Every body has a story.
Every body has a story.
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c. 1948—the end of time
Content warning: this article contains potentially disturbing content, including references to war and financial instability, and allusions to an insensitive scene in a different film. There are no mentions of religion per se, but there are many references to religious traditions. Please use your best judgment as to whether you wish to read this content. Language is PG-13.
White Christmas, c. 1948—the end of time, is a movie musical/comedy/romance. If you count the bombing scene at the beginning of the film, the picture’s got something for everyone.
It started as an idea of composer Irving Berlin’s to develop a movie loosely based on and directly titled after one of his many, many, many compositions. True, that same song was featured in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. True, it was also featured in the 1946 film Blue Skies (affiliate link). Nevertheless, Berlin thought it was worth creating an entire musical extravaganza around the song. He was right. To be fair, champion recycler Berlin also utilized the opportunity to reuse several other musical creations of his. “Blue Skies,” “Heat Wave,” “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” and “Hi Hup” were included in snippet form; other songs were reworked in some manner. The music for “Snow” was resurrected from the song “Free,” which was originally written for but dumped from the play “Call Me Madam.” The lyrics were completely rewritten. The musical dance number “Abraham” was a sped-up, de-lyricized version of a song in Holiday Inn. (Trigger warning: if you have modern-day sensibilities, I strongly advise you to avoid seeking out the Holiday Inn version of the song. Trust me, it’s not worth watching.) The song “What Can You Do with a General?” was taken intact from an earlier, unrelated project that had been scrapped, tentatively named “Stars on My Shoulders.” (I wonder if Berlin came up with the idea for the “What Can You Do…” scene just to have a reason to finally use the song.)
Paramount Pictures took on the project and hired Michael Curtiz (pronounced Kur-TEEZE)—who had previously won an Oscar for directing the film Casablanca (affiliate link)—to do the honors for White Christmas (affiliate link).
In the casting department, the original plan was to re-team singer-dancer Bing Crosby with dancer-singer Fred Astaire, since the two had made a financially winning pair in both Holiday Inn and Blue Skies. However, Fred Astaire decided to retire (for the first time of many). Then Crosby decided to drop out. Then Crosby dropped back in, and Donald O’Connor managed to find enough time between Francis the Talking Mule movies to sign on as the dancer-singer half of the duo. This re-teamed O’Connor and Vera-Ellen (link to article), who had starred together in the film version of Call Me Madam (affiliate link). Everybody was happy. Then, at the next-to-the-last minute, O’Connor had to drop out due to (an allegedly mule-borne) illness. At the last-last minute Danny Kaye was hired for the role, which re-teamed Kaye and Vera-Ellen, who had starred together in the films Wonder Man and The Kid from Brooklyn. More importantly, Kaye’s hiring stopped the revolving door of actors being signed for the role. However, some decision-makers at the studio made the decision that Danny Kaye didn’t have the dancing chops of Astaire or O’Connor, so they hired dancer John Brascia to partner with Vera-Ellen in the more rigorous dance numbers (i.e., almost all of them).
As for the leading ladies, not much is known about how Vera-Ellen (who was a stellar dancer, but not much of a singer) landed the role of Judy. One can only suppose it was the work of a very astute casting director. The casting of Rosemary Clooney (who was a stellar singer, but not much of a dancer) was championed by none other than Bing Crosby himself. In 1951, Crosby sent a letter to Paramount Pictures producer Pat Duggan, extolling the talents of that “dame called Rosemary Clooney,” saying she “sings a good song—and is purportedly personable.” Later, Clooney revealed that the main reason she accepted the role was for the opportunity to work with Crosby.
Along with the serious casting upheavals, the script apparently went through some significant changes as well. After Kaye was hired, script doctors were brought in to beef up his character’s dialogue. It sounds as if they ended up pretty much rewriting the whole thing, although with no public information available about version 1.0, there is no way of knowing exactly how much version 2.0 differed from it.
