The colors of White Christmas

The opening of White Christmas is like a gray winter’s day. It’s nighttime on a battlefield, and an army unit is celebrating Christmas and the impending reassignment of a general. The men are all wearing dusty green uniforms, and they are so quiet you could hear a snowflake land. Their eyes are focused on a makeshift stage, where Bing Crosby starts to sing one of the most popular Christmas songs in the world. This is when, no matter how many times I’ve seen the movie, I start to cry. Bing Crosby’s voice is just too beautiful, the love he shows these men too sincere for my bruised heart to take.

There are no bright colors on this battlefield, and the only Christmas tree in sight could rival Charlie Brown’s. There is no light except for bombs falling—at first far away, and then close enough to cause destruction that ends the small respite Christmas had provided from the horrors of war.

It’s in this chaos where the friendship of leading men Phil and Bob is solidified. When the bombs cause a wall to fall toward Captain Bob Wallace (played by Crosby), well-meaning goofball Private Phil Davis (played by Danny Kaye) pushes Bob out of the way, injuring himself in the process. In return for saving Bob’s life, Phil asks to be a part of Bob’s show when the war is over. Phil plays up his injury, preying on Bob’s guilt and good nature until Bob relents. With their handshake, the world of the film transitions from a gray winter’s day to the colorful, perfect world of a snow globe.

My favorite part of Christmas is the decorations. Every year I decorate a Christmas tree, loading it up with the most colorful ornaments I can find. I use the tackiest garland and the sparkliest tinsel to make the gaudiest Christmas tree possible. (Did you know that tinsel garland and strands of tinsel are different? Did you know that multiple colors of each can clash so hard it hurts your eyes?) I have some oversized ornaments so big they make my little Seussian tree lean over to one side. It’s loud and crowded and imperfect, just like me.

White Christmas is the opposite of my little Christmas tree. Where my tree is chaotic and overstuffed with clashing colors, White Christmas provides a beautiful, coordinated diorama of glamour. When I pull out this movie each year, I know exactly what I am getting: a perfect Christmas scene, with tiny beautiful figures frozen in time. All you need to do to is shake it up and add some snow.

The introduction of Bob and Phil to the Haynes sisters is the shakeup this world needs. Betty and Judy Haynes (played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, respectively) are another show business duo who sing and dance—just like Bob and Phil, only their act hasn’t quite taken off yet.

The song I constantly get stuck in my head, no matter what time of year it is, is the song the Haynes sisters sing at the nightclub where they meet Bob and Phil. I’ll be walking around my apartment mid-June and suddenly the line “Lord help the mister that comes between me and my sister” will pop into my head and I won’t be able to help bellowing the next line to our pet parakeet who sings along: “And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man!”

They both wear blue dresses, covered in lace, and carry large, feathered fans to use in their routine. While watching the Haynes sisters sing and dance to that song, Bob and Phil become as enraptured as I do. Their eyes are drawn to their true loves, and their fate is sealed from there. After helping the sisters get out of trouble at the club, Phil tricks Bob into following them to Vermont, where the sisters are booked for the holidays in what turns out to be an inn run by their former general. What follows are the adorable hijinks that I imagine all beautiful, talented people in show business fall into when they get together. They sing and dance to solve their problems, and mend hearts and minds with their creative souls.

Like a snow globe, this movie is a time capsule. Not just for the glamorized picture of 1950s show business, but also for my own idealized version of the holidays. When I watch this movie, I am transported back to a couch in my parent’s home, snuggled under blankets with my mom, who watched it with me every Christmas. Every time I think of White Christmas, I think of my mother. To me, she is as inextricable from the movie as Bing Crosby is to the song he sings so well.

This is not a sad story. My mom is alive and doing well; we talk all the time. When I asked her what she liked about this movie, she got so excited she started to stutter. She watched it with her family, she said, and her father sang the songs in his deep voice. Watching this movie around the holidays ties us all together, me to my mom, to her parents, like garland on a family tree. My mom’s dad died before I was born, and her mom died not long after. I don’t have Christmas memories of them, but I have a shared experience of something beautiful we all have watched. We were separated by time, but the movie never changes. I am seeing what they saw, singing the songs they sang, and allowing the colors and feelings of Christmas to wash over me in the same way.

