The First Day of Christmas: “White Christmas” from 1954

Twelve Days of ChristmasMerry Christmas! Today is Christmas Day, and it is also the first day of “The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code.” We are beginning our study of Code Christmas Classics at the end of the era, October 14 of 1954. On that day, Irving Berlin’s magical Christmas musical, White Christmas, was released. That was not the only important thing that happened in Hollywood history on that day, however. October 14, 1954, was Joseph Breen’s 66th birthday. As a present to himself, he officially retired from his twenty year position as the head of the Production Code Administration. Thus, this movie, which was obviously made earlier, was released when Mr. Breen officially left his job as the chief self-regulator. Thus, I am calling this the “Last Code Christmas Film.” It is the latest film that I will review during my twelve day Christmas celebration. I like to begin at the end and work backward, don’t you? It is so depressing to finish with the end. With no further ado, let’s discuss White Christmas.

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The movie begins in Europe in 1944. Bing Crosby is singing his famous hit, the movie’s title song, for a group of homesick soldiers. He is Bob Wallace, a famous New York entertainer who is now an Army captain in World War II. The only accompaniment is a little music box which his assistant, Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), winds up from time to time. As they are giving their little Christmas show for the boys, their commander, General Tom Waverly, drives up in a jeep with his assistant and the new commander. General Waverly is being replaced with a younger, by-the-book general, and he is moving toward the rear. The two generals express their surprise and dissatisfaction with the Christmas show, but General Waverly quietly orders the driver to take the other general on a long route back to headquarters so that the men can finish their show. He silently sits in the back of the audience and hears Bob’s sentimental comments about his leaving their command. When it grows too heartfelt for him, he stands up and calls the men to attention. He walks up to the stage and, despite his pretended gruffness, tells the men how much he cares about them. The men do a “slambang finish” number, “We’ll Follow the Old Man,” in which they honor their former commander. As soon as he has driven away, an air raid begins. Amid the confusion, a brick wall almost falls on Bob. Phil has to pick him up and carry him to safety. In the process, the selfless private’s right arm is injured. Bob is so grateful to Phil that he offers to do him a favor anytime he can. It just turns out that Phil has written a song which he thinks that he and Bob should sing together as part of the latter’s act after the war. Bob is hesitant, but Phil pathetically rubs his arm, and he agrees. A time lapse of musical numbers after the war shows that Bob and Phil become a famous duo. By making cow eyes and pointing to his wounded arm, Phil has coerced Bob up the ladder of success. Now, several years have passed, and they are producing and appearing in their own musical show. Phil is not content with just running Bob’s business life, however. He is determined to fix him up with a girl so that he will get married, have nine children, and give Phil forty-five minutes a day to go out and get a massage or something. Bob confides that he would like to get married and settle down, but all the girls they meet in show business are only interested in their careers. He promises that, when he does meet the right girl, they’ll marry and start having those nine children. That night, Wallace and Davis go to see an act with the Haynes sisters, who are sisters of an old army buddy of theirs. It turns out that the younger sister, Judy (Vera Ellen), wrote the letter under her brother’s name to get the team there. Her older sister, Betty (Rosemary Clooney), doesn’t approve, since she considers herself to be Judy’s “mother hen.” The fellows are delighted to realize that the sisters of “Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy” are two beautiful blondes. Phil takes a shine to Judy, and he immediately sees Bob’s interest in Betty. They begin to get acquainted; while Phil and Judy are soon dancing together, Bob and Betty start arguing over whether or not Judy was playing an “angle” to get them there. However, the manger soon tells Betty, Judy, and Phil that the girls’ landlord is in his office with the sheriff and a warrant for their arrest. He claims that they burned a hole in his rug, and he is trying to get $200 out of them. Phil, who refuses to pay off “a chiseling rat like that” and is after forty-five minutes all to himself, helps the girls climb out the window of their dressing room. He also gives them the train tickets which he and Bob have for going to New York that evening. He insists that it was Bob’s idea. Once they have left, he convinces Bob that they have to stall the sheriff. They do so by pantomiming the “Sisters” number with a recording of the real sisters playing. The hilarious number is a big smash, but they have to escape through the window and jump onto their train. Bob is furious when Phil pretends to have lost the tickets; once in the club car, he figures out that Phil gave the Haynes sisters the tickets. Just at that moment, the sisters walk in and warmly thank him for his generosity. Phil has been trying to convince Bob that they should go to Vermont for a few days since that is where the Haynes sisters are going to be performing. Now, the girls reveal his plot. When Phil points to his arm, Bob agrees that a short stay in Pine Tree, Vermont, would be good for them. They begin to anticipate the beautiful snow, but they soon arrive in an absolutely snowless Vermont. It’s December, but it’s warm and sunny! Because of that, the inn where the girls are scheduled to perform is almost completely vacant. The housekeeper tells them that their services won’t be needed; the foursome is disappointed but prepares to leave. At that moment, General Waverly walks in, carrying a bundle of wood. His former soldiers salute him, and Phil thinks that he is a janitor. He explains that he is the owner of the beautiful but failing ski lodge. He tells the Haynes sisters that their contract still stands, and all four performers stay. Bob and Phil learn that the General has sunk all the money he has in the world into the Pine Tree Inn, and they are very concerned about the success of his investment. They decide that they have to do something to help him. Bob arranges to have their whole show brought up to the inn, where they can rehearse, put on a show, and draw a lot of “guinea pigs,” which will save the lodge. However, there are a lot of problems, misunderstandings, and wonderful musical numbers between them and success. Will they be able to make the show a success, show the general that he isn’t forgotten, straighten out their romances, and have a happy ending? Can anything end well without a white Christmas? Well, you probably know the answers to these questions, but I suggest that you watch the movie again anyway. If you don’t, you must waste no time in seeing the last Code Christmas film. It is a Paramount classic that anyone should be able to enjoy.