The final script went thusly: [Spoiler alert! If you have no idea how romantic comedies usually end and want to be surprised, you can skip down to here, but you may want to at least scroll down and check out the photos of some of the fabulous costumes from the film.] At Christmastime in 1944, a group of American soldiers stationed in Europe put on a show (not in a barn) for their fellow servicemen. They perform a few numbers and finish big with a boffo farewell routine in honor of their soon-to-be-transferred-out commander, Major General Thomas F. Waverly (played by Dean Jagger). Right after the show ends, they get bombed (by actual bombs), and amateur performer Phil Davis (played by Danny Kaye) “saves” the life of professional Broadway performer Bob Wallace (played by Bing Crosby). (Who’s to say what might have happened had Phil not intervened?) Phil uses that incident to emotionally blackmail Bob into trying out a professional partnership with him. The act turns out to be a big hit, and the pair continue performing together and branch out to producing.
A year or five later, Christmastime rolls around again, as it has a tendency to do, and Bob and Phil are in Florida doing whatever producers do in Florida. They get a letter from an old Army buddy who asks them to catch his sisters’ sister act. They oblige, and the two ladies sing “Sisters.” After they finish their number, the women stop by the men’s table. The younger sister, Judy (played by Vera-Ellen), uses the opportunity to sweetly grill the guys as to how to succeed in show business. Chitchat, jokes, and dancing ensue. Bob seems immediately attracted to older sister Betty (played by Rosemary Clooney), which thrills both Phil and Judy—if Bob and Betty start spending time with each other, they won’t have as much time to boss Phil and Judy around. When Betty confesses to Bob that it was actually Judy, not their brother, who sent the letter, his comments about the situation (he basically calls Judy a scam artist) cause friction between the two.
All four of them are set to leave Florida within the next 36 hours. Bob and Phil are leaving that evening for New York City, and the women are traveling to small-town Pine Tree, Vermont, the following day for a job at the Columbia Inn ski lodge. Before the men leave to catch their train (apparently airline tickets were too pricey back then, even for mega-successful show business producers), a law enforcement officer arrives at the club to arrest the women. Their landlord had sicced the law on them because the women had damaged a carpet. According to Judy, it was a false claim to get more money out of them, but we all know how trustworthy Judy could be. Phil, who seems to be already hopelessly smitten with Judy as well as the idea of a Bob/Betty romance, convinces Bob to help him stall the sheriff so the girls can sneak out. Without Bob’s knowledge, Phil gives the women the train tickets the men had purchased for themselves and helps the ladies clamber out a back window. Then he and Bob entertain the audience with a silly but amusing pantomime of the sisters’ signature number, giving the women enough time to complete their getaway. To avoid getting into trouble for their roles in the shenanigans, the men use the same unorthodox egress the women had employed a little while earlier. That means that in the space of a half-hour, Judy was the impetus that started three here-to-fore honest citizens down the path to a life of crime.
After having to pay for a second set of train tickets, Bob realizes that the original set had fallen into the possession of you-know-who and you-know-who-two. At first Bob is ready to give ‘em the old Crosby treatment, but Betty bats her eyelashes at him and all is forgiven. The four spontaneously break into song, as most people do under these circumstances, and the next thing they know they’re in sunny Vermont. (Yes, I know I said the men were destined for New York, but that was before Betty’s eyelash-batting.)
When the keen-sighted quartet disembarks, they immediately notice the lack of snow on the ground. A snowless New England in December isn’t unheard of, but it is bad for business. When they get to the inn where the women have been engaged to put on a floor show throughout the holidays, the manager, Emma (played by Mary Wickes), brusquely tries to give them the old heave-ho. Emma seems to be the only full-time help in the humongous place. No wonder she’s bitter. When the inn’s owner shows up, the men are shocked—shocked—to find out that he is none other than their beloved General Waverly. While his teenage granddaughter, Susan (played by Anne Whitfield), watches dazedly, the General charmingly insists that the ladies honor their contract, even though they’ll probably be performing for a virtually nonexistent audience. (Guess what they sing!)
