“Miss Haynes, if you’re ever under a falling building and somebody runs up and offers to pick you up and carry you to safety, don’t think, don’t pause, don’t hesitate for a moment, just spit in his eye.” – Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby)
Irving Berlin’s classic song inspired a whole movie, White Christmas, that went on to be a holiday favorite despite its inability to grow old with the times.
After serving in the war, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) team up into a Broadway act that gets more famous as it tours the country. They team up with sister act Betty and Judy Haynes (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen) to bring an audience into a Vermont ski resort run by their old army general (Dean Jagger). After all, it’s 60 degrees in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and there’s no sign of a single flake hitting the slopes.
Michael Curtiz’s film hasn’t seamlessly translated to today’s audiences. Its premise is hinged on a long-forgotten tradition of stage shows and variety acts like Wallace and Davis, and archaic gender roles rule the day. It does succeed in portraying two women in strong roles — something not seen in even the most recent movies — but it’s still stuck in the 1950s mindset that all women must have a husband (it was made in 1954, after all).
In fact, Betty Haynes is one of the biggest feminists to hit the colorized screen in that era, refusing to settle down. Unfortunately, her sister is a little less open-minded and makes it her mission to match her with Bob, who’s as reluctant to fall in love. Although cross-dressing is part of a gag — most notably when Bob and Phil take over for the women in “Sisters” as a way of helping them escape a crooked landlord — it makes the lead characters funny but heroic, not degraded. “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” is a strong female-led song that blames outside forces, not her own faults, for the reason a relationship didn’t work out. So as much as the plot hinges on the idea that marriage should be a priority for everyone, White Christmas does hold some revolutionary ideas not exactly found in modern cinema let alone that of the mid-20th century.
The movie itself is fluffy, but a perfect foil for more serious holiday fare like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. Most of its story relies on stage performances of flashy dance numbers, with only a few un-staged songs like “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” and “Count Your Blessings” peppering the mix. It’s in the same vein as showbiz comedies like Gold Diggers of 1933, where the glitz of musical performance is broken down into backstage melodrama. Some of the numbers drag (like the racially risky “Minstrel Show”) as a way of showcasing Vera Ellen’s supernatural dance skills, while others work to emphasize Kaye’s comedy skills and Crosby and Clooney’s crooning.
White Christmas might not be a Capra civil duty film or wide-scope romantic comedy-drama, but it brings with it some of the finest cinematic traditions as it has become a Christmas Day tradition itself, whether there’s snow on the ground or not.