Christmas Food History Special, Part IV:
White Christmas (Starring Bing Crosby), 1954
We conclude our 2017 Christmas Food History Special with the holiday musical White Christmas! This charming movie, featuring two performances of the Oscar-winning song "White Christmas," is a tribute to the musical genius of prolific songwriter Irving Berlin, who composed all the music for this movie. Berlin was a Russian Jew who immigrated with his family to the US at the age of five, and went on to become one of the all-stars of American musical history. The fabulous cast, starring crooner Bing Crosby, comic Danny Kaye, sweetheart Rosemary Clooney, and Rockette Vera-Ellen, danced and sang their way into the hearts of American viewers in 1954, making White Christmas the top-earning film of the year.
White Christmas is short on food and long on drinks. Cocktails, to be exact. Lots and lots of cocktails. I think there's a cake in there someplace. Ergo, I give those cocktails my best guess, and include links to some retro recipes in this piece!
The film opens somewhere in the European theater, Christmas Eve 1944. With bombs exploding in the distance, two entertainers (Captain Bob Wallace and Private Phil Davis) put on a little Christmas show to entertain the men of their 151st Division. Here we have not the first debut of the iconic "White Christmas" (that honor goes to Holiday Inn, 1942), but perhaps one of the most touching performances of this song in showbiz history:
Fast-foward to the end of the war, which both men survive, and we find them performing in a nifty song-and-dance routine that's made them famous. Wallace and Davis head to a Florida club one night to preview a floor show put on by the Hanes Sisters, the siblings of "an old pal in the Army." In the background of this clip from the song "Sisters," you can see the gorgeous (and fictitious) supper club, "Novello's." Novello's has a beautiful lobby, with a glittering bar and a color scheme of bold reds and whites. You can see the couples eating dinner and enjoying the live music and dancing in this clip:
At Novello's, we find the men in suits, the women elegantly attired in fancy ballgowns. Cocktails abound (did I spy a Bay Breeze on this set? Check out this site for more retro cocktail recipes). Little white-clothed tables are arranged around a dance floor, with a stage for the live band. Folks would go to these cool nightclubs and enjoy the floor show during dinner, as well as dance to the live music themselves.
We witness another long-lost and very cool spot to dine in the club car of a fabulous retro train, as the quartet whisks to Vermont for Christmas. Their club car has cozy booths for the diners, and the interior is done up in shiny red-and-white paint. There's a bartender to make fancy cocktails for the team: Judy asks for a malt (here's how to make a retro malt), and later the bartender pours a series of foamy white cocktails into oversized champagne coupes (my best guess on this snowy beverage: a Ramos Gin Fizz). And yes, the bartender here is one of the few people of color you'll spot in this film: for a fascinating and in-depth treatise on how African-Americans shaped the history of mixology, please check out this article. You'll also notice more diversity in the jazz bands of the floor shows throughout the film. The lack of leading actors and actresses of color is one thing I don't miss about the 1950s...more opportunities for everyone in this country is a very, very good thing.
In this charming scene, check out the beautiful dining car and those retro cocktails!
The quartet arrives in (fictional) Pine Tree, Vermont, only to discover that the snow is late this year. The Columbia Inn, where the Hanes Sisters are set to perform, is a ghost town due to a lack of skiers. They're about ready to pack up and leave when, surprise surprise, who should materialize but Major General Waverly (portrayed by the wry Dean Jagger), who owns and operates the ski lodge. Seeing their former General down on his luck and out of snow, Wallace and Davis are determined to help. In the meantime, the Hanes Sisters rehearse their act for a very small audience (General Waverly, his housekeeper, Emma, and his granddaughter) in the enormous dining room at the Columbia Inn. The dining room, despite its rough-hewn beams, has all the fixings of a dance club: round tables with white table clothes and candles, a long bar, a stage for the band, and a dance floor. Wallace and Davis get the idea to bring their entire act down and put on a big production to draw crowds to the Columbia Inn for Christmas. They also decide to call in the troops and rally the members of their old Army division for a big 10th anniversary reunion.
That evening, the Hanes Sisters are settling in for the night, but the elder sister, Betty, has a certain crooner on her mind and can't sleep. Younger sister Judy has been trying unsuccessfully to set her up with Bob Wallace, and spots an opportunity (with some help from her partner in crime, Phil Davis, who wants Wallace to get married so he can have "45 minutes a day, all to myself" instead of being run ragged with their wildly successful song-and-dance show). Judy says convincingly to sister Betty:
JUDY: “Maybe you’d feel better if you had something to eat.”
BETTY: “No, no honey, I’m not hungry.”
J: “Emma said she left some sandwiches out on the snack bar.”
B: “Judy, go to sleep.”
J: “And some buttermilk.”
B: (firmly) “Good night, Judy.”
In the end, Judy annoys her older sister into going over to the dining room for a sandwich, where Betty naturally runs into Bob Wallace. They have an amusing (if somewhat stilted) conversation about dreams and sandwiches:
BETTY: “I heard something about sandwiches and buttermilk.”
WALLACE: “I got a whole big theory on food, different foods for different dreams. Now if I have a ham and cheese on rye, like that, I’d have a dream about a tall, cool blonde…turkey? I’d dream about a brunette.”
BETTY: “What about liverwurst?”
WALLACE: “I’d dream about liverwurst.”
Liverwurst sandwiches? Buttermilk? I don't know