Behind the general’s back, Emma spills the beans to Bob/Phil/Betty/Judy (BPBJ) regarding her boss’s financial situation, which is apparently abysmal. Later that day BPBJ come up with a scheme to help the general’s failing business—they’ll put on a show! In a barn! Since Bob and Phil are currently producing a musical revue and had generously given the cast and crew the holidays off, Bob arranges to un-give the cast and crew the holidays off and instead has almost all of them troop up to Vermont. Emma overhears the plan and gives Bob a big smooch, causing him to momentarily forget all about Betty.
The surprisingly chipper gang shows up and proceeds to overrun the place, singing, dancing, gossiping, and romancing inside and out. In a quiet moment Bob finds out the general asked an Army buddy to get him an active duty position in the military. Of course the old buddy turns him down—as everyone else on the planet knew he would—and Bob gets the bright idea to invite all the men from his former Army unit to come up to the inn for the holiday to surprise the “old man” and cheer him up.
Bob calls up an old Army buddy of his own, an Ed Sullivan-like television variety show host named Ed Harrison, and asks if he (Bob) can have a few minutes of airtime on the next show to make a nationwide invite. Ed suggests that Bob bring the general on the show to pull at the viewers’ heartstrings and cash in on some free publicity. Bob says (to paraphrase), “No, Ed, I don’t want to make the General an object of pity, I just want to tell thousands of people that the pathetic old man has mismanaged his money and that his future contains nothing but despair and ruination.”
Emma, of course, eavesdrops to hear only the first part of the convo and promptly squeals to Betty about what she overheard, embellishing on the details and attributing the worst parts of the discussion to Bob instead of the real culprit, Ed. Betty, who had fallen in love with Bob about a day and a half after meeting him, believes every word Emma tells her and immediately starts giving Bob the cold shoulder. Ice cold. Judy interprets her sister’s snippy behavior to mean she’s in love, so she (Judy) badgers Phil into announcing their own (fake) engagement. That way, she explains, Betty won’t feel obligated to remain single in order to watch over her little sister. At least that’s the excuse she gives Phil.
Pressured by Judy, Phil makes the (fake) engagement announcement at a cast party that evening. The next day Betty sneaks off to New York City (the place she knew Bob was headed to that same day) for a fancy nightclub singing job she was able to secure in less than 24 hours. Judy apparently divulged to Bob the name of the club where Betty was working (really, if Betty truly hadn’t wanted Bob to know where she had gone, she should have known better than to tell Judy). He shows up at the nightclub just in time to catch Betty’s act. She’s stressed to see Bob in the audience, but still manages to flawlessly perform a new song, wearing an impeccably tailored gown and with the accompaniment of four perfectly choreographed male dancers. That woman sure knew how to make the most of an afternoon. Bob tries to explain to Betty about Judy and Phil’s faux engagement. Betty isn’t interested in listening to what he has to say, but she’s front-and-center later that evening to watch Bob’s appearance on the newfangled television machine. As promised, Bob performs on Ed’s show, even putting his message to music. After singing his song, in which he implies that the General is unemployed, Bob gives a heartfelt speech to any old comrades who might be listening, asking them to drop their holiday plans and head to Vermont the next day (Christmas Eve). He assures everyone that no one is profiting from the plan. When Betty hears that, she immediately believes everything he says. Judging from her facial expression, she immediately begins trying to figure out how to break her nightclub contract and escape from New York. It’s ironic that Betty seems to instantly believe everything she hears, yet she feels she needs to watch over Judy, who has already shown her propensity for manipulation. Meanwhile, back at the farm, Phil is tasked with keeping the general away from the inn’s television set during the Ed Harrison Show.
The next day droves of military/ex-military personnel and their families descend upon the town. The guests must have been stacked up like cordwood. Apparently the eagle-eyed general, who thought he was ready to return to a position of authority defending the country, doesn’t notice anything amiss. Emma and Susan (whose contribution to the story to-date has been negligible), manipulate him into wearing his old dress uniform to dinner. Judy would have been proud of them.