And the colors in White Christmas are beautiful, indeed. The jewel tones of the costumes act like ornaments to the story. The yellows are not just yellow: they are mustard, they are goldenrod, they are citrine. The colors are a little too strong to be real; they take on a hypernatural, saturated tone. Just look at how blue Bing Crosby’s eyes are. Look at how red the velvet is, how luminous Rosemary Clooney looks in her black sequined gowns. I want to dive into those swirling colors and live where things are a bit too bright and a bit too beautiful to really exist.

After watching this movie for the thousandth time one winter—it was gray outside but bright and warm on my TV screen—I researched how they made White Christmas. It was one of the few movies shot in VistaVision, which the movie proudly displays on one of its opening screens. This film process was used by Paramount to create a wider screen, but it was quickly dropped for more technically advanced films that were less difficult to use and had a finer grain. In America, its popularity lasted less than 10 years. But the real star of White Christmas is Technicolor. The same process that made Dorothy’s world come to life in The Wizard of Oz, Technicolor is known for that look of oversaturation. It was often used for musicals, mirroring the exaggerated look of stage makeup to create a not-quite-realistic image that’s visible on the stage from far away. The colors in a movie made with Technicolor are visible from the back of the room—hell, they are so bright you could probably see them from the moon.

The combination of these two processes envelops the viewer in a wide, colorful world. It’s a little fuzzy around the edges, like a daydream, in a way that films made with new digital technology aren’t. One way isn’t better than another—I am not one to say that more advanced technology and more flexibility in which to create “ruins” filmmaking in any way. But White Christmas represents a sliver of time in the life of filmmaking. It is a preservation of a perfect marriage of filmmaking process and subject matter. It requires saturation and richness to live in this world where dancers tap dance on a whim and singers duet whenever they fancy. It requires the viewer to let go of realism and accept the exaggerated fashion of fantasy. It would lose its sheen under the scrutiny of high definition.

The writing and direction, though, hold up under a microscope. Like all fairy tales, it seems like a simple story at first. Chaste kisses stolen in front of a fire while drinking buttermilk and eating liverwurst sandwiches lead to love, which leads to misunderstanding, which leads to reconciliation. A tale as old as time. But not one line is wasted, and all of them are sharp.

On the first night they all meet at the club, Phil asks Judy to dance. They move from the dance floor in the club to outside near the water, where they use boats and a dock as a stage. The camera follows every dip and twist, the same way two new lovers will follow each other into their relationship. They’ve just met, but they step together keeping perfect time, gracefully dancing into love, rather than falling. Judy’s skirt flows around her like a cloud when she spins, emulating the dizzying feeling of a new crush. Their dance is more elaborate than any so far in the movie—Phil and Judy make each other better, more beautiful.

When they get interrupted because of a phone call from Betty and Judy’s troublesome landlord, Phil offers to help. “We like to take care of our friends,” he says. “We’re practically strangers,” Betty says. “Well, we’d like to take care of that, too,” he responds, their conversation flowing just as easily as all of their dance routines.

In one of my favorite scenes, the relationship of Bob and Phil is shown in the way they undress in their dressing room after a show. They are arguing, but while they fight Phil tosses his cane to Bob to put away, and Bob passes his hat to Phil to put in a suitcase. It’s a song a dance of a different kind, one that reveals their familiarity couldn’t be disrupted by something as silly as a disagreement. They’ve helped each other put away their clothes a million times, and have probably had this same argument a million times, too.

An argument with a close friend in real life would send me reeling, but in White Christmas, I know it will be resolved in two hours’ time. That’s why I turn to stories in the first place—they fix what I cannot, offering a perfected image I take comfort in, but that I couldn’t possibly live up to. In stories, arcs make sense, and tragedies have meaning. Colors in fictional worlds coordinate instead of clash. I sometimes worry that I hide too much in pretty pictures of false lives instead of facing my real problems. Instead of sand, I stick my head in books and movies.

My real Christmas with my lovable but fallible family will never match the beauty of a perfect Christmas image in a snow globe. But taking pleasure in small moments of beauty is no small thing—and making something beautiful can be momentous. Every single shot and dance step of White Christmas acts as a tiny Christmas light, adding up to a stunning whole that illuminates those I love in a rosier glow. My own Christmas decorations similarly act as a tangible representation of the love I feel for the world around the holidays. Sometimes the decorations are the point. After all, a Christmas tree with no ornaments would just be an ordinary pine.

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