The Eleventh Day of Christmas: White Christmas
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
12. 12 years can make a world of difference in the movies. Indeed, even 12 days of Christmas movies can take you on an astonishing cinematic journey. When I started this seasonal feature with my review of Holiday Inn (Mark Sandrich, 1942), I found a Christmas classic that was sorely lacking in Christmas magic and disappointingly outdated in terms of ideology and spectacle.[i] Now, 11 days into my 12 day trek through the cinematic delights of Christmases past, present, and, in some cases I hope, future, I find a delight of a film made 12 Christmases on from Sandrich’s car crash of a movie: Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas. Though a sort of semi-remake of Holiday Inn, White Christmas is such a step up in quality that the two really are chalk and cheese, and I know which of those I’d rather consume this Christmas.
Curtiz’s film gets its first musical rendition of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” out of the way early, and then introduces us to two pairs of characters: Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), and the Haynes sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera Ellen). Both pairs are singing and dancing stage entertainment duos, but they quickly become a quartet when a contrived run-in with the law leads to them fleeing together to a sleepy town in Vermont to enjoy a peaceful and, supposedly, white Christmas. Though the set-up and the characterisation of the two male leads are only superficially tweaked from that of Holiday Inn, everything just works so much better this time around. A large part of that is down to Danny Kaye and his energetic performance. I admit, I was unfamiliar with him before watching this movie, but now I will endeavour to see more, because he is just so brilliant in White Christmas. Every time he's on screen, he’s moving in a way that you can’t take your eyes from him, or he's pulling an animated facial expression, or he's delivering a line with a perfect comedic wavering nervousness. He really gives the film a life that Fred Astaire was unable to do in the comparable part in Holiday Inn, as, for all Astaire’s technical dancing ability, he failed to inject the fun that Kaye does in White Christmas. What’s more, Kaye’s chemistry with Crosby is just superb, and their two characters are constantly bickering and bantering in the witty fast-talking style that made many of the screwball comedies of Hollywood’s golden age so great. And yet, despite the wit of many of its predecessors, I would argue that the level of comedy in the script of White Christmas is as good as anything Hollywood has ever produced, the sheer number of brilliant throw-away lines making me think that I will need to watch this film every Christmas for the next 12 years to truly appreciate the wealth of humour it has to offer.
In my review of Holiday Inn, I hinted at the term “Cinema of Attractions”. It is a phrase coined by scholar Tom Gunning to refer to the prominence of theatrical extravaganzas at the birth of cinema, and the way the novelty of the medium captured people, even as they were shown simple, everyday acts, and then short displays of spectacle without any link between them.[ii] This then faded over time as audiences grew used to the medium, and filmmakers had to come up with new ways to hold their attention, with the easy-to-follow narrative becoming the dominant form of film. Drawing on Gunning’s work, then, I would argue that a similar phenomenon rears its head whenever there is a significant technological advance in film. Just think back to the various times in cinematic history that a 3D revolution seemed to be brewing, and all the rubbish films we got that were made purely to show off how well they can make things appear to fly out towards you from the screen. A similar thing happened at the advent of sound in cinema. Countless boring musicals were made, from The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) onwards, their only seeming purpose being to demonstrate how clever their new technology was and how closely they could synchronise sound and image (the answer, by the way, to 21st century eyes, is almost always ‘not very closely at all’). Despite being 15 years removed from the birth of this technology, Holiday Inn still seemed to be pulled into its orbit, offering the same pointless, overdone musical sequences, and, like The Jazz Singer, still, for some twisted reason, including a blackface sequence.[iii] Mercifully, with another 12 years of separation, White Christmas manages to detach itself from these fates. It cuts down on the number of song and dance sequences, and shortens them too, making the film feel less like it’s drowning in them and more like they are special moments of spectacle that we can bask in and marvel at. It rids itself of the racism, too, and although it does still contain a slightly hairy minstrel sequence, Crosby and Kaye perform as themselves instead of being in some grotesque make-up. Of course, Curtiz’s film also has its new technologies that it intends to show off, namely Technicolor and Vistavision, both of which enhance the visuals far beyond what Holiday Inn was capable of. But, crucially, White Christmas doesn’t dwell on these technologies for too long. It employs them as a means to an end, rather than making showing off the technologies the whole point of the film.
There is so much more to be said for White Christmas. I could praise the female characters for the way they echo Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawkes, 1953), mirroring both their extraordinary costumes and their sexual agency. I could point out some of the film’s highlights, such as when Crosby and Kaye themselves don the girls’ costumes to perform a hilarious rendition of the song “Sisters”. But my focus here is on Christmas, and White Christmas very much embodies the magic we all hope it will. Again, this magic doesn’t come in the form of iconography or Christmas cliché, which, despite its title, the film largely jettisons until its finale. Rather, like all the best of the conventional Christmas films I have watched during this 12 Days of Christmas feature, the Christmas magic comes from goodwill, and the emotional impact of doing a good deed for another human being. I can only hope I come out of this Christmas period with more goodwill within me than before, and, if you need a Christmas movie to melt your own icy heart, then White Christmas is amongst the best cinema has to offer.
At time of writing, White Christmas is unavailable to watch for free on any of the main streaming services, but you can rent it from Amazon Prime Video, look out for it on Freeview over the next few days, or add it to your DVD collection!
[i] My full review of Holiday Inn can be found here: https://www.finalshotfilmblog.com/post/the-first-day-of-christmas-holiday-inn [ii] “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde” by Tom Gunning. [iii] Fascinatingly, Michael Curtiz also directed a remake of The Jazz Singer in 1952, which, again, you can only hope is an improvement on the original. Also, while Holiday Inn was being made, Curtiz was making Casablanca. On this evidence, you can only feel that if the production lines of Classical Hollywood could have gotten this man to direct just about every single movie they ever produced it wouldn’t have been a bad move.