“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas. Just like the ones I used to know”
The song White Christmas had been used in the film “Holiday Inn” (1942) starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The ballad went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. It was responsible for changing Christmas music forever – creating a demand for it – as well as cementing the themes of home and nostalgia as a staple in future songs to come. It is the world’s best-selling single with estimated sales of 50 million copies. Bing Crosby’s nephew Howard shared that he once asked his uncle about the most difficult thing he ever had to do as a performer and he was told about having to sing “White Christmas” for 100,000 GIs in December 1944 in Northern France. A few days later, a lot of these men would head to the Battle of the Bulge and not make it. Supposedly, Bing could see their faces filled with tears and it was hard for him not to break down. That moment is poignantly recreated in the very first scene of the film “White Christmas” (1954). It opens on a war front on Christmas Eve 1944 – and the character played by Bing – Captain Bob Wallace – is entertaining the 151st division – and you can hear the sound of distant bombings. He’s center stage and the moment he sings the first verse the emotion is overwhelming. His phrasing of “where the tree tops glisten” is enough to tear me up. The camera cuts to the soldiers listening, and it’s quite a beautiful heartwarming scene. There are enough parallels between 1944 and our current sobering realities – and the longing for hearth is definitely strong.
All the songs in this movie musical were written by one of the greatest songwriters in American history – Irving Berlin – and merely to hear them is worth the price of admission. There’s one ballad whose lyrics have become a sort of mantra for me throughout the years – but took a particular, heavier meaning in 2020. In the film it is sung by Bing Crosby and the unequaled Rosemary Clooney (whose album “White Christmas” is a personal favorite of mine). The song is used to advance their characters’ blooming romance. Betty cannot sleep because of a short-term problem – and Bing urges her to start thinking about all the good things in her life. “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep / I count my blessings instead of sheep / And I fall asleep counting my blessings.” It’s such a tender moment.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca,” “Mildred Piece”), the film – a partial remake of “Holiday Inn” – makes for robust entertainment. The plot is an excuse for great tunes and some spectacular choreography. Former soldiers, singers Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (an eager Danny Kaye) are smitten by sister act Betty (Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) and follow them to an engagement at an inn in rural Vermont. There, they run into Gen. Waverly (Dean Jagger), the boys’ commander in World War II, who turns out to be the owner of the establishment and is facing financial turmoil and may have to close the facilities. So they come up with a holiday extravaganza show to raise funds and save Christmas! The film was heralded as the first shot in the new VistaVision process which yielded a finer-grained projection print. Things look brighter!
Fred Astaire wasn’t available to pair again with Crosby in their third Irving Berlin showcase musical (“Holiday Inn” and “Blue Skies” had featured them), and he was ultimately replaced by Kaye who nearly steals every number he is in with his knockout limber moves. He couples with Ellen in the terrific number appropriately named “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Ellen and Clooney duet in the wonderful “Sisters” dressed in matching powder blue outfits with ostrich feathered fans. It’s a delectable catchy tune – and they’re obviously having fun. The high point to me is Rosemary Clooney singing the torch song “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.” She’s draped by costume designer extraordinaire Edith Head in a black mermaid dress and sequined gloves. It’s a showstopping 11 o’clock number.
Eventually the merriment culminates with “White Christmas” and you will get emotional. It’s lovely. Just lovely.
“I said, I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white”
Available to stream on Netflix and FuboTV and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes, Amazon Prime, Redbox, Apple TV and YouTube.
