White Christmas is one of those beloved Christmas “classics” that gets its prescribed seasonal screening(s), but I doubt most people have watched all the way through. I certainly hadn’t. Having remedied that, I’m very doubtful you’ll have gained anything by giving it your full attention, rather than having it on the background while you put your decorations up. And then wondering, when you do occasionally give it your attention, why it’s still on and nothing of consequence whatsoever appears to have happened.
It seems Paramount couldn’t get Fred Astaire back with Bing Crosby following Holiday Inn, so eventually ended up with Danny Kaye. Who adds a flavour of his antic-ness but is relatively subdued by his standards. Bob Hope might have been a better fit, sending up the whole affair – Road to the North Pole? Rather than Road to Vermont. In a very obvious, can’t-be-bothered-even-to-get-some-second-unit-shots studio (complete with the then obligatory asbestos snow, when it comes).
At least we have Bob (Bing) and Phil (Danny) sending up the signature showtune of Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen, who had worked with Kaye nearly a decade earlier in Wonder Man). Their version of Sisters was okayed as an unscripted addition by director Michael Curtiz after the duo had been larking about on set doing a send-up. Hence, Crosby’s corpsing in response to Kaye is genuine.
Curtiz may have been a versatile, talented and workaholic studio gun – an Oscar-winning one at that – but he was also ridiculously prolific, even after he parted ways with Warner Bros (White Christmas was one of a number he made for Paramount). With that can come perhaps a tendency not to be as selective with material as one might. White Christmas was his third film of 1954 and his choice was certainly commercially justified – it was an enormous hit, only beaten by Rear Window that year (although Wiki grosses for this period often need to be taken with a pinch of salt). It rather reinforces the idea that audiences will swallow anything with Christmas attached (well, maybe not Mixed Nuts), as White Christmas carries a self-satisfied “that’ll do” flavour, as if all Bing needed to do was show up and belt out White Christmas and that would be sufficient (so encoring his Holiday Inn performance).
Thus, there’s a nominal plot, with proceedings beginning in 1944, with Kaye and Crosby as unlikely soldiers entertaining the troops. Bing’s already a success, and Kaye – after saving his life, the constant reminders regarding which becoming a running gag – persuades him to try performing together back home. This leads to big success and big musical numbers, and meeting the Haynes sisters, also performers; Kaye is trying to play cupid for Crosby, but misunderstandings sour the latter’s relationship with Clooney. Kaye himself is reluctant/shy when it comes to romance (in typically Kaye fashion), but he and Ellen agree to an engagement of convenience to incite Clooney. Which doesn’t work due to those misunderstandings.
There’s also a vaguely patriotic subplot running through White Christmas, once the quartet arrive in Vermont, with the boys’ old commanding officer turned hotelier Dean Jagger in dire straits owing to a scarcity of snow (or asbestos). Naturally, it all turns out right. Or white.
White Christmas is a loooong, indulgent 120m minutes. In its favour, it doesn’t suffer the affliction of many a modern Christmas flick – of being inanely bad – but it sits there, rarely inclined to exhibit much of a pulse. Crosby and Kaye have strong chemistry, though. Ellen is likeable, but Clooney spends most of the proceedings in a bad mood. Irving Berlin’s tunes are all passable but rarely have a pulse. Except for Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army, where, next to the Sisters encore, everyone is clearly having fun; it’s the most spirited, funniest (their oversized fat suit props) number here.
Also of note is that Kaye doesn’t do much in the way of dancing, not being Fred Astaire, so Ellen’s partner is mostly John Brascia, who performs with an unsettlingly toothsome rictus grin on his face, as if he’s auditioning for the Joker. Perhaps the most damning aspect of White Christmas is that if fails to exude an enticingly Christmassy atmosphere or warmth. Unless inducement of torpor while watching it with an eggnog counts.