning the Oscar for Best Film, La La Land came from nowhere and took the world by storm with both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling singing and dancing their way through the romance between a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress. It's also one of the few original musicals to be made in the last few years that weren't jukebox-musicals featuring popular chart hits - consider the likes of Mamma Mia!, Rock Of Ages and Pitch Perfect.
The Fifties were really the boom-time for cinematic musicals with classics like An American In Paris, Jailhouse Rock, The King And I and possibly the best of the lot, Singin' In The Rain. If you're looking for a decent musical that shows Hollywood at its very best with talented casts giving it their all then I'd advise you to start in this decade. Chances are, you'll find a winner.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox
Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on December 08, 2018:
I believe Kaye steals the film somewhat from Crosby, who just feels too old in the role. I love Kaye's enthusiasm and comic timing, not to mention a surprisingly rubber face!
Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on December 07, 2018:
Most musicals will pale compared to Singin' In The Rain. Great songs, great dancing, and great comedy make it so special. I can't say I have seen much of Vera-Ellen, but what I've seen makes her one of the very best. I hope you will catch up to On The Town to see some more of her amazing talent.
Brian Lokker from Bethesda, Maryland on December 07, 2018:
I just watched this movie for the first time, and I agree with most of the points you've made in your review. The story is a little corny, and many of the characters' attitudes and mannerisms seem dated, but overall it's fun. I think Danny Kaye's performance was the best of the lot.