Mega-Christmas Film Festival July: White Christmas

According to a new survey by 42 percent of people watch Christmas movies…in July. We knew Christmas in July was popular and that channels such as Lifetime and Hallmark might be partly responsible for this trend but we’re frankly shocked by that result. July is a fun month. And what is more fun than escaping the heat of summer with a Christmas movie?

That’s why this month we’re kicking off the film festival with White Christmas, the 1954 blockbuster classic that lived an entire life in name only for more than a decade before it became a film in its own right.

The film White Christmas is not the origin of the song that gave it a title. It was reportedly sung before Holiday Inn, a 1942 film with Crosby, but that’s the movie that made it popular (and, actually, a better flick than White Christmas, which is something of a remake of Holiday Inn). With its longing for home, the song took off during World War II and won the Oscar for Best Original Song. It became immensely popular in the ’40s and the success of the song actually helped propel the success of the film in 1954, the biggest of that year by some margin.

The history of the song White Christmas is likely more interesting than the history of the film.

The legendary Irving Berlin, one of America’s greatest songwriters, was a Russian, Jewish immigrant who, though he couldn’t even read or write music notation, managed to compose over 1,000 songs, the very foundation of our American songbook.

But it’s “White Christmas,” one of his simplest, just 54 words and 67 now classic notes, that remains his most popular.

“I think,” reflected Linda Emmett, the second of Berlin’s three daughters, “for my father that Christmas was an American holiday more than anything else. It was certainly nothing he was exposed to, to say the least in — in Russia.”

Emmett was speaking in the former Berlin residence in New York. It is now the Luxembourg consulate.

In the Berlin household, she says, Christmas was “the typical secular Christmas, with a Christmas tree, and Christmas stockings, and a turkey, and a plum pudding, and general cheery atmosphere, and something that as children we —- we looked forward to tremendously.”

Many think Berlin was inspired to write “White Christmas” during a stay in Beverly Hills while working on a movie. He was homesick for his family.

“And it wasn’t until — a couple years later … over the Christmas season of 1940 into 1941, I believe, that he — kind of took the song, the half-finished song out of what he called his song trunk,” says Jody Rosen, author of “White Christmas: the Story of an American Song.”

“And,” Rosen continued, “over the Christmas season that year – (Berlin) rewrote the lyric … and it was then that after he’d written it, that he came into his — his– song publishing offices and — and announced to his musical secretary, ‘I’ve just written a new song. Not only is the best song I’ve ever written, it’s the best song anybody’s ever written.’ And that song was ‘White Christmas.’ ”

“White Christmas” premiered on radio at Christmastime in 1941, just 18 days after Pearl Harbor. The song aired on Bing Crosby’s radio show. Only eights months later, moviegoers would see and hear Crosby sing it in the film “Holiday Inn.”

“It was … kind of the centerpiece of the film, the center,” Rosen says. … “But critics didn’t take much notice of it. And it was only when Armed Forces Radio began to play the song overseas and for American troops who found its images of kind of Christmas on the home front so appealing. … It was 1942, the first winter that American troops had spent overseas. So, these images of … snowy American, New Englandy Christmas really spoke to the longing, nostalgia and homesickness of the troops for their homeland and for the sweethearts and wives and mothers and fathers they’d left behind. It was the enthusiasm of these troops that really propelled the song and made it a hit.”

“White Christmas” the song only became “White Christmas” the movie after years of repeated holiday play and a stubborn streak at the top of the charts. Producers were surprised at the staying power of “White Christmas” the song, even after folks had returned from the war. It was the ultimate Christmas song, an instant classic that hit home and stayed home. Crosby even had to re-record the song in 1947 because the master recordings from 1941 were worn so thin from overplay (this 1947 version is the one most commonly listened to today).

So when it came to exploiting White Christmas the song it seemed only natural that a post-war movie going public would respond positively to a big screen take off of the song. The success of Christmas themed films in Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop’s Wife seemed to cement the good prospects for White Christmas the film but making it a musical during a decade when musicals took America by storm made White Christmas a can’t miss idea.

The producers were right about all that. But while White Christmas might be a classic it really isn’t a good movie.

Thin on plot, even boring in spots for lack of story conflict and drama, White Christmas is pure schmaltz. It is more about the music of Irving Berlin, the vocals of Crosby and Clooney, and the dancing of Vera Ellen than it really is about Christmas. In fact, of the 16 songs in White Christmas only one is a Christmas song.

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