Written by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Dean Jagger
Bringing “White Christmas” to the Screen
With the continuing popularity of the song (and Bing Crosby) through the 1940s, it was a no-brainer for Hollywood to want to capitalize on it yet again. As early as 1949, the movie “White Christmas” was in preparation at Paramount. The idea was to show off old and new Irving Berlin tunes and reunite the stars of Holiday Inn, Crosby and Fred Astaire. Irving Berlin recycled parts of the earlier film and mixed it with elements of an unproduced musical he had written with Norman Krasna called “Stars on My Shoulders”; Krasna went on, with Melvin Frank, to turn the new story into a screenplay. Fred Astaire, however, wasn’t crazy about the script and pulled out. Paramount replaced him with Donald O’Connor, but he, too, had to pull out when he fell ill close to the start of production. According to author David Leopold (“Irving Berlin’s Show Business”), Kaye asked for a huge paycheck – $200,000 plus ten percent of the gross – never expecting that it would be accepted. But Paramount realized that waiting for O’Connor would cost them about that much, and they bit the bullet. As production began, Berlin wrote in a letter to his friend Irving Hoffman, “It is the first movie that I’ve been connected with since Holiday Inn that has the feel of a Broadway musical. Usually there’s little enthusiasm once you get over the first week of a picture. But the change in this setup has resulted in an excitement that I am sure will be reflected in the finished job. In any event, as of today I feel great and very much like an opening in Philadelphia with a show.” Paramount chose “White Christmas” to be its first movie produced in VistaVision, the studio’s widescreen answer to CinemaScope. The New York Times noted the technical achievement in its review: “The colors on the big screen are rich and luminous, the images are clear and sharp, and rapid movements are got without blurring – or very little.” “White Christmas” was Michael Curtiz’s first directing gig at Paramount after he left Warner Brothers. His Paramount contract allowed him the freedom to direct movies for other studios as well, and he thus floated around town from then on. (tcm.com)
About Bing Crosby
When Harry Lillis Crosby was born, on May 3, 1903, to a working-class, Catholic Irish-Anglo family with deep roots in the American Northwest, there was little reason to think he would amount to much. Though an obviously intelligent and conscientious student, his primary interests were sports (he won many swimming medals), school plays, and music–he played drums (not very well), sang, and whistled. At Gonzaga University, he decided to study law because he could think of nothing better at the time and it pleased his parents. He left law school two months before graduating. Music lured him away. It had always been part of the Crosby household. His father, who played mandolin, led the family in song and bought one of the first phonographs in Spokane, Washington. Harry was the fourth of seven siblings. Nicknamed Bing for his love of a newspaper parody, “The Bingville Bugle,” he listened to everything; he attended the vaudeville shows that came through town, regaling his friends afterward with detailed accountings of each act. He landed a backstage job when the legendary Al Jolson performed in Spokane, and studied his every gesture from the wings. A younger boy named Al Rinker sealed Bing’s fate, asking him to play drums in his five-piece dance band. When the other fellows in the group, the Musicaladers, heard him sing, they didn’t much care how he played the drums. Even at that age, Bing had a mellifluous, solid baritone with good range, a steady sense of time, and a casual charm. With his uncanny memory, Bing could learn songs after hearing them once, though he never learned to read music.
After the band broke up, Bing worked locally with Rinker, who accompanied him on piano. In 1925, Al suggested that they pool their funds and drive a broken-down flivver to Los Angeles, where his sister–the not-yet-celebrated jazz singer Mildred Bailey–might get them a job. She got them an audition, which was all they needed. Bing and Al toured in one vaudeville show after another, up and down the West Coast, until a couple of musicians from Paul Whiteman’s band chanced to hear them. Within a year after leaving Spokane, Crosby and Rinker were under contract to the most famous orchestra in the country. They were on their way to New York. Despite a few setbacks and a too-eager embrace of big city temptations, Bing refined his style. He was inspired by his idol and lifelong friend, Louis Armstrong. Whiteman teamed Bing and Al with a pianist and songwriter, Harry Barris, calling them the Rhythm Boys: They became the first successful jazz vocal group. Yet it was Crosby’s way with a song that most impressed Whiteman’s arrangers and musicians, who lobbied for more Bing solos. The word was out: Bing brought something new to American song: rhythmic excitement, virile authority, emotional candor. The best jazz musicians of the day accepted him as one of their own. He recorded with Bix Beiderbecke and Duke Ellington. Soon, every major American songwriter, among them Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen, and Johnny Burke, were writing songs for him. Within a few years, the Rhythm Boys left Whiteman. Then Bing left the Rhythm Boys. Working in nightclubs and headlining in theaters, Bing was the first vocalist to use the microphone as an instrument, enabling him to communicate subtle emotions and musical nuance. When he appeared at the Coconut Grove, the movie community flocked to hear him. Producer Mack Sennett hired him to make a series of comedy shorts. William Paley, of the fledgling CBS network, gave him a daily radio show. Paramount Pictures brought him to Hollywood to star in “The Big Broadcast”; the studio quickly signed him to a three-picture deal that grew into a 20-year association.
Meanwhile, record executive Jack Kapp, using Bing’s loyalty to him as a come-on, found backing to start his own company, Decca, which saved the then moribund industry by lowering the price of records. Kapp convinced Bing that he was more than a jazz or ballad singer, encouraging him to sing every kind of song and positioning him as the voice of America–home grown, unaffected, unassuming, and irresistible. Bing’s popularity really took off a year later, when NBC asked him to take over its faltering program, “The Kraft Music Hall.” Bing turned it into the archetypal broadcast variety show, a template still in use today. The public and critics loved him. At a time when radio was dominated by schooled, oratorical voices, Bing sounded like the guy next door. People trusted him: Instead of pandering to the presumed tastes of the masses, Bing combined pop, jazz, opera, and classical music. He was as much admired for his unique brand of slang, offbeat sense of humor, and unruffled disposition as for his singing. In the dark days of the Depression, Bing was a beacon of optimism. He became still more of a national force during World War II, touring at home and abroad, making a record number of V-Discs, selling a record number of war bonds, personally answering thousands of letters from servicemen and their families. Bing’s radio show regularly attracted an audience of 50 million–an unheard of number. He starred in the “Road” movies, with Bob Hope, one of the most durable, profitable, and imitated comedy series in film history. In 1944, Bing won an Academy Award for his performance as Father O’Malley in Leo McCarey’s “Going My Way.” At the end of the war, an Army poll declared him the individual who had done the most to boost wartime morale. The postwar years represented the peak of Bing’s success. Between 1946 and 1948, he revolutionized the entertainment industry. Having recorded shows on transcription discs for soldiers, he now insisted on pre-recording his radio show. In those days, all radio programs were broadcast live and NBC took him to court. Bing won and moved to ABC, an also-ran network that, thanks to Bing, became a major competitor to NBC and CBS. After he produced the first pre-recorded radio series, other entertainers quickly followed suit. Billboard called Bing’s gamble the most important show business story since the invention of talking pictures.
