White Christmas might be engrained in our cultural heritage as a cinematic staple for the holiday season, but the film is an underdeveloped and superficial anachronism.
Michael Curtiz opens his 1954 musical in an allied military camp during World War II. War-torn Europe is an unexpected setting for a musical consisting of songs by composer Irving Berlin, and Curtiz’s treatment of the mise-en-scene only reinforces this feeling. Not a crumbled building or pile of bricks is out of place in Curtiz’s battlefield. The destruction is merely a stage for Bob Wallace (played by the iconic Bing Crosby) to sing Berlin’s “White Christmas.”
This movie does not primarily depict WWII, but also 1954 post-war America. Veteran musical performers Bob and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) stage a vaudevillian show to help promote a Vermont ski lodge owned by their former superior Maj. Gen. Thomas Waverly (Dean Jagger). The musical pair receives help from singing sisters Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen), who also provide the nominal heterosexual subtext for 1950s entertainment.
The film serves as a beacon for American moral confidence in the post-war era. Bob’s repeated use of German phrases during rehearsal demonstrates to a 1954 American audience the eradication of the German threat. The inevitability of American triumphalism also explains Curtiz’s less-than-serious rendering of a war scene.
This theme is consistent with Curtiz’s earlier films that portray conflict between right and wrong, such as Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945), but there’s no antagonism in White Christmas. The absence of conflict weakens the narrative in the same fashion Bob’s German does to nazism. A green lawn mocking Vermont tourists who crave snow is the film’s biggest adversary; but the title White Christmas gives an obvious clue to what the finale will be.
Curtiz had earlier success in portraying national resolve through the singular ethos of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) by treating the film as a larger performance of the composer’s songs. But unlike this other musical, White Christmas is an ensemble production that requires a more defined narrative construction.
The America of White Christmas is too idyllic and Curtiz does not provide a time or place signifier. While the film is a product of its time, it does not recognize class, race, individual struggle or any other temporal preoccupation to create context for the “let’s put on a show” genre. The blandness is subsequently reflected in Curtiz’s rendering. There is literalness to his panning shots, which provide information without creating a mood. Many shots include distracting objects in the foreground such as lone tableware on the edge of a counter. The composition is an accidental voyeuristic hybrid between earlier films resembling a taped stage production and later, more complex cinematography. Curtiz plays it safe and delivers the antithesis of his earlier milestones.
The film’s other problem is Danny Kaye. The actor faced rumors about his sexuality throughout his career and plays a female admirer rather unpersuasively. Kaye is not helped by Curtiz’s direction. Several shots emphasize aesthetic attraction to women’s clothing and dance sequences contain conveniently placed phallic imagery. There is a sense Curtiz projects a correcting lens too obviously to the queerness of White Christmas. The director uses sexual inferences in this family film in the same mode as crumbled buildings; that their presence alone suffices for believability. The need to compensate for unrealized masculinity only exaggerates the lacquer Curtiz has already applied.
With the exception of Kaye, the cast delivers sufficient performances appropriate for the tone of the film. Jagger is most impressive in playing a brusque major-general lost in anxiety over his lodge’s financial problems. In the finale, his character melts into a softer but more complete human as the precipitation freezes and snow signals the alleviation of his troubles.
White Christmas is good enough to make a lazy winter afternoon festive, but does not deserve the status in American culture it has garnered. At its culmination, the film is an unthinking winter wonderland.