The 1950s is the golden age for Hollywood musicals. White Christmas stands as one of the classics, alongside films like: Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, and Gigi. The glossy and well made movie features not only catchy songs, but well-developed characters which audiences are quickly able to care about. Unlike the movies listed above, the romantic relationships in White Christmas are not the main focus. Rather, the pairings of Judy and Betty Haynes, as well as army buddies Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, are more important to the narrative. The film treats its’ characters in an equal fashion, as it stresses the important themes of friendship and loyalty.
White Christmas follows former World War II veterans Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). Wallace is a prominent Broadway song and dance man, and Davis is a burgeoning performer and songwriter. So, of course the men team up once their service in Europe concludes. Their climb to success is quick. Wallace and Davis receive a letter from one of their former army buddies, Benny Haynes “The Dog Faced Boy”. In the letter, Benny asks them if they would go see his sisters’ nightclub act, and give the girls some pointers.
Wallace and Davis visit the Haynes Sisters, where they work as a floor show at a Florida supper club. Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen) are a couple of career minded women, interested in making their act better. They strike up a quick relationship with Wallace and Davis. The two men help them escape from a crooked landlord, giving them train tickets to Vermont, where they will be playing over the holidays.
Bob and Phil follow Betty and Judy up to the Columbia Inn. Arriving at the intimate hotel, they discover the manager is their old boss from their army days (Dean Jagger). The adorable lodge is suffering financially, blaming the trouble on a lack of snow in “New England’s Snow Playground”. The performers work their magic, staging a heartwarming effort to help out their old friend with Christmas fast approaching.
Betty and Judy stand out as sisters and performers in their own right, not simply love interests for the leading men. The film passes the Bechdel Test. Betty and Judy have a number of conversations about their career, as well as their relationship, not simply the men in their lives.
In fact, the film features equal treatment between the two male and the two female leads. Before they even meet the Haynes sisters, Phil wants Bob to find himself a girl. “I want you to get married. I want you to have 9 children. Even if you only spend 5 minutes with each kid, that’s 45 minutes all to myself…”. So, when Bob immediately hits it off with Betty, Phil goes into match-making overdrive. This drive to marriage is usually a quest for female characters during this era. Interestingly, Judy has a similar relationship with her sister. Judy tells Phil that Betty has always been a “Mother Hen”, and that she wouldn’t leave the roost until Judy was “taken care of”and married. Phil and Judy’s matchmaking efforts are important to the narrative, and are responsible for the misunderstandings which are ultimately craft the story.
The bond between the sisters in the movie is strong. Halfway through the film, Judy and Phil get engaged, hoping to encourage Betty and Bob to start a relationship. Rather than being excited for Judy, Betty is heartbroken at the thought of loosing her sister and breaking up the act. There’s a powerful scene as the sisters sit in bed. Judy tells Betty that’s she’s now free to go ahead and do what she wants. Betty lays in bed, listening to everything her sister says. She feigns sleep, tears running down her cheeks. Yet, Betty surprises everyone. Rather than running to Bob’s waiting arms, Betty moves to New York City. Breaking up the act herself, she signs on for a solo run at The Carousel Club.
Bob follows Betty to New York, hoping to get her back. He goes to the Carousel Club and watches the sultry Betty perform “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.” She wears an amazing dress and is surrounded by a group of male dancers. Clooney shines in the sequence as the film gives her a stage to do what she does best, belt out a sultry torch song. The lyrics of the song parallel the narrative, “My one love affair, didn’t get anywhere from the start/ To send me a Joe, who had winter and snow in his heart, wasn’t smart.” Betty, who is aware that Bob is in the audience, tries to change her song before going on. She pleads to her bandleader, “Play Blue Skies… Anything.” Betty goes on and sings her heart out, knowing full well that Bob is in the audience, hoping to get her back.
Eventually, Betty comes back on her own terms. Returning to the Inn, the most important reunion is with her sister. The scene is a quick one, and the camera cuts to an intimate close-up as the two women embrace tenderly. Meanwhile, Bob and Betty’s reunion happens on-stage, as the characters sing “Gee, I Wish I was Back in the Army”. As Betty enters with Judy, this is the first time Bob sees her. The only clue to this is in Wallace’s face. The moment is well acted by Crosby. He spins around as he sees Betty, briefly pulled out of his performance by his glee at her entrance. However, the moment is a small one, of the blink and you could miss it caliber.
White Christmas is a beautiful and heartwarming musical from the golden age of Hollywood cinema. While the film has come to be defined by the timeless title song, White Christmas is a strong movie all the way through. It has vibrant characters and well-developed relationships. It also refuses to loose itself in the romance. Rather, it builds the relationship between sisters Betty and Judy Haynes just as much as the coupled pairings.
Did You Know:
Rosemary Clooney is George Clooney’s aunt. Clooney was a popular singer during the post WWII era, and reportedly sung for both Betty and Judy. While Vera-Ellen was a tremendously talented dancer, she was not a strong singer.
Look for a very young George Chakiris dancing in the “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” music number. Chakiris is best known for his portrayal of Bernardo in West Side Story.