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For a film that's remembered mostly as a warm, nostalgic holiday movie rather than as one of the all-time great musicals, White Christmas (1954) certainly commands a lot of star power and pop-cultural significance. Consider: it was the highest-grossing film of 1954 ($12 million); it was the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz's career; co-stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye were ranked at the time as the #1 and #3 box office stars in the country; and "White Christmas" was already the most successful song in American history - a record it maintained for many decades more.
Who doesn't know and love that song? Irving Berlin wrote it in 1940. Bing Crosby first performed it on December 25, 1941, on his CBS radio show. In May 1942 he recorded it, and in August of that year, he could be seen singing it on screen in the hit movie Holiday Inn. Soon it was at the top of the charts, where it remained for eleven weeks, and in early 1943 it won the Oscar® for Best Song. It hit #1 again in 1945 and 1947 and went on to hold the record as all-time bestselling single for over 50 years. (The song that finally knocked it down to #2? Elton John's 1997 recording of "Candle in the Wind," with lyrics rewritten to honor the late Princess Diana.)
With the continuing popularity of the song (and Bing Crosby) through the 1940s, it was a no-brainer for Hollywood to want to capitalize on it yet again. As early as 1949, the movie White Christmas was in preparation at Paramount. The idea was to show off old and new Irving Berlin tunes and reunite the stars of Holiday Inn, Crosby and Fred Astaire. Irving Berlin recycled parts of the earlier film and mixed it with elements of an unproduced musical he had written with Norman Krasna called Stars on My Shoulders; Krasna went on, with Melvin Frank, to turn the new story into a screenplay.
Fred Astaire, however, wasn't crazy about the script and pulled out. Paramount replaced him with Donald O'Connor, but he, too, had to pull out when he fell ill close to the start of production. According to author David Leopold (Irving Berlin's Show Business), Kaye asked for a huge paycheck - $200,000 plus ten percent of the gross - never expecting that it would be accepted. But Paramount realized that waiting for O'Connor would cost them about that much, and they bit the bullet.
As production began, Berlin wrote in a letter to his friend Irving Hoffman, "It is the first movie that I've been connected with since Holiday Inn that has the feel of a Broadway musical. Usually there's little enthusiasm once you get over the first week of a picture. But the change in this setup has resulted in an excitement that I am sure will be reflected in the finished job. In any event, as of today I feel great and very much like an opening in Philadelphia with a show."
The thin but serviceable plot finds Crosby and Kaye as a top song-and-dance act who take a vacation in Vermont with a pair of sister entertainers, Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney. They arrive at a country inn run by the boys' former WWII commanding officer, Dean Jagger. He's about to go out of business due to a lack of snow so the foursome decides to put on a show to save the inn. Guess what happens? It's all an excuse for some fine Irving Berlin songs including "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," "Sisters," "Snow," "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me," the Oscar®-nominated "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" and of course "White Christmas."
Paramount chose White Christmas to be its first movie produced in VistaVision, the studio's widescreen answer to CinemaScope. The New York Time noted the technical achievement in its review: "The colors on the big screen are rich and luminous, the images are clear and sharp, and rapid movements are got without blurring - or very little."
White Christmas was Michael Curtiz's first directing gig at Paramount after he left Warner Brothers. His Paramount contract allowed him the freedom to direct movies for other studios as well, and he thus floated around town from then on.
Producer: Robert Emmett Dolan
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, Melvin Frank
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Film Editing: Frank Bracht
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Music: Gus Levene, Joseph J. Lilley, Bernard Mayers, Van Cleave
Cast: Bing Crosby (Bob Wallace) Danny Kaye (Phil Davis), Rosemary Clooney (Betty Haynes), Vera-Ellen (Judy Haynes), Dean Jagger (Major General Waverly), Mary Wickes (Emma Allen).
by Jeremy Arnold