Some films are firecrackers—they come in with a big bang but fizzle out quickly. Some, like It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), were complete flops in their day but gain a deeper and more dedicated following as the years go by.
And some just start out on top and never fade away.
Such a film is White Christmas, the top grossing film of 1954 and still one of the most watched and beloved Christmas movies.
Think I’m exaggerating?
Forget direct-to-streaming, White Christmas is having a 68-year first run in theaters.*
From the very beginning, the song “White Christmas” was associated with World War II. Irving Berlin wrote the song for the 1942 musical Holiday Inn, but Bing Crosby first sung it on his radio show in 1941, on the Christmas Day after Pearl Harbor.
The song’s melancholy tune hit a chord with audiences, many of whom would spend the next several Christmases with loved ones fighting in far off lands.
During the war, Bing Crosby would head overseas to sing “White Christmas” to the troops during USO shows.
A dozen years later, the beloved musical White Christmas begins by recreating Crosby’s wartime shows. Bing Crosby plays Bob Wallace, a showman who’s in the Army during World War II. On Christmas Eve, he and his partner Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) sing for the troops and their beloved retiring General Waverly (Dean Jagger.)
After the war, Bob and Phil have made it big and are looking for a sister act for their Christmas show. They find the beautiful Haynes sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen).
The four of them head up to Vermont for a weekend of rest and relaxation and are surprised to find that the retired General Waverly owns and runs the Inn, which is hanging on by a thread due to the unseasonably warm Vermont winter.
If it doesn’t snow, he’s cooked.
To help out the General who meant so much to them, Bob and Phil decide to rehearse and put on their big show at the inn to draw in customers.
Along the way, we get to watch them sing and dance in some incredible numbers, and fall in love with the Haynes sisters.
The film was originally meant to be a companion piece to Holiday Inn—the same set is used for the Vermont inn, and Danny Kaye’s role was originally written for Fred Astaire, Crosby’s co-star in Holiday Inn. Astaire, who was in semi-retirement at the time, turned down the role.
I watch White Christmas nearly every year. Along with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, it’s a staple of the holiday season in my household. It’s got a mix of everything—humor, singing, dancing, and a warm message of love that’s a bit of twist because it’s ultimately not about romantic love or love of the nuclear family.
Once a well-respected General who helped save the world from fascism, Tom Waverly feels old and useless as the proprietor of an empty inn. He’s not shown as suffering any sort of PTSD, but rather a loss of purpose that I imagine is quite common in those who served in combat.
Bob and Phil round up nearly his entire regiment on Christmas Eve, and his former troops surprise him by lining up, fully uniformed, for inspection.
It’s hard to imagine a heart so hard that it wouldn’t melt at least a little when General Waverly surveys the men he brought home safely with a tear in his eye.
It’s a film that somehow gets better as the years go by.
But no one has yet attempted to remake the film.
Sometimes you get right the first time.
*Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.
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