Irving Berlin’s holiday ballad “White Christmas” is widely regarded as the most-recorded and best-selling song of all time. Introduced by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, it won a Best Song Oscar and ranks among Berlin’s most popular works, alongside such other notable anthems as “God Bless America” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Paramount sought for more than a decade to develop a sequel to Holiday Inn, which co-starred Fred Astaire along with Crosby. White Christmas (1954) was to have reunited the two, but Astaire bowed out and, when his intended successor Donald O’Connor became ill, Danny Kaye became Crosby’s co-star.
The two play Army buddies whose singing-and-dancing act becomes a big post-war hit. They become involved in a comical plot with a talented sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) and the four end up booked for the holidays at a Vermont country inn. When the two veterans discover that the inn is owned by their much-admired former commanding officer (Dean Jagger) – and there’s no snow in sight for Christmas – they decide to produce an extravaganza to honor the retired general.
Berlin wrote seven new songs for the film (and four more that were ultimately dropped): “Sisters,” for Clooney and Vera-Ellen; “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” for Kaye; “Snow,” for the four stars; “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” for Crosby and Clooney; “Choreography,” for Kaye; “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” for Clooney; and “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” for the quartet.
Crosby sings “White Christmas” – which, by 1954, was already his signature tune – and the song is reprised by the entire company during the film’s finale. Other Berlin songs, including “Heat Wave,” “Blue Skies,” and “Mandy,” are heard at various points in the film. George Chakiris, who would go on to later fame as a star of West Side Story, can be seen among the uncredited dancers.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), the film was released in October 1954 to mixed reviews, yet proved popular with the American public. It earned more than $30 million at the box office, making it the biggest grossing film of the year. “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” was Oscar-nominated as Best Song, and a stage adaptation was created in 2004 (including a Broadway run in 2008/2009).
Crosby’s original recording of “White Christmas” spent 11 weeks at No. 1 in 1942 and hit the top of the charts again in 1945 and 1946. After the release of the film, it hit the top 20 again in 1954. It ranks No. 5 on the American Film Institute’s top-100 movie song list and No. 2 on the Recording Industry Association of America’s “Songs of the Century” list. And significantly, “White Christmas” remains a favorite among holiday songs to this day.
Jon Burlingame writes about film music for Variety and teaches film-music history at USC.