The general walks into the barn-sized dining room and sees an ocean of uniforms. (There are also a fair number of the men’s wives there, each of whom apparently had a designer evening gown at the ready for just such an occasion.) The general, suitably touched, “inspects the troops” and gives a fittingly sappy three-sentence speech about the experience. BPBJ (yes, both B’s are back from NY) perform a lighthearted musical number about how being in a wartime combat zone was better than being at home with their families. Then they break into a heartfelt rendition of the song “White Christmas.” During a musical break in the song, BPBJ use the opportunity to sneak behind the big on-stage Christmas tree to reconcile (B with B) and canoodle (P with J). Meanwhile, someone updates the general about the weather, and he has the barn-sized doors behind the stage opened. Lo and behold, it’s snowing. Crisis averted, problem solved. The end!
Back to reality: the bulk of the filming took place at Paramount Studios in Hollywood for about 14 weeks between September and December 1953. Some scenes, such as the interior train/train station scenes, were filmed at 20th Century Fox. It was the first movie shot using the VistaVision technique, which was the latest and greatest at the time, but only lasted about seven years before it was largely replaced by the next latest and greatest techniques, such as CinemaScope.
The movie premiered at the famed Radio City Music Hall in New York City, New York (where Vera-Ellen had been employed as a Rockette many years before), on October 14, 1954, and was released in dozens of other countries throughout the next couple of years. It was hugely popular, becoming the highest-grossing movie of 1954, earning $12 million (the equivalent of $116 million in 2021 dollars). [Some sources say it came in second to The Caine Mutiny, which is reported to have grossed $8.7 million. I’ll never understand the new math.]
Despite its popularity, White Christmas was nominated for only one Oscar, and won zero. The solitary nomination was in the category of best original song, with the song in question being “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” (The winner was “Three Coins In The Fountain” from Three Coins in the Fountain.) The song “White Christmas” was ineligible for nomination because it had already won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1942, when it was featured in the movie Holiday Inn.
Mega-talented costume designer Edith Head was at her creative best when she developed the iconic outfits worn in the film. Unbelievably (to me, anyway), she was not nominated for an Academy Award for her efforts. She attended the Oscar ceremony that year anyway, because she was nominated for and won the Best Costuming Design—Black-and-White award for Sabrina. Throughout her career, Edith Head won a record eight AA’s, (all for BCD), and was nominated for another 27.
Many of the original costumes (and a few replicas) are exhibited at the Rosemary Clooney House museum, 106 East Riverside Drive, Augusta, Kentucky—except during the holiday season, when the collection is loaned to other small museums. For the 2021-2022 season the Oshkosh Public Museum, 1331 Algoma Boulevard, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is housing the collection from November 13, 2021, through January 23, 2022. They are closed on Mondays and some seasonal holidays. If you decide to plan a trip there, please check their website to make sure they will be open on your day of choice. Thank you, Rosemary Clooney House administrators!
There are conflicting stories as to how Wallace and Davis’s “Sisters” scene came to be. Though some reports say that Crosby and Kaye were joking around and spontaneously did the number just for fun, it’s more likely that it was scripted. Many sources say that at first Crosby was uncomfortable doing the scene, which does seem evident, but that Kaye’s ad libbing got him to loosen up by the end of the song.
This is a two-parter: 1. (the less interesting part) Betty mentions to Judy that their brother (the accused letter-writer) has been out of the country, working in Alaska. Even though Alaska was not admitted into the Union until 1959, for decades before then it had been a US territory, and therefore part of the United States. But thanks for playing, Betty! We have some lovely parting gifts for you! 2. (the more interesting part) the photo of Betty and Judy’s brother that was used in the Florida nightclub scene was actually a photo of Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa in multitudinous Our Gang movie shorts of the 1930’s and 1940’s. I don’t think he actually appeared in the movie, even as a cameo in the war scene. That’s too bad; he probably could have used the paycheck.
