Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
Musicals grew in popularity in the 1930s, with films such as Top Hat and The Wizard of Oz bringing box office success in their years of release. Looking to ride this wave of demand (and profit), the major movie studios started dreaming up new ideas for musicals that their actors and actresses could appear in. One studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, became the leading creator of movie musicals. Led by film producer Arthur Freed, MGM even had their own independent film unit that solely filmed and produced musicals. Huge stars were born out of the “Freed Unit” as it became known including Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, and Fred Astaire among others.
Other studios looked to replicate MGM’s success, including Paramount Pictures. Paramount signed the biggest singer in America, Bing Crosby, to a motion picture contract in 1932. Crosby went on to make about three films a year. Even at a time when U.S. economy was recovering from the Depression, the singer was more popular than ever. Crosby’s records churned out hit after hit atop the singles charts. In 1942, MGM agreed to loan-out one of their biggest stars, Fred Astaire, to Paramount. The studio teamed him up with Crosby for the musical Holiday Inn.
Holiday Inn was a huge success for Paramount, largely because of the music composed for the film. Irving Berline, now considered one of the greatest songwriters in history, wrote 12 songs exclusively for the picture. The biggest song to come out of Holiday Inn by far was “White Christmas.” The tune, sung by Crosby in the film, hit number one on the charts on October 31, 1942 and then stayed there for 11 weeks straight. It got to the top of the charts again in 1945 and then for a third time in 1947. Astaire and Crosby appeared in another film together, 1946’s Blue Skies, a musical comedy yet again based on a story by Berlin. Paramount wanted the duo to team up for a third feature to continue their box office success. The studio looked again to Holiday Inn and the songs of Irving Berlin, in particular the success of “White Christmas,” to create a holiday hit.
Originally, the film White Christmas was planned to be a star vehicle for Astaire and Crosby. After reading the script however, Astaire declined the project. Crosby briefly left the film as well, but returned to it in 1953. Donald O’Connor signed on to replace Astaire, but was forced to drop out before shooting started due to illness. Actor Danny Kaye (well known to audiences for starring in The Secret of Walter Mitty) was brought on to star in the picture opposite Crosby.
Largely a vehicle for showcasing Berlin’s songs, the plot of White Christmas is fairly simple: Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, a successful song and dance team (Crosby and Kaye) both become smitten with another musical duo comprised of two sisters, Betty and Judy Haynes (played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen). The two pairs team up to save a fledgling Vermont inn owned by Bob and Phil’s former commanding officer, Major General Tom Waverly (Dead Jagger), from their time in the U.S. Army during World War II. The musical numbers are what make the now holiday classic most memorable. Berlin’s songs combined with the lavish, show-stopping dance routines are the real stars of the film. White Christmas became a huge hit with moviegoers and topped the box office as the number 1 grossing film of 1954.
From a filmmaking standpoint, White Christmas is a technical milestone. The musical was the very first movie to be produced in VistaVision. Created by engineers at Paramount, VistaVisia is a widescreen, higher resolution variation of the 35mm film format. The 35mm film negative was placed horizontally in the camera gate when shooting, resulting in a finer-grained print when projected on a screen. Although VistaVision only lasted for seven years, it became an experimental format for cinematographers working on film. This experimentation evolved into new film processes such as 70mm IMAX film which still exists today.
“White Christmas” the song has been credited with selling over 50 million copies worldwide. It’s considered the biggest-selling single of all-time.
The Vermont inn set used in the film is actually just a refurbished version of the inn from Holiday Inn, the film Astaire and Crosby made prior which White Christmas heavily borrowed from.
Vera-Ellen did not sing any of her parts in the songs of the film. Instead, co-star Rosemary Clooney and singer Trudy Stevens provided vocals used during musical numbers.
Look closely in the scene where Crosby and Kaye perform the “Sisters” act – they can both be seen struggling to hold in their laughter. The take used in the movie was the best one they had available.
What’s your favorite movie musical? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.