White Christmas: Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and Danny Kaye being held hostage on a VistaVision soundstage!
If you are worried and you can’t sleep, watch White Christmas instead of counting sheep. Works faster than a right hook with a bottle of Ambien clutched in its fist.
— Scott Marks
White Christmas (1954)
A couple that I know watches White Christmas every year with the lady’s parents. When asked if she thought it was a musical of note, my friend’s reply was, “Not really. It’s more of a tradition.” So are full metal fruitcakes and glasses of cow juice left overnight by the fireplace in hopes that St. Nicholas soon will appear and drink it down before it curdles. The film has, admittedly, earned its place in history books as the first release shot in VistaVision, Paramount’s non-anamorphic widescreen answer to CinemaScope. It was also the biggest grossing film of 1954. But as a piece of filmmaking, the only things White Christmas has going for it are Hal Pereira’s luxurious set design and the Irving Berlin songbook.
The film’s biggest drawback is its script, written by Bob Hope gagmen Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank. (Bing’s name in the picture is “Bob,” leaving one to wonder how much better this might have fared under the title Road to Christmas.) Paramount’s aim was to cash in on a past triumph by remaking Mark Sandrich’s far superior Holiday Inn. It was to be a Frankenstein creation, stitching together pieces of the original with scenes from one of Krasna’s unmade scripts. I’ve had nosebleeds with a more consistent structure than this.
Whatever hopes there were of reuniting Bing with his original Holiday Inn co-star Fred Astaire were quickly dashed. According to a supplemental documentary on Disc 2, Dr. Drew Casper argued the reason Astaire passed on the project was because he felt he “was getting too old for stuff like this.” Between 1955-1957, Astaire appeared in Daddy Long Legs, Funny Face, and Silk Stockings. So much for age getting in the way of artistry. I’m more inclined to agree with TCM’s Jeremy Arnold who succinctly reasoned, “Fred Astaire...wasn’t crazy about the script and pulled out.” Replacing Astaire with Danny Kaye was tantamount to sprinkling Molly McButter Buds on a lobster rather than dipping its meat into a basin of warm, freshly churned milk fat. My appreciation of Kaye is limited to one film, The Man From the Diner’s Club, and then only because it was directed by personal deity Frank “Acme” Tashlin. One look at Kaye, and I can understand why others scratch their heads whenever I mention my love of Jerry Lewis. The only time fey Kaye comes off looking good is when he and Der Bingle — both in semi-drag — lip sync “Sisters.” The film has two advantages over its predecessor, starting with swapping out Holiday Inn’s Marjorie Reynolds for sultry songstress Rosemary Clooney who, like Kaye, wasn’t much of a dancer. And unlike “Abraham,” White Christmas’ minstrel number is performed in whiteface.
This was director Michael Curtiz’s (Angels With Dirty Faces, Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy) first film at Paamount after spending decades under contract to Warner Bros. With the exception of “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing,” a number that finds Kaye and Vera Ellen (a Hollywood virgin who makes Doris Day look like Gloria Grahame) covering every inch of Novello’s outdoor eatery, Curtiz essentially parks his camera in the fourth row and covers the rest of numbers as if he were filming a Broadway musical. Then there’s Snow, a number that finds our quartet singing while seated in a clubcar booth. The recording session was probably more camera-friendly than the finished product.
As is the custom for films from Hollywood’s Golden Era, a “spot the character actor” drinking game might be the only way to get through this. Professional spinster Mary Wickes is afforded ample screen time as innkeeper Emma Allen. King of the namby-pambys Grady Sutton tries to cut in on Bing and Rosie’s reconciliatory dance. America’s favorite Nazi sawbones, Sig Ruman, pops up as “Landlord,” and a youthful George Chakiris appears as one of the background dancers. Even Dick Stabile, Jerry Lewis’ conductor for 157 years, is on board as (what else) the the Carousel Club bandleader. And look closely: the photo insert of Benny, the old Army buddy who brought Bing and Danny together with Rosie and Vera, is none other than Our Gang’s Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer.
It’s fitting that the film opens on a Currier and Ives backdrop — a meticulously painted, but hopelessly synthetic canvas. Other than a second unit shot of the Super Chief transporting our stars from New York to Vermont, there’s not a drop of location footage to be found. At best, it’s a meager serving of cinematic comfort food that packs all the warmth and integrity of a pre-lit, flocked-white artificial fir.