I am a simple woman, and therefore have simple requirements for the Christmas season. Every Dec. 1, I wrangle my tiny, artificial tree out of storage and set it up in my apartment. I always have a gift exchange with my friends before I go home for the holidays. And each year, I always watch “White Christmas” with my mom.
To say that I’m familiar with “White Christmas” would be an understatement. During the two hours of the movie, those who watch “White Christmas” with me despise me. By the time Danny Kaye sings “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” everyone is begging me to stop singing along. Except for my mom. Thanks, Mom!
For me, “White Christmas” is the pinnacle of Christmas. It has all the elements of the holiday season: classic Christmas music. An idyllic winter lodge. Bing Crosby.
In the name of journalism, I’ve decided to revisit “White Christmas” this year. This is also, in part, a confession to my mother that I watched “White Christmas” without her (sorry, Mom!).
A brief history of the song ‘White Christmas’
Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes of “White Christmas” is the final musical number: Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye are gathered around a Christmas tree, clad in Santa Claus-esque garb, and singing “White Christmas.”
They’re putting up Christmas ornaments. A troupe of young ballet dancers join them on stage. It’s wholesome. It’s adorable. But it’s not the first time “White Christmas” was sung by Crosby on film.
Crosby sang “White Christmas” 12 years earlier, in an entirely different Christmas flick called “Holiday Inn.” According to TCM, Crosby plays Jim Hardy, a brokenhearted singer who goes from show business to running a country inn. With music by Irving Berlin, the cast features other big names like Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds and more.
Berlin wrote “White Christmas” even though he was a Russian-Jewish immigrant and didn’t celebrate Christmas. According to Jody Rosen, the author of “White Christmas: The Story of an American Song,” Berlin wrote the song “possibly over Christmas 1937,” per NPR. It was subsequently picked up by Paramount Pictures, and thus “Holiday Inn” was born.
“Holiday Inn” won the 1942 Oscar for best song, per TCM.
The best of ‘White Christmas’
Despite the fact that I have seen “White Christmas” at least 25 times, and therefore have a photographic memory of this movie and this movie only, I decided to give the film another watch. But instead of watching it simply for pleasure, I approached “White Christmas” with a more critical eye — while still singing along, of course. I’m only human.
This time around, a few elements of the film caught my eye (beyond the musical numbers). Here are the best parts of “White Christmas.”
Crosby and Kaye as a comedic duo
Crosby and Kaye are one of my favorite elements of “White Christmas.” They make a great comedic pair: Crosby as the cynical, no-nonsense Bob and Kaye as the charismatic, hammy Phil. They play well off each other, and have great chemistry — even better, perhaps, than the central love interest. But more on that later.
One of my favorite moments of “White Christmas” is when Phil, while helping Betty and Judy flee from the sheriff after their gig, offers to stall for them. This results in Phil and Bob donning butterflies in their hair and scarves around their necks, filling in for the Haynes Sisters to stall for time.
Phil waves his fan around and sashays across the stage as Bob reluctantly lip syncs and goes through the movements. You can tell that both actors are having a great time. Kaye brings his typical comedic flair, while it looks like Crosby can barely hold in his laughter.
Vera-Ellen’s dance numbers
As someone who took tap for five years (and could barely shuffle-ball-change her way across the dance floor), Ellen’s dancing dazzles me every time I watch “White Christmas.”
Ellen was perhaps one of the most prolific female dancers of her time. She began dancing at the age of 10 and danced in films with Astaire and Gene Kelly before starring as Judy Haynes in “White Christmas,” according to IMDb.
Ellen is impressive in any number that she dances in: during “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” Ellen and Kaye dance around each other and come together in sweeping choreography. In the musical number “Mandy,” Ellen twirls and flips in a glittering white unitard and red gloves.
But one of my favorite dance moments is during the quirky and comedic “Choreography” number. There’s a moment, when Ellen lands on stage, where she taps her foot so quickly that it barely looks like it’s moving. If anything, it’s vibrating.
While it might be a seemingly simple move, it’s mind-blowing every time I see it. And it’s a true testament to Ellen’s talent as a dancer.
