Every holiday season, countless millions of us the world over gather around our tv screens to watch our favorite Christmas movies. It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol (in all its many versions), A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and of course, everybody's all-time favorite holiday film The Polar Express (author of this article blushes) ahem, are all universally beloved holiday movies.
But no list of classic Christmas movies could ever be complete without including 1954's White Christmas starring Bing Crosby.
White Christmas was a Paramount picture and was the first-ever movie filmed in the then-breakthrough wide screen wonder VistaVision.
The original choice for for Bing Crosby's partner and co-star in White Christmas was Fred Astaire. Fred and Bing had already teamed up in two previous films Holiday Inn (1942) and Blue Skies (1946). After reading the script, Fred chose not only not to do it, but also asked to be released from his contract with Paramount Studios! Was it really that bad? No, the truth is, Fred was considering retiring from show business during this period.
Crosby himself decided to leave the project too, shortly thereafter. Bing wanted to take some time off to be with his sons (his wife, Dixie Lee, had died the previous year). After this delay, Bing came back on board.
Next on the list of potential White Christmas partners for Bing was Donald O'Connor. Unlike Astaire, Donald O'Connor agreed to do the film. This plan was approved until he came down with a severe case of Q fever, which he caught from his co-star, Francis the talking mule. No kidding, Donald O'Connor caught the sickness from Francis while filming their most recent movie Francis Joins the WACs.
Next on the list of potential partners for der Bingle was Danny Kaye. After reading the script, Danny agreed to sign on and White Christmas was a go. Kaye was awarded 10% of the box office gross plus $200,000.Bing and songwriter Irving Berlin would split 45% of the profits, with Paramount Studios raking in the other 45%.
Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen were cast as the requisite female co-stars and girlfriends. Clooney admitted that she did the film solely to have the chance to work with Bing Crosby. Although in the film Clooney was the older sister, in reality, Vera-Ellen was seven years her senior. (Note: in case you're wondering, Rosemary Clooney is the aunt of our current superstar George Clooney).
Seventeen songs (all written by Irving Berlin) were included in the film. Many mistakenly believe the film's title song "White Christmas" originated in this movie. No, it was originated in a Crosby film by Bing himself, but that film was actually the previously mentioned Holiday Inn in 1942.
Bing sings "White Christmas" in this film and another version is sung by the entire cast to conclude the film. Irving Berlin's song "Snow" had actually been previously composed under the title "Free." But Berlin changed the lyrics around and it was included in White Christmas in its more holiday-friendly form.
Filming of White Christmas lasted from September to November of 1953.
It is an urban myth that Rosemary Clooney dubbed in Vera-Ellen's voice in one of the White Christmas songs. It is, indeed, true that Vera-Ellen's voice was dubbed in for all the singing she did in the movie, but all of her dubbed-in vocalizing was done by Trudy Stevens.
The song in question, "Sisters," was not only sung by Rosemary and Trudy Stevens, but Bing and Danny Kaye did their own version, in semi-drag, as two oh-so-feminine guys. This humorous version of "Sisters" was actually not in the film's script. Director Michael Curtiz had seen Crosby and Kaye fooling around on the set singing it one day, found it amusing, and decided to include it in the film.
If you watch them singing the song, you will see Bing cracking up at Danny Kaye's antics. This was genuine laughter, Crosby really was breaking up. A second version of the song, sung without Bing laughing, was filmed, but after seeing both versions, audiences preferred the more natural one, and the laughing Crosby version was left in.
As a sidebar, Rosemary Clooney recalled in a later interview how all during production, Danny Kaye was constantly forcing the cast and crew to film retakes of scenes because he kept breaking everybody on the set up. The unwanted, but uncontrollable, Kaye-inspired laughs spoiled many a take.
At the end of production, after the final scene had been shot on White Christmas, a second version of the same final scene was filmed.
The scene was actually fine and in the can, but the king and queen of Greece happened to be visiting the set on that very day. It was decided by the powers that be that a second take of the scene be re-filmed, to give the royal visitors "something to remember." This second "filming" was done without any film in the cameras. And it was also done without the presence of Bing, who had skipped out and was off somewhere playing golf.
White Christmas was released on October 14, 1954. It premiered at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Reviews for the film were mixed.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times said, "Director Michael Curtiz has made his picture look good. Too bad it doesn't hit the eardrums and the funny bone with equal force."
But Variety gave the film a thumbs up, saying: "White Christmas should be a natural hit at the box office... ...Crosby and Kaye keep the entertainment going... ...clicking so well the team should call for a repeat. Certainly Crosby has never had a more facile partner than Kaye against whom to bounce his misleading nonchalance." (a strange thing to say, considering Bing had already appeared in several films opposite Bob Hope).
Mixed reviews aside, White Christmas proved a financial bonanza, earning over $12 million dollars at the box office (a Star Wars-like amount in 1954). In fact, White Christmas was the biggest movie hit of the year (The Caine Mutiny, the next runner-up, drew just $8.7 million at the box office).
And after over 60 years, White Christmas remains a beloved "must watch" holiday staple during the Christmas season, all over the globe.