But Bing realized that transcribed sound (recorded on large lacquered discs) was not as good as a live broadcast. When he heard about former Army engineer, John Mullin, who was experimenting with tape-based recording, Bing offered to sponsor him. Using the early tape machines, he converted his studio to tape, allowing him to record and edit his program. As he and his engineer experimented with the new medium, they introduced such broadcasting devices as canned laughter and applause. The entire business followed his lead in turning to tape, which remained the industry standard until the advent of digitalization nearly 35 years later. Bing continued to make hit records and movies into the 1960s, at which time he began to slow down, reserving most of his work for television, including a series of variety specials, frequent appearances as host of “The Hollywood Palace,” television movies, and an annual Christmas show that became a national tradition. He spent more time on the golf course and at the race track – devoting himself to the two sports he helped pioneer by creating the first celebrity pro-am golf tournament and taking the lead in building the Del Mar race track. Bing’s first wife, Dixie Lee, the mother of his first four sons, died in 1952. During the next few years, he was regularly gossiped about in newspaper columns as he romanced several of Hollywood’s most beautiful women. In 1957, he married Kathryn Grant, a young actress and singer he had met on the Paramount lot. Together they had two sons and a daughter. The Crosby family became the focus of his Christmas program, and of his historic return to the stage, in 1976, performing in Los Angeles, New York, London, Oslo, and elsewhere. When he died on a golf course in Madrid, on October 14, 1977, he was mourned the world over. On that day, Major League Baseball honored him by pausing for a moment of silence at the start of the World Series game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees. No other entertainer has ever won the hearts of so many and held them for so long. (pbs.org)
About Director Michael Curtiz
Born on Dec. 24, 1888 in Budapest, Hungary, Curtiz was raised in a moderately middle class home by his architect father and his opera singer mother. After making his stage debut as a child in one of his mother’s operas, Curtiz ran away from home at 17 to join the circus, where he performed as a juggler, acrobat and mime. He later attended Markoszy University and the Royal Academy of Theater and Art in Budapest. After completing his studies, he joined the Hungarian National Theatre, where he eventually worked as an actor and director. In 1913, he spent six months working on his craft in Denmark, where he was the assistant director on August Blom’s “Atlantis” (1913), before returning to Hungary to briefly serve in the army during World War I. He went back to filmmaking in 1915 and left Hungary four years later after the industry became nationalized, eventually settling in Vienna. There he directed a number of movies for Sascha Films, including the biblical “Sodom und Gomorrha” (1922) and “Moon of Israel” (1924). He also made “Red Heels” (1925) and “The Golden Butterfly” (1926) before catching the attention of Warner Bros. studio head, Jack Warner, who brought Curtiz over to the United States. Curtiz’s first U.S. film, “The Third Degree” (1926), was a romantic drama that revealed a mastery of the moving camera in its flashy expressionistic sequences, at one point presenting the action from the perspective of a lethal bullet. It also marked the first of eight collaborations with Dolores Costello, one of the studio’s few established female stars. Warner Bros. thrust Curtiz into its attempts at sound innovation, and two part-talkies “Tenderloin” (1927) and “Noah’s Ark” (1928), both starring Costello, achieved considerable popularity and garnered millions at the box office. “Noah’s Ark” was also notable for having John Wayne cast as an extra during the flood scene. In 1930, Curtiz directed no less than six Warner talkies, but the studio’s attempt to partially introduce color that year in the director’s commercially successful Al Jolson vehicle, “Mammy,” fell short of expectations. As Warner Bros. became the fastest-growing studio in Hollywood, so too did the director’s fortunes. With “The Cabin in the Cotton” (1932), Curtiz helped deliver the first of Bette Davis’ malicious Southern belles, while “20,000 Years in Sing Sing” (1933) presented her in a more sympathetic light as the girlfriend of noble Spencer Tracy, who sacrifices his life for the murder she committed.
