Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale in “Holiday Inn.”
Recognized today as one of the top selling singles and pieces of sheet music of all time, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” was just one of eleven songs in the 1942 holiday classic, “Holiday Inn.” First put to paper by Berlin in 1940, the tune evolved over time before becoming the beloved hit sung by the dulcet tones of baritone Bing Crosby.
Jody Rosen, in his book, “White Christmas: The Story of an American Song,” reveals that on Monday, January 8, 1940, Berlin composed forty-eight bars which his secretary Helmy Kresa transcribed to manuscript paper, after the composer flew into the office claiming he had written his greatest song. Nearly fully formed as the song we know today, the most famous sixty-seven notes never changed from the first time they hit the page. These emotion-filled lyrics touched hearts during America’s first year in World War II, nostalgic for better and happier times.“Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays” by Karie Bible and Mary Mallory is now available at Amazon and at local bookstores.
The song evolved out of a planned revue Berlin hoped to stage after returning to New York City from Hollywood in 1938, where he crafted many wonderful tunes for such films as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ musicals. He fooled around with the idea before composing “The Music Box Revue of 1938,” complete with show tunes, vaudeville sketches, and stunts, including topical songs on contemporary newsmakers. Berlin later retitled the show, “The Crystal Ball,” intended to be a three-act “Revue to today, tomorrow and yesterday,” which included “White Christmas” among its proposed songs in his trunk of tricks, intended as an ironic novelty song and showstopper.
Inspired by his time in sunny and warm Beverly Hills and Los Angeles around Christmas, the tune featured a sardonic introductory verse that opens,
“The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA.”
The song’s narrator misses the season’s warmth and homey ambiance of a snowy East Coast. When Bing Crosby’s recording became a massive hit, Berlin ordered the first sixteen bars expunged less its jaunty and ironic opening mar the hushed anthem sung by Crosby.
This opening chorus was perhaps also influenced by the composer feeling homesick at Christmas 1937 when he found himself stuck in Hollywood working on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” His friend Twentieth Century-Fox head Joseph Schenck arranged for a three-minute film short entitled “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” to be created showing his family around their Christmas tree, as a holiday greeting for the lonely Berlin on December 24. This memory remained etched in Berlin’s brain, a non-practicing Jew who would compose one of the most endearing Christmas songs of all time, transposing Jewish otherness into homogenized Americanness.
In April 1940, Berlin bumped into director Mark Sandrich in Washington, D. C., where he pitched his long gestating idea of a star singer retiring to run a country inn open only on holidays. Sandrich recognized the thin plot could be augmented with showstopping songs and dance numbers into something wildly entertaining. They negotiated for months before signing a deal to make “Holiday Inn” their next film.
Paramount brags about the success of “Holiday Inn” in Film Daily.
From the very beginning of filming, Berlin intended “White Christmas” to serve both as film centerpiece and backbone of the motion picture’s love story. While the other holiday tunes were designed as elaborate showstoppers, “White Christmas” remained a simple ballad, one that he obsessed over. Berlin inspired orchestrator Walter Scarf to design a lush, romantic arrangement. Scharf described the trauma of dealing working with Berlin as “It was as if he were going to have a baby when he was working on that song.” Many on the production recognized that the song seemed destined for hit status, but Bing Crosby could only mutter out of Berlin’s hearing, “I hope so,” per Rosen.
Paramount Studios realized that song trailers, what would now be music videos, would be perfect ways to promote the film and build word of mouth before it was released, per Variety in December 1, 1941. “White Christmas,” the strongest song, would be the first released to theatres in the spring before the movie’s release. I have not been able to discover whether these song trailers were actually produced and released.The tune did receive its first public performance by Bing Crosby on Kraft Music Hall’s Christmas Eve show in 1941 as a sneak preview promoting the upcoming “Holiday Inn,” per Rosen’s book.
After filming was completed, Crosby recorded a series of songs to be released in conjunction with the movie at Decca Records on May 29, 1942, including “White Christmas.” Crosby, the great emotional storyteller, brought a moving reverence to the lyrics which matched the delicate arrangement, capturing both the sweet romance and the heartfelt melancholy in its words. This would become the recording beloved by generations of Americans.