Throughout the film Vera-Ellen’s singing was dubbed by either Rosemary Clooney or singer Trudy Stevens (who might or might not have also been known as Trudy Stabile). The only time in the film that Vera-Ellen’s own singing voice can be heard is outside at the Vermont train station, when the quartet breaks into an abbreviated reprise of “Snow.” Clooney later joked, “If they could have dubbed my dancing, now, we would have had a perfect picture.”
Allegedly Bob Fosse worked with Robert Alton on the movie’s choreography, but wasn’t credited.
The most eye-catching male dancer in Rosemary Clooney’s “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” number (the first Joe with winter and snow in his heart) was actor George Chakiris. You might not recognize his name, but if you’re a fan of 1950’s/1960’s movie musicals or 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s and/or 1990’s American television, you’ve probably seen him in something. Oh, and he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for playing ballet-dancing gang member Bernardo in 1961’s West Side Story.
To make up for Danny Kaye’s dance-number demotion, choreographer Robert Alton threw in an extra routine for Kaye. Titled “Choreography,” it mocked some modern dance styles of the day. It’s almost universally considered the worst musical number in the movie, but Vera-Ellen’s dancing in it is as dazzling as usual.
Reportedly Bing Crosby did a lot of improvising in the movie. He called the Vermont train station master Cisco, allegedly because he knew that the actor playing the part had appeared in several episodes of the television series The Cisco Kid (1950-1955). I believe this tidbit to be true, because I sincerely doubt they would have included a real-life, current television reference in the script. He also allegedly improvised much of the scene that included the “Count Your Blessings” song—so all that talk about liverwurst was baloney. (Danny Kaye was also well-known for going off-script frequently, and for engaging in other mischievous antics as well, which made it necessary to do a lot of retakes. That poor director must have been pulling his hair out.)
The town of Pine Tree, Vermont, was fictional, but that was all right because so was the inn, the train station, and every other landmark in the movie.
In the song with the grammatically incorrect title “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” the singers mention popular real-life entertainers, including singer/actor (Al) Jolson, comedian/actor (Bob) Hope, and comedian/actor/“violinist” (Jack) Benny. At one time or another during World War II, all of them had toured overseas with the United Service Organizations (USO) to entertain the troops. (So did Frances Bavier, but she didn’t rate a shout-out.) The original lyrics, written before the actors were cast, listed Jolson, Hope, and Crosby—as in Bing Crosby. Obviously that wasn’t gonna fly, so Jack Benny got some free publicity—not that he needed it.
Some of Rosemary Clooney’s better-known relatives included actor José Ferrer (ex-husband), actor Miguel Ferrer (son), actor Raphael Ferrer (son), television news anchor/Jack-of-all trades Nick Clooney (brother), singer Betty Clooney (sister), actor George Clooney (nephew), singer Debby Boone (daughter-in-law), and others too numerous to mention.
Although none of the cast members were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in the film, two of the stars had already earned a statuette each: Bing Crosby in 1944 for playing a priest in the musical Going My Way (Best Actor), and Dean Jagger in 1949 for playing a military man in the war movie Twelve O’clock High (Best Supporting Actor).
The beautiful white flakes floating down at the end of the movie simulating snow were made from chrysotile, or white asbestos. The good news is, the cast and crew were barely exposed to it. (This same substance was also used to replicate snow in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.)
After the White Christmas “White Christmas” finale had been filmed and was “in the can” (finished), the director was informed that the King and Queen of Greece were in town and planning to visit the set. Apparently Curtiz was an ever-gracious and accommodating host, because he told everyone they were going to re-shoot the scene, just for show, so they all needed to stay. Unsurprisingly Bing Crosby said, “Not this boy,” and slipped out for a quick 18 holes of golf. The reenactment took place without his person, but with his voice, because they used prerecorded audio for the song portion of the recreation.