White Christmas – America’s Favorite Christmas Movie
by Mark Crampton
I doubt there is an American of ANY age or any background who does not watch the classic 1954 holiday movie White Christmas https://youtu.be/zH4g_PANunI during the holiday season. I think it is even ahead of the 1964 animated Burl Ives chldrens’ classic movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in all-age popularity! https://youtu.be/0tmFkIKYKso .
Which is something, since this holiday classic starts out with a bunch of muddy, sad, lonely and homesick WW II GI’s at a USO show in war-ravaged Europe! https://youtu.be/IT5qeyAY1_k .
Nevertheless, I know that MY whole immediate family – four adult children with two spouses and one fiancée, four grandchildren, and the ex – and I all watched it together at OUR family gathering last Christmas, and watch it every year!
What many people don’t know, is that for various causes, “White Christmas” the song was almost NOT written and White Christmas the movie was almost NOT filmed!
The White Christmas saga all started in 1935, on the set of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers’ movie Top Hat https://youtu.be/XPdIWk097ls . Irving Berlin wrote the melody as a prospect to use in a future Astaire film – but the movie’s director didn’t like it, so the melody was canned at that time.
On to New Year’s Day 1940, where Berlin was visiting a friend in Banning, California. When he awoke to snow on the desert that morning, Berlin immediately penned the first words to “White Christmas” because of his surprise!
Berlin then combined the unwanted melody with his new words, and pitched it as a stand-alone holiday song to business partner Bing Crosby. Crosby himself had no particular emotion for the song, he just felt they could sell it easily!
Truly, the song “White Christmas” was actually FIRST heard by the public in 1941 on Bing Crosby’s Christmas Day Radio Show (just three weeks after Pearl Harbor), to great public acclaim and requests for radio play.
[NOTE: The ONLY copy of the recording from that program is owned by Crosby’s estate, and has only been released once – for a 2011 TV Special.]
“White Christmas” was next heard in the 1942 Crosby-Fred Astaire-Berlin movie Holiday Inn https://youtu.be/feuRB5QTqK4 , for which it won an Academy Award for Best Original Song – although it was neither new, nor original to the movie!
In Holiday Inn’s original script, co-star Marjorie Reynolds sang the song as a solo, but it was changed to a duet with Crosby, though her voice was in truth dubbed by singer Martha Mears. Mears was the off-screen singing voice for numerous female Hollywood actresses: Reynolds, Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball – come on, surely you didn’t think SHE could really sing, did you? – Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Hedy Lamarr, Veronica Lake and Eva Gabor, among others. https://youtu.be/PDMxGl6bktY .
Holiday Inn was the first of a three-movie contract package to feature Irving Berlin songs (both new and old). Berlin was NEVER beyond re-treading songs for new productions, as particularly proven in the second Crosby-Astaire-Berlin movie, the poorly-received 1946 Blue Skies https://youtu.be/FuJmmPZPMr4 .
In fact, several of the songs for White Christmas (suitably revised by Berlin) came from OTHER movies: “Snow” from Call Me Madam, “What Can You Do With a General?” from Stars on My Shoulders (never produced), “Abraham” (as an instrumental) also from Holiday Inn, and, of course, the title song!
So White Christmas, the third Crosby-Astaire-Berlin installment, was slated to begin filming in 1951 – except that Fred Astaire did not like the script of his part as side-kick Phil Davis, and spurned it!
In Holiday Inn, Crosby and Astaire shared top billing over the female stars and had fairly equal parts/screen time, while in Blue Skies Astaire had top billing and the lion’s share of screen time.
But in the original White Christmas script, Astaire had second billing and much less screen time to Crosby, and NO solo song-and-dance scenes – so Astaire refused to do it and left the project!
Right after Astaire left the project, Crosby’s wife Dixie Lee passed away, and he too dropped out. After burying his wife and spending time with his children, Crosby returned to the studio.
Production on White Christmas finally resumed in 1953, and Astaire’s part was offered to hoofer Donald O’Conner – who had just come off as male co-star in the successful Gene Kelley movie Singing in the Rain, and who had previously co-starred with Crosby in 1938’s Sing You Sinners https://youtu.be/x6Jv-yk8r08 .
Unfortunately, O’Connor became seriously ill right as filming started (ironically, an illness he had contacted from ‘Francis the talking Equus mulus’ – YOU look it up! – his co-star in 7 movies), and he in turn had to drop out of the production.
With two (or maybe three, counting Crosby’s original departure) strikes against the movie, Astaire’s part was then offered to Danny Kaye, an up-coming actor, singer, dancer, comedian, and musician – although at that time, he not as popular as either Astaire or O’Conner.
Regardless, the studio was desperate to salvage the movie, enough to pay Kaye’s asking price of $200,000 cash up front and pledge 10% of the movie’s net to him, and production resumed in September 53 – two years late!
[NOTE: In 2017 dollars Kaye’s cash payment was equivalent to almost $2 Million, and the movie netted $12 million ‘54 dollars its FIRST year – which made his take OVER $12 million in 2017 dollars.]
As Producers/Partners Crosby and Berlin each got nothing up front and a MERE 20% of the movie’s net profits, after the studio got 50% and Kaye got his 10%. [NOTE: Which in 2017 dollars was almost $25 million each JUST the first year – poor them! And just think about 60-plus years of residuals!]
