Silver Screen Standards: White Christmas (1954)
I’m not really a Christmas person. My overwhelming mood through the holiday season tends to be a combination of anxiety and depression that only lifts when we reach December 26, at which point I heave a sigh of relief. My father’s favorite Christmas movie when I was growing up was It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and for many decades I felt obligated to love it, too, but these days I find it hard to take, as much as I appreciate its fine cast and iconic status. Instead, I turn to the cheerful, secular charms of White Christmas (1954), one of the few seasonal classics that really puts the jolly in my holidays. Nobody needs a box of tissues or an interest in angels to watch White Christmas; it’s a musical confection as sweet and bright as a candy cane and studded with favorite stars, the perfect movie to brighten the dark nights of mid-December.
If you watch Christmas movies at all you’re probably already familiar with White Christmas and its stars. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are the main attractions as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, singing stars who first forged their partnership during World War II and are reminded of their time in the Army when they find the general (Dean Jagger) who once led them now keeping an inn in Vermont. The feel-good plot about trying to help General Waverly save his inn entwines with the double romance of the boys falling for Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen as the Haynes sisters, and there’s plenty of entertainment in the goofier pairing of Kaye and Vera-Ellen to balance the stormy upsets between Crosby and Clooney. The four leads are all given the chance to play to their strengths in the musical numbers, which are frequent enough to keep the various plots from getting bogged down. Thanks to this winning formula White Christmas proved to be a smash hit with audiences in 1954 and continues to be a beloved holiday tradition today, with generations of families gathering each season to watch its familiar but engaging scenes.
I love White Christmas for its good humor, its colorful musical numbers, and its gentle but touching treatment of post-war life for the Greatest Generation, all of which are delivered by a cast of beloved stars. Of the leads Danny Kaye is far and away my favorite; his performance makes me laugh every time I watch it, especially when Phil has to keep General Waverly from watching the television. His musical numbers are also high points of the picture for me; I can hear “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” in my head as I write this post, and even though it’s not Thanksgiving yet I’m tempted to put the movie on right away. Mary Wickes is also a favorite, although it’s fair to say that Wickes is a favorite in pretty much every movie in which she appears. Her busybody housekeeper causes a lot of trouble for our romantic leads but serves as a perfect match for Dean Jagger’s gruff but lovable General. I always laugh when General Waverly tells her, “I got along very well in the Army without you,” and she immediately fires back, “It took 15,000 men to take my place!” That said, the whole movie is bursting with great lines and funny exchanges, especially between Crosby and Kaye. They have a delightful rapport that shines throughout every scene and bursts into the foreground in their hilarious take on the “Sisters” routine.
As much as I love the movie for what it is, I also love it for what it isn’t. It isn’t a sob story laden with sadness and grief, even though General Waverly clearly has some tragedy in his life if he’s raising his granddaughter with no mention of being a widower or having lost adult children. Nobody contemplates suicide or requires divine intervention; they eat liverwurst sandwiches, they get mad and then make up, they stick their necks out to help each other, and they get on with life.
There’s certainly a moral in that story, but it isn’t rung like a bell every five minutes. One of the nicest things about White Christmas is that it doesn’t have a villain, just a problem with the weather and friends who need help. The forward motion of the plot is propelled by kindness and generosity, even though Bob pretends to be a bit of a cynic with his talk about angles. As generous as they are, nobody comes across as a martyr or a saint, which is especially refreshing in a season that often feels too holy by half. The treacle of Christmas can be cloying, too, but White Christmas puts enough spice in its recipe to avoid that, and it never feels stuffy or oppressive. Maybe that’s partly because the movie owes its best songs to Jewish composer Irving Berlin and many of its best scenes to Jewish actor Danny Kaye, not to mention the guiding hand of Jewish director Michael Curtiz. They help to make White Christmas a holiday movie anyone can enjoy, regardless of belief or lack thereof. Anyone can appreciate the delight of a first winter snow and the happiness of people coming together, even if some of us only ever see snow on our television screens. It’s not that other Christmas classics are bad for leaning into the angels and hymns and tearful scenes, it’s just that White Christmas is like throwing open the barn doors to let the brisk winter air into a crowded and overheated room, and for me, that feeling of relief is profoundly appreciated during the long, dark nights of the season. I hope every time a bell rings, Danny Kaye makes someone snort eggnog up their nose.
There are plenty of other fun Christmas classics to enjoy during the season, including Christmas in Connecticut (1945) and It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), and my family’s list of must-watch holiday movies also includes A Christmas Story (1983), Scrooged (1988), and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), all of which we love and know by heart. For even less traditional holiday fare, look to Gremlins (1984), Die Hard (1988), and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.