This movie is my family’s favorite holiday film, and the beautiful music certainly adds to its greatness. Irving Berlin’s music and lyrics add so much richness to the charming plot. The musical talent is certainly plentiful. Bing Crosby sings his most popular song, “White Christmas,” and Rosemary Clooney also provides beautiful vocalism. Vera Ellen’s voice was overdubbed by Trudy Stevens, but her terrific dancing is truly her own. She dances tap, jazz, and ballroom. Danny Kaye sings and dances comically and seriously throughout the movie. He is an admirable partner for the phenomenal Miss Ellen in “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” but another dancer is her partner in many other numbers. The choreography and staging in this production are truly unbeatable.

I mentioned before that this movie was released on the day that Mr. Breen retired; I want to point out an ironic connection between that fact and this movie. One of the tenderest parts of the movie is the sideline of General Waverly stepping down in the Army and trying to find a purpose after that. How poetic that such a film should be released on a day when another great man was leaving his troops in the command of a new man! Unfortunately, the new general who took over the PCA was not a tough commander but an incompetent assistant, Geoffrey Shurlock. Like Tom Waverly, Joe Breen was a man who still wanted to fight but knew he was getting too old. Neither man would do less than an excellent job. He would rather retire or die than be inadequate. “We’ll Follow the Old Man” is like Hollywood’s final salute to their general of twenty years. However, like a later song, “What Do You Do with a General?,” expresses, great men like General Waverly and Mr. Breen are quickly forgotten after they retire. They are initially honored by medals, or Academy Awards, but soon, no one can remember their names. This movie was a wonderful salute to the era. What better way to end the Breen era?

The only possible Code objection in this film is the fact that Bing Crosby refers to a brunette in his dreams as s-e-x-y. He says it innocently enough, but that doesn’t make it better. This brings up the interesting point that no copy of the Code which I have ever seen lists this word as a forbidden expression. However, it is never heard in Breen films. It was used before, after, and in occasional Shurlock cracks. By 1954, Mr. Breen was not reviewing as many films as he used to. He was withdrawing, and Geoffrey Shurlock was taking over. Although his presence can still be felt to the very end, tiny cracks are visible in some early 50s films, as they usually were when Mr. Breen wasn’t present. I don’t let that one little word bother me. However, it is just a tiny precursor of what began on October 15.

Thank you for joining us in this “little Yuletide clambake,” as Bob Wallace says in the first scene. I hope that you watch this movie very soon. Merry Christmas to all of my readers. Thank you for your support. Enjoy the whole holiday season. Be sure to come back tomorrow to read my second article in “The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code.” Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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2 thoughts on “The First Day of Christmas: “White Christmas” from 1954

  1. Pingback: The Third Day of Christmas: “The Great Rupert” from 1950 | pure entertainment preservation society

  2. Pingback: The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code! | pure entertainment preservation society

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