The Los Angeles Times’ review of “Holiday Inn” August 17, 1942 called it both propaganda and escapist, while director Sandwich called the film “inspirational,” noting how the audience came out of the theatre feeling happy to be American. He told the paper, “Holidays are a part of our history,…tied in with our mores, our way of life.”
Most reviews of the film stated that “White Christmas” was the strongest song of the bunch, but no one remarked on how powerful it was or predicted the huge success it would achieve thanks to it’s nostalgic yearning for joyful and hopeful times.
In an ironic note, “Holiday Inn” came out at a perfect time for the song to rocket to cultural phenomenon. Though the songs were written and recorded in early December, the film was not completed and released until summer of 1942. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sending the United States into war brought yearning for the home front into deep focus once troops shipped overseas. Soldiers dreamed of white Christmases and family gatherings leading up to the 1942 holiday season, and began requesting it on Armed Forces Radio. Families back in the States dreamed of embracing their overseas loved ones at the holiday season. Radio Showmanship asked what Irving Berlin thought to himself before writing “White Christmas,” “What is every serviceman and every mother and every lonely war wife dreaming about as our first real war Christmas draws near?” The emotional perfect storm to create a major music sensation.
BBerlin pushed to make the entire “Holiday Inn” score a smash by unleashing his plugging staff at the Irving Berlin Music Company to promote the songs in “the greatest exploitation campaign , in connection with any musical, so far made,” per Rosen’s “White Christmas” book. They began with “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” plugging it all the way to number two on the Hit Parade.
In September, without any help from plugging or play on the radio, “White Christmas” exploded in popularity, though Berlin had planned its huge promotion around the holiday season, not encouraging its sale until that time. On September 29, 1942, the song sold 12,000 pieces of sheet music that day, with 8,000 sheets sold the day before, outperforming by a mile any other film related sheet music in the marketplace. Sales snowballed.
By November, “White Christmas” sold more than 400,000 copies. In early November it sold 250,000 copies in one week. By November 11, sales hit 750,000, quickly zooming over a million. The song achieved the biggest sheet music sales in fifteen years by the middle of the month, thanks to stores keeping it on display rather than removing it to put holiday items on sale and display. Many smart exhibitors lined up promotional campaigns with local sheet music stores, plugging the movie through the song and earning huge returns for both.
On November 21 Crosby’s recording of the song hit the top of the charts, where it stayed for ten weeks, becoming one of the most popular songs on juke boxes as well. Over the next twenty years it would re-enter the survey every December except 1953, eventually spending thirty-eight weeks in the top spot and eighty six weeks total on the charts. Irving Berlin Music saw record profits in 1942 of $250,000, and more when the song became the title and hit of the 1954 film, “White Christmas.” Over 31 million copies of Crosby’s “White Christmas” were sold by early 2000, unseated as all-time top single in the “Guinness Book of World Records” by Elton John’s Princess Diana tribute recording of “Candle in the Wind” 1997.
“White Christmas” was ubiquitous by Christmas 1942, playing on juke boxes, appearing in stories in magazines and newspapers, employed as a tag line in advertising, even appearing in cartoons. It revived the slumping sheet music industry. Writer Carl Sandburg noted how lonely and sad the country was in a story on December 6, and described “White Christmas” as affecting everyone in the place where they love peace.
Paul W. Keston, Vice President and General Manager of CBS used the theme of “White Christmas” in his 1942 Christmas card, which he shared with Variety magazine. As he wrote, “The words of the song may seem trivial; they talk of little things. But I wonder if its sudden grip on America at war means something more…I like to think that the stranglehold of this ‘old-fashioned’ new hit is a sort of mass symbol of what American wants to believe. An instinctive way of saying, without making a speech, what kind of world we’re fighting for.”
“White Christmas” became almost a war anthem during World War II, uniting Americans in a sense of how lucky they were to live in such a prosperous, caring, and giving country. It invigorated people in a sense of hope about how simple things were more valuable than any financial riches.
The song “White Christmas” today remains as emotionally potent as ever, particularly as the world remains mired in sadness and despair over financial stagnation, abominable living conditions around the globe, and threats of violence from madmen.