Traditional Christmas facades and images feature a crisp blanket of snow dusting the leaves of an evergreen tree. Thank Irving Berlin in part for such associations, as it’s his oft-recognizable song “White Christmas” that certainly helped perpetuate this notion. The 1954 film of the same name features Berlin collaborator, and master crooner, Bing Crosby, doing what he does best: getting the girl, losing the girl, getting her back, and singing his way through the action. It’s a comedic, engaging story that feels more like a play than a movie, and a lovely traditional holiday favorite.
“White Christmas” opens on Christmas Eve in 1944, overseas in an American World War II camp. Famed Broadway star Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) throw a holiday concert for their fellow troops, simultaneously a farewell for seasoned General Thomas Waverly (Dean Jagger). The festivities are interrupted by enemy shelling, and Pvt. Davis saves Cpt. Wallace, injuring his arm in the process. Wallace suggests that the two go into show business together.
After establishing an act, Davis laments that Wallace hasn’t met a girl yet. Phil persistently introduces Bob to various showgirls, but to no avail. Phil jokes that he wishes Bob would settle down and have nine children so he can spend just five minutes a day with each kid, giving Phil 45 minutes to himself. After a gig in Miami, Wallace and Davis attend a nearby show by Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen) Haynes, the sisters of old army pal “Freckle-Faced Haynes.” Phil develops an interest in Judy, while Bob seems to gravitate toward Betty. Wallace and Davis help the Haynes sisters escape a particularly ornery landlord, and the four end up in Vermont where they conveniently happen to find accommodation at an inn owned by none other General Waverly.
Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” displays more like a play or show than a film since it’s a musical, but also because much of the plot revolves around Wallace and Davis’ act. As such there are more than a few rehearsal numbers. The soundtrack is packed with memorable tunes including the titular “White Christmas.” There’s a side-splittingly hilarious scene where Bing and Danny crossdress and perform the song “Sisters,” while allowing the Haynes sisters to evade the landlord.
It’s the garnishes, and the musical numbers, that set “White Christmas” apart and establish the film as the classic it is today. The plot is notably predictable, and the story comes neatly packaged and tied with a bow. However, the narrative serves a foundation for the exuberant dance scenes, remarkable crooning, and clever comedy. Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby share a wonderful chemistry, especially in their duets. Vera-Ellen and Kaye steal the show shuffling across the dance floor, and it’s astounding how talented the four headliners were. Each entertainer could dance and sing phenomenally. Small touches further solidify “White Christmas” as a masterpiece. There are a few running gags, such as Phil Davis’ constant reminder that he saved Bob Wallace. Renowned dancer Barrie Chase offers a wonderful showgirl caricature with her repeated response “mutual I’m sure!” Mary Wickes plays innkeeper Emma perfectly.
With the breadth of Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin’s combined and individual works, it’s difficult choosing the best, but “White Christmas” is arguably their best holiday flick. The score incorporates several lovely Christmas tunes, the finest of which is “Snow.” The scene takes place on a train to Vermont, and Crosby, Clooney, Kaye, and Ellen combine for wonderful harmony, and an ingenious recreation of a snow covered landscape. This segment overshadows the slam bang finish at the finale. A true holiday favorite, December just isn’t complete without an annual screening of “White Christmas.”