Personally, I think the studio made the best decision for the movie’s success in finally casting Kaye as Phil Davis.
I think Astaire absolutely was NOT right for the character of Phil – too urbane and cold (okay, I always loved his dancing, but, too, I always perceived Astaire as what he so often portrayed – TOTALLY upper class snobbish and patronizing – in his roles!) He just wasn’t RIGHT for Phil!
And while O’Connor surely COULD have pulled the part off with his trademark puppyish clowning, I still don’t think he was just exactly RIGHT, either!
To me Kaye just brought a feeling to the character of Phil that worked! He played Phil with heart and warmth, and was funny without being as clownish or cartoonish as he was in many of his starring roles https://youtu.be/LChYFEw5s70 .
[NOTE: I just wonder, though, how Gene Kelly would have done as Phil?]
Rosemary Clooney was chosen as White Christmas’s female lead, and since she was strictly a chanteuse, not a dancer, she only performed (extremely!) simple dance steps with Crosby or as part of a show ensemble. Her single major dance number (repeated twice) was a song/dance duet with Vera-Ellen, who, if you pay attention, was dancing the lead.
In contrast, Vera-Ellen, the second female lead, was one of the most sought after dancers in Hollywood https://youtu.be/meO3ims3GvU , having previously partnered in earlier movies with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, and Donald O’Connor, all before White Christmas. Vera-Ellen had several song/dance duets and several more show ensemble dance scenes.
Regrettably, while Vera-Ellen had a delightful speaking voice, her singing was notoriously dreadful! Her singing was dubbed in EVERY movie she appeared in – by Trudy Stevens in this movie.
[NOTE: This movie was one of the last films Vera-Ellen made – she made one more British production, and three TV show appearances, then retired. Of course, her retirement may have been because she married Victor Rothschild, the RICHEST man in the world!]
The “Sisters” song and dance routine https://youtu.be/PG7x8HWbDzU performed by Clooney and Vera-Ellen was Clooney’s only major duet song/dance number, although there was just a short bit of it repeated in another scene. But, because of Vera-Ellen’s voice, for that song Clooney double-tracked the recording and sang both sisters’ parts.
Of course, who can NOT laugh at Crosby and Kaye’s comedy act when they substituted for the missing sisters and lip-synched to their record? https://youtu.be/DDyybi7t634 .
Or the final stage song/dance with Crosby, Kaye, Clooney and Vera-Ellan https://youtu.be/i4c6AwTrUcg .
As for the movie’s soundtrack, there was never an OFFICIAL White Christmas soundtrack released! Crosby was signed to Decca Records, who controlled the soundtrack rights, but Clooney was tightly contracted to rival Columbia.
[NOTE: the recording company ‘wars’ of the late 1040s-early ‘50s were one of the issues that led to the downfall of big bands and swing music – see my earlier article on the New Swing Music Movement of the 1980s.]
Columbia DID bend enough to allow Clooney to make the movie, but refused to release her to make a soundtrack album with Crosby for Decca. So she recorded “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” late in ‘54 for Columbia, singing all the songs – no matter WHO sang them in the movie! The “Sisters” duet was sung by Clooney and her real sister Betty Clooney (a recording star in her own right, but not in Rosemary’s class!) Her album was a moderate commercial success.
Crosby himself never released a soundtrack for the movie, but Decca did release “Selections from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” without Crosby’s active participation. Peggy Lee sang Clooney’s parts on this album.
Berlin was big enough – even bigger than Crosby at the time – that NO recording company dared tell him NO or cross him – so his name was on both releases from the rival companies!
What Crosby DID finally release was the 1947 re-recording of his original 1942 “White Christmas”, which is still the version heard today. The ‘42 master tape was too damaged to copy further, so Crosby assembled ALL the original participants – the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers to replace it. He faithfully duplicated the original recording session – with TWO exceptions – the ‘47 version added FLUTES and a CELESTA.
White Christmas was the first movie ever to be filmed in Paramount’s VistaVision with color by Technicolor, which became industry standard.
Unfortunately, the movie was also the first to use the new Perspecta directional sound system – which was actually monaural, panned to left, center and right speakers – and NOT in stereo. The Perspecta system was a FLOP! This recording made it impossible to later remix the films’ soundtrack in either stereo or SuroundSound 5.1.
Plus, all the original recordings were destroyed in a fire, with only one Hi-Fi Mono master (made for the international markets), and a ‘working master’ that also had all the dialogue, sound effects and stage directions. These were combined by Criterion for current releases.
In 1961 Paramount re-released White Christmas for another theatrical run, and in 2000 the movie was finally released on DVD, and in 2010 on Blu-ray.
“White Christmas” the song is listed as the biggest-selling single song of ALL TIME, EVER, WORLDWIDE, with over 50 million copies sold! And it is also the most recorded Christmas song of ALL TIME, EVER, WORLDWIDE, with over 500 known recorded versions.
Oh, let me end with a bit of trivia – EVERYONE knows the lyrics Crosby sang:
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
“May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white
BUT – these are ACTUALLY the second and third verses! Berlins FIRST verse was NOT used in the movie. Remember, he wrote it in California. It goes like this:
The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth –
And I am longing to be up North –