One hates to impose any kind of criticism on such a holiday classic as White Christmas. It was my favorite Christmas film growing up. Since everything had to be hierarchized for me as a child, the following ranks were: It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Dr. Suess’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Santa Claus: The Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and Miracle on 34th Street. Since then, I would add A Muppet Family Christmas, Claymation Christmas, Elf, and the Season Two Christmas episode from The Office. After firmly deciding that White Christmas was my favorite, the movie became more and more bothersome at each viewing, as its chief source of conflict revolved around a “nosey housekeeper” whose eavesdropping led to a very avoidable crisis. Critical distance wasn’t a strength of mine.
The more one looks at Michael Curtiz’s film, however, the more one sees that the root of that problem is the root of many problems throughout the narrative. Once you say a word like this in the context of an old classic that is rarely viewed critically, you almost deserve to be shrugged off, but here goes anyway: misogyny. White Christmas starts and ends with, what? A platoon of (all-male) soldiers. In both cases, Bob (Bing Crosby) and Phil (Danny Kaye) have staged Christmas events in whole or in part devoted to their beloved, aging general. Early in the film, Phil saves Bob’s life and uses the deed to persuade Bob to go into showbusiness together as a duo. Their seemingly effortless success as a singing and dancing team doesn’t, however, satisfy them. Their attempts to find qualified women to help them raise families fall flat. Phil’s attempt to introduce one such woman to Bob rather overtly demonstrates the underlying view of women in the film. Glitzy and glamorous, the dame opens her mouth to a shrill voice that would have reminded viewers of the woman in Singin’ in the Rain, released two years prior to White Christmas. Bob and Phil observe that not only do all the woman around them “look the same” (one of the ironic paradoxes of the male demand on females: conformity and uniqueness), but that the women don’t have much going on upstairs.
When the two do encounter a couple “girls” who are exceptions to the rule, the women are performing at a decidedly lower level than the men. Following their performance, the women ask the men for advice as to how to improve their act. Bob aloofly replies, “No, just keep pluggin’ away, huh.” Judy (Vera-Ellen) then asks Bob if he would change anything about their appearance, such as Betty’s hair color or style. Bob, busy admiring Betty (Rosemary Clooney), simply replies, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” Shortly thereafter, the women get into a bind with the club manager, but the men rally to their help, rescuing them and giving them their train tickets (unbeknownst to Bob). The Haynes sisters’ need to keep working juxtaposes with the laid-back success of Wallace & Davis, so when the sisters head toward Vermont, the men decide to go along for the ride.
In Vermont, the sisters are unable to gather an audience on their own. The perform, in a pitiful scene, in a nearly empty theater. Incidentally, they sing the same number as in the earlier scene, whereas Wallace & Davis play a vast array of different songs, never performing the same one twice (with the exception of the title track). Once the group learns that not only the Haynes sisters but the general’s hotel is suffering (on account of the lack of snow, mind you), Wallace & Davis decide to move their entire crew to Vermont to help attract crowds. In the midst of this, the aforementioned misunderstanding takes place, further villainizing not only the foolish housekeeper for monitoring a private phone call but the reactionary Betty for simply packing up and leaving without confronting Bob for what appears to be a lack of discretion. Betty’s subsequent job as a lounge singer, replete with darkly feminine colors (black and pink), establishes her new place as a single act and curses her to a career void of the kind of success that might’ve been through Wallace & Davis. Interestingly, though, the only real difference between Betty’s performance scenes at the lounge and her sister Judy’s performance scenes rehearsing at the lodge is the mood. In both cases, the women are bodily framed as the center of attention and the focus of the gaze. Around the women men dance, their gazes fixed on the women and acting as arrows for the spectator’s view. The lounge scene in particular is reminiscent of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was released the year before White Christmas. Overall, the film reflects its misogyny in the humorlessness of its female characters. Both Bob and Phil crack jokes, laugh, and interact with each other on a comedic level. Though the women have an affectionate relationship toward one another, their discussions are always of a serious nature, and they almost always are hiding something from one another (sometimes both sisters at once). The men’s few quarrels are light and easily resolved. They talk openly and laugh about them in the same breath. Stereotypes have always and will always exist, of course. They seem to be most valid and acceptable, however, when those pointing them out are conscious of them and critiquing them.
Everything works out, of course, but only because Betty learned of her mistake and apologized to Bob and because of Phil’s heroics in helping Bob surprise the general. (Judy’s idea of a fake engagement failed miserably and further spooked Betty.) Then there’s the snow. White Christmas can certainly still be a feel-good movie; the music alone is impressive enough to spark interest. As has been noted before, these sorts of themes should be expected to an extent in earlier cinema. To be sure, they linger on more powerfully than most are willing to admit. For this reason as much as for any other, White Christmas can remain a classic and shouldn’t be discarded for its faults.