Mary Wickes as the no-nonsense housekeeper Emma
It might be easy to give all the attention to the singers and dancers of “White Christmas.” But Mary Wickes as Emma Allen, Gen. Waverly’s nosey and no-nonsense housekeeper, is a highlight of the film.
Throughout her career, Wickes was drawn to working-class, “wisecracking” characters, per IMDb. Modern audiences might know her best as Sister Mary Lazarus in “Sister Act” and “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.”
Wickes’ wisecracking does her well as Emma in “White Christmas.” While her nosiness might make her unappealing, Wickes delivers her lines with such great comedic timing and sarcasm that it’s hard not to love her.
In one of Wickes’ best scenes, Gen. Waverly tells Emma, “I got along very well in the Army without you.” Wickes quickly quips, “It took 15,000 men to take m’ place.”
The pitfalls of ‘White Christmas’
While my love and devotion to “White Christmas” is undying, I’m the first to admit that it’s not a perfect movie. Here are some of the weaker points of the film.
Clooney and Crosby as love interests
While I certainly wouldn’t categorize “White Christmas” as a rom-com, we cannot ignore the importance of the love story at the center of the plot. Unfortunately, it’s one of my least-favorite subplots of the entire film.
Clooney and Crosby do not make believable love interests. Where’s the attraction? Crosby is 25 years older than Clooney, according to Parade. Clooney was 26 at the time of filming, while Crosby was 51.
I suspect this age gap greatly contributes to the lack of chemistry between Crosby and Clooney. And for the record, I recognize that older men getting with women significantly their junior is old hat in Hollywood. But, in my humble opinion, it doesn’t make it less weird.
Betty and Bob also fall into one of the most-loathed romance tropes: the miscommunication trope. Emma, while eavesdropping on a phone conversation between Bob and Ed Harrison, mistakes Bob’s attempt to bring attention to Gen. Waverly on the “Ed Harrison Show” as a way to capitalize on Gen. Waverly’s misfortune and humiliate him.
Emma relays this information to Betty, who immediately takes Emma at her word. Instead of asking Bob about it, Betty accepts a gig in New York and leaves.
This is by far my least favorite part of “White Christmas,” despite it culminating in one of my favorite musical numbers in the film: “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me.”
Why didn’t Betty ask Bob about the “Ed Harrison Show”? Surely this whole unnecessary misunderstanding could’ve been cleared up in a five-minute conversation. But instead, Betty avoids confrontation with Bob and flees the state. To which I say: relatable, perhaps, but definitely not reasonable!
A few other questionable points of ‘White Christmas’
Here are a few more weak points that, while they aren’t egregious, are worth mentioning:
Ben “Freckle Face” Haynes, the Dog-Face Boy
The first introduction we get to the Haynes Sisters is through a letter sent to Bob and Phil, mentioning that both men served with Betty and Judy’s brother, Ben. Phil mentions that they used to call Ben “the dog-face boy” because he was so unattractive. But when we finally see a picture of Ben, he looks perfectly fine! Dare I say, even cute? What did poor Ben do to get this undeserved nickname?
The “Minstrel Show” number
I fully recognize that “White Christmas” was filmed in 1954, which was an entirely different time. But I’d be remiss not to mention the “Minstrel Show” musical number and briefly touch on the racism of minstrel shows. While the musical number in “White Christmas” is sans blackface, minstrel shows have a long history of blackface and racism.
Is ‘White Christmas’ still worth watching?
In order to answer this question, I had to set my own personal biases aside. Does “White Christmas” really hold up? The answer is: absolutely. It’s full of dazzling musical numbers, talented singers and dancers and great comedic moments. And it’s a movie that the whole family can enjoy.
It’s not a perfect movie. “White Christmas” has some plot holes, questionable traces of history and a few annoying moments of miscommunication. And, to reiterate, the age gap between Clooney and Crosby will never not weird me out.
But the main message of the film still rings true. Because most importantly, “White Christmas” is a movie about hope. Hope that you can bring your loved ones together. Hope that everything will be all right, in the end. And hope that maybe, one day, it will snow again.