Most people today associate the song White Christmas with the 1954 eponymous hit film, starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. Filmed in Technicolor, it was also the first film to be filmed in VistaVision, a technique developed by Paramount Pictures that doubled the surface area on 35mm film, creating far superior prints. It was the top grossing film of 1954 and it still looks beautiful today.
However, this is not the film where the song White Christmas was introduced. A decade earlier, in 1942, Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, composed twelve songs specifically for the musical film, Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, and Walter Abel. The film was quite successful in 1942, but the song White Christmas was an immediate hit, receiving the 1943 Academy Award for Best Original Song. It is interesting to note that the bombing of Pearl Harbor happened halfway through the filming of Holiday Inn and the Fourth of July segment was greatly expanded to include the number, Song of Freedom. Here’s the version of White Christmas that people first encountered in the movie theaters in 1942. It’s worth seeing just to see Crosby use his pipe to tap the bells on the Christmas tree.
And here’s the original 1942 version of the song that became a hit on the radio in 1942. I love this version because there’s a hint of the swing band era sound that is missing in subsequent remakes.
In 1945 Decca Records released Merry Christmas, a compilation album of Bing Crosby’s Christmas songs, including White Christmas. This album has never left the catalogue since its release and has made White Christmas the best-selling single of all time, with an estimated 50 million copies having been sold over the years. However, White Christmas was re-recorded in 1947 because the original 1942 master had worn out, an unprecedented occurrence at the time. While the 1947 version is the one that most are familiar with, I still find Crosby’s original recording to be more persuasive. The big band feeling is missing and his voice, while still beautiful, is missing that swing quality that’s in the 1942 version.
Aside from Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day), Crosby’s theme song for his radio show, White Christmas is really his signature song. It played an important role for this rest of his career and had an enormous cultural impact. His nephew, Howard Crosby, wrote,
I once asked Uncle Bing about the most difficult thing he ever had to do during his entertainment career… He said in December, 1944, he was in a USO show with Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters. They did an outdoor show in northern France… he had to stand there and sing ‘White Christmas’ with 100,000 G.I.s in tears without breaking down himself. Of course, a lot of those boys were killed in the Battle of the Bulge a few days later.