White Christmas certainly is, well, white. Many consider both the song and 1954 film, White Christmas, to be a quintessential part of American holiday culture. It stars some of the most famous stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, like Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, and Rosemary Clooney. It gives us feelings of nostalgia with odes to Rogers and Hammerstein, big dance numbers (choreographed by Bob Fosse and Robert Alton), and predictable love stories. But are these feelings universal to all of us, or just white Americans? I’m not going to lie, I am a sucker for old Hollywood films. I love the big dance numbers, aesthetic costumes, and predictable plots. They bring comfort to me. However, films made at this time (like White Christmas) certainly have their flaws. If we are going to continue loving White Christmas, it is necessary to give it a critical analysis, specifically of its performances of whiteness and its emphasis of traditional gender stereotypes on stage.
Come to “Holiday Inn”
Let’s start by debunking some common misconceptions regarding the musical film. First off, the musical is technically, well a jukebox musical of Irving Berlin’s songs. The infamous “White Christmas,” song was written by Irving Berlin, formerly Israel Beilin, the famous Russian-Jewish immigrant composer. Berlin wrote the song in 1942 for another Christmas musical starring Bing Crosby known as “Holiday Inn.” When asked why a Jewish American would be writing Christmas songs, Berlin responded with “I wrote it as an American.” Some attribute his creation of the song to Berlin’s identity and belonging as an American immigrant, as celebrating Christmas was seen as integral to American culture. The song first aired in December 1941, just after Pearl Harbor, promoting a sense of American cultural unity during the War. The film features other songs previously debuted in Holiday Inn, like the instrumental version of “Abraham.” The musical composition of “Snow,” was made originally for the musical “Call Me Madam,” but lyrics were changed to fit the context of White Christmas. “What Can You do with a General?” was also recycled for the film.
The film loosely resembles the plot of Holiday Inn (1942) as well, telling the love story between two entertainer duos: WWII veterans and sisters. Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) is a former Broadway star who teams up with Phil Davis (Danny Kaye); the two provide entertainment for troops their time serving in the war and go into business together after they return home. They soon meet Judy and Betty, the sister duo, and wind up at an Inn in Vermont as a result of Phil’s mischievous plan to set Bob up with a Betty. (Let’s not forget Phil also takes a strong liking to Betty’s sister Judy).
Let’s start with gender. The Hayne’s sisters’ first musical number “Sisters,” is strikingly resemblant to the number “Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” which features Marilyn Monroe in Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend. The sisters come out dressed in extravagant baby blue dresses holding obnoxiously large, feathered fans (designed by Edith Head). While the song lyrics seem to emphasize the strong bond the girls have as they sing “Lord, help the mister/ who comes between me and my sister,” but quickly transitions into “sister, don’t come between me and my man.” The song’s entire premise and purpose highlights the mentality that of course, they both should marry, and obviously it should be a man. The reprise of the number features Bob and Phil perform for the sisters in drag like costumes.
A truly “white” performance
The following musical number “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” features Phil and Judy singing and dancing in perfect harmony. It’s too perfect, just like the couple’s newfound love for each other. Not to mention Vera Ellen is twirling in what looks like six-inch heels. However, the audience gets to experience a beautifully choreographed romantic experience between the two. Never more have I wanted to go twirl around in a massive swing dress. This number again, emphasizes the binary reality that Judy must end up with Phil. This is what Judy wants, I guess. I would describe this number as quintessential of the Golden Age of Hollywood. A man and woman deeply in love with each other, lost in a beautiful swing dance. While Vera Ellen really can’t sing, (her voice was dubbed throughout the film), she sure can dance!
Now for the “whitest,” part of the film: the “Minstrel Number.” There is no explicit blackface or minstrel performance during the film, but the number does express the grave desire to go watch these performances. Everything in this number is loud and large. The stage is reminiscent of a Ziegfeld Follie performance. Lots of long bare legs, big kicks, and sparkles. The background dancers look strikingly similar to today’s Rockettes. Unsurprisingly, the new version of the song used in the film is a compilation of Berlin’s previous songs “Mandy,” and “I’d Rather See a Minstrel Show,” featured in Ziegfeld’s show in 1919.
The song opens with Bob and Phil singing about “pawning their overcoats to see a Minstrel Show.” “Mandy,” was originally from an army musical which featured soldiers in blackface and drag. Embodying whiteness on stage, Betty continues to sing of “the minstrel days we miss, when Georgie Primrose used to sing a dance a song to a song like this.” The whiteness on stage while not in explicit blackface, lovingly reminisces on the harmful practice. Judy then rises out of massive stage piece in a white leotard with long tail mimicking a wedding dress. She walks down the stairs past the swooning men and indistinguishable female ensemble in burlesque style costumes.
The rest of the dance number is impressive but somewhat unrelated to the plot. It features complex acrobatic choreography centering on the beauty of Judy, arguably objectifying her to just her body. She flies down the stairs as she is thrown between the arms of ensemble men. While Bing doesn’t actually perform in black face (he sure does in Holiday Inn though,) this musical number is positively reminiscent of minstrelsy and blackface, honoring it on stage, furthering the dominant form of whiteness on stage.
As I said before, White Christmas tends to remind some of cuddling up on the couch with your family during the Holiday season with a warm cup of hot cocoa. However, the film quite literally honors the racist practices of minstrelsy and blackface through its musical composition. Not only are songs used that contain lyrics verbatim reminiscing on the practice, a number of the other songs used in the musical originated through performance of the practice. Vera Ellen gets to showcase her dance skills a number of times in the show including to the instrumental version of Abraham. In White Christmas, the song exists purely as a dance break for Ellen; the song is only an instrumental version. But the original song was taken from White Christmas’s predecessor Holiday Inn. Bing Crosby’s character performs an abhorrently racist number in full blackface to this song. What was the need to include it in the new film? What does this say about the values of said American culture now and at that time?
The ending of the film is almost too perfect. It features all the characters on stage singing the iconic number “White Christmas.” A beautiful backdrop decorated with Christmas trees and presents is removed to reveal that the previously eighty degree Vermont town is having a white Christmas. I can’t help but sigh when I hear the three dinging bells fade into the soothing baritone of Bing’s voice exclaim:
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas Just like the ones I used to know Where the tree tops glisten And children listen To hear sleigh bells in the snow, oh, the snow
This linkage between “whiteness” and American culture in White Christmas is explicit. It draws on community feelings of nostalgia, and national unity in a post world war II setting, but only by connecting to those who are white. The film creates a link between American history and culture as inherently white. Now the fact that Irving Berlin, a Jewish-American immigrant wrote a number of the songs for the musical complicate matters a bit. While he may have know first hand the struggle of assimilation and finding belonging in his new home, he never experienced life as a person of color in America. The film portrayals on gender also allow audiences to consider the intersections. of gender and race. If the story was told with characters of another race, would it cast the same meaning? And Bing, I have to ask are you dreaming of a white Christmas with regards to snow…. or a white Christmas with regards to the whiteness we see throughout the film? The film may seem merry at face value, but after a closer look at its history, I’m not sure it’s all that bright.