Curtiz went on to helm two of the studio’s rare excursions into horror, “Dr. X” (1932) and “The Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933), both all-color and exhibiting the influence of Lang and Murnau in their vividly atmospheric scenes. Despite his early penchant for Swedish naturalism, Curtiz followed in the footsteps of the great German studio directors, transporting his audiences to distant lands while all the time remaining on the back lots of Hollywood. He began his 12-film collaboration with Errol Flynn, who was often paired with Olivia de Havilland, in “Captain Blood” (1935). Together, both director and actor became synonymous with the swashbuckler genre, which reached its zenith with “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) – a film so popular that Flynn was inextricably tied to the character Robin Hood for the rest of his career. The pair worked together again on “The Sea Hawk” (1940), though by this time their relationship had become gravely strained, mainly due to Curtiz’s autocratic and sometimes demeaning behavior. They collaborated again on “Dodge City” (1939), which marked the first of three big-budget Westerns, and continued with perhaps their best, “Virginia City” (1940). After rounding out the Old West trilogy with “Santa Fe Trail” (1940, Curtiz directed Flynn in the mediocre “Dive Bomber” (1941). By this time Flynn had had enough of working with Curtiz and effectively ended their prolific association. One actor who apparently did not mind the director’s imperious ways was Claude Rains, who appeared in 10 Curtiz films, including three sentimental small-town soapers, “Four Daughters” (1938), and its two sequels “Daughters Courageous” (1939) and “Four Wives” (1939). These films also introduced actor John Garfield to the public. He also elicited some of the finest work from both Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, the former giving a bravura performance as the tough and sardonic, ultimately soft-hearted boxing manager of “Kid Gallahad” (1937), and providing perhaps an even richer portrayal as the intellectual, rampaging captain of “The Sea Wolf” (1941), the quintessential adaptation of the Jack London novel. As for Cagney, Rocky Sullivan in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938) represented a high point from the actor’s gangster oeuvre, and his Academy Award-winning turn as George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) stands at the very pinnacle of his career. Certainly a high-point in Curtiz’s career as well, the overly patriotic musical earned the director an Oscar nomination for Best Director and entered the annals of Hollywood as a cinematic classic.
Though Curtiz’s prodigious output slowed some during the 1940s, his films often reflected the efficiency of the studio system at its best, and “Casablanca” (1942), the classic that earned him his only Oscar as Best Director, was a shining example of what could go right in that setting. Originally scheduled as a low-budget melodrama starring Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan, “Casablanca” acquired some cachet when Warner Bros. upgraded it to major-budget status, and brought in Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the leads. The supporting actors were all first rate, led by Rains as Vichy police chief Louis Renault, Paul Henreid as resistance leader Victor Lazlo, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt and Dooley Wilson, playing that haunting melody again for Rick – the character in which Bogie, more than in any other, established his iconographic screen persona. Longtime Curtiz screenwriting collaborators Julius and Philip Epstein, fresh from scripting the director’s “Mission to Moscow” (1943), worked alongside Howard Koch on a script that was reportedly only half done before shooting began, with the famous scene between Bogie and Bergman at the end allegedly being written the night before it was filmed. Though initially a mild box office success, “Casablanca” grew in stature to become a Hollywood classic widely considered to be one of the finest films ever made. “Casablanca” was a tough act to follow, and while the war film “Passage to Marseille” (1944) rounded up some familiar suspects like Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre, it fell far short of its precursor. There still remained the wonderful noir classic, “Mildred Pierce” (1945), which earned Joan Crawford a Best Actress Oscar, but after that film’s success, consensus had it that the master fell victim to the sheer volume of his output. People continued going to his movies, and in fact some of his biggest moneymakers were ahead. “Night and Day” (1946), a sanitized biopic of Cole Porter (Cary Grant) that paled in comparison with “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and the optimistic “Life with Father” (1947) were both upbeat fare that enjoyed healthy box office. The Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye vehicle “White Christmas” (1954) turned out to be the biggest commercial success of his career, which was made for Paramount soon after he ended his 28-year run with Warner Bros. Curtiz went on to direct more than 20 more pictures, including his excellent film noir, “The Breaking Point” (1950), his last collaboration with John Garfield, and the Elvis Presley vehicle, “King Creole” (1958), which The King cited as his personal favorite of his many films. He continued churning out picture after picture like “The Hangman” (1959), “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1960) and “Francis of Assisi” (1961), though by this point it was clear that his best days were behind him. In the saddle nearly to the end, Curtiz died of cancer on April 10, 1962, just six months after the release of his final film, “The Commancheros” (1961), a well-paced actioner with John Wayne as a Texas Ranger out to bring in a gang illegally supplying liquor and guns. Though he may not have demonstrated an easily identifiable style, Curtiz left behind an impressive body of work possessing an incredibly consistent narrative energy. (tcm.com)