White Christmas is a perennial favorite song and film. The two are inseparable, really. The song is both the inspiration behind and the main set-piece of the film (it pre-dates the film by over a decade). The version of the song sung by Bing Crosby, also the film’s star, is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling single of all time. ‘White Christmas’ the song also boasts over 500 recorded versions in several different languages though it is the version by Bing Crosby that steadfastly remains the enduring classic. In short, Christmas is very nearly synonymous with 'White Christmas' one way or another and you have undoubtedly heard several dozen versions of the song in your lifetime. But have you seen the film?
The 1954 film was an immediate success in its own right – it was popular then and is popular now. It stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as wartime entertainers and soldiers Bob Wallace and Phil Davis. Following an incident in which Kaye’s Davis saves Crosby’s Wallace from falling debris in an attack, the two return home and pair up to rousing stage success. They become so successful as an entertainment duo that Davis begins to long for some precious time off. Over the holidays they meet up with the sister act siblings of a wartime pal, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, and the foursome end up in a struggling Vermont Inn run by Wallace and Davis’ former commanding officer. They decide to help the general out by shipping the cast and crew of their current hit to the inn to rehearse, thus drumming up business, and work the sisters Betty (Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen) in where they can. The finale is a heart-warming tribute to their general, an ode to friendship, and also an affirmation of blossoming love. It is unabashedly sentimental and features the hijinks and romantic endeavors of big-time Broadway producers and entertainers instead of children or the downtrodden. It isn’t your usual hard-luck moral Christmas movie but it is sweet, sincere, and wildly entertaining.
The movie is full of delicious song and dance numbers. The majestic finale features ‘White Christmas’, swaths of red silk, a giant Christmas tree, child ballet dancers, and a dreamy snowfall. As grand as it is, however, my favorite numbers have always been ‘Sisters’, ‘The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing’, and ‘Snow’. ‘Snow’ amuses me because it’s sung when the four leads meet up on a train en route to Vermont and, while chatting together in the train’s club car, they spontaneously break into four-part harmony about the glories of snow. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, while having coffee with friends, you could all just sing in perfect harmony on cue? Making up verses as you go? Nobody off key? I love how lilting and melodic it is but mostly I have always loved how randomly it comes about.
‘Sisters’ is performed by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen as part of their sister act. My own sister and I know the entire song by heart. Christmases growing up meant that at some point Shannie and I would sing along with ‘Sisters’ during an annual White Christmas viewing and at some other point we’d inevitably end up performing it together. I always took the part of Rosemary Clooney’s Betty, the eldest sister, and Shannie would be Vera-Ellen’s Judy, the youngest sister. Even though my temperament is really more mischievously Judy-esque and hers is more responsibly Betty-esque. There are rules, you know. Older sisters play older sisters and younger ones play younger ones. And we knew exactly when to harmonize and when to turn and wrinkle our noses at each other. We were a smash hit in living rooms everywhere. Of course the best part of ‘Sisters’ is that the reprisal features Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby in a sort of thrown-together drag consisting of rolled up dress pants, sparkling butterfly headbands, and giant blue feather fans lip syncing to the sisters’ number. If you don’t burn with curiosity to see that, and to see them openly crack each other up by the end of the performance, then you might be dead inside.
‘The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing’ is Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen’s dance showpiece. Somehow in the course of the story the two end up dancing outside a nightclub. In today’s language that would mean something horrible and possibly NC-17 but back then the nightclub was a classy supper club and outside meant in the private back courtyard. Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye were the dancers of the film, you see. Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney were the crooners. ‘The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing’ is a jaw-dropping number. Vera-Ellen makes the most complicated moves look like she’s floating on air. She’s pixie-sized and has a very placidly sweet smile while she dances that directly belies how hard she’s working. Danny Kaye and her are brilliantly matched. They whirl, tap, and traverse great expanses with perfectly timed flair. I am an absolute sucker for dance. I will watch just this number over and over again. It’s gorgeous. It trickily appears to be a single shot though if I paid strict attention I could probably figure out that’s not true. But why shatter the illusion? This is my heaven. Somewhere there’s a giant pond-filled starlit yard out back of a jazzy supper club wherein couples in floaty tulle dresses and three piece suits dance together for an eternity without tiring. When I die, that’s where I’m going.
There’s something about the fact that much of the film’s narrative conceit involves backstage and theatrical rehearsals that absolutely fascinates me. Having worked backstage and being quite a theatre rat at heart, I love that it’s all glimpses behind the sets and into dressing rooms. It’s a thrill being part of their preparations. It makes the finale feel very well-earned by both cast and audience alike. White Christmas is a staple in my holiday repertoire. I can’t let a Christmas go by without watching it. It transports me immediately to a world of warm interiors and crisp exteriors where orchestral swells back grand romantic gestures. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / just like the ones I used to know / where the treetops glisten and children listen / to hear sleighbells on the snow...” Do those lines give you shivers? They should. Shivers of quiet delight. The song and the movie exist to do that, you know. To charm you. To turn your insides to goo and dazzle your eyes with glitz and dance. Don’t fight it. Let it happen.
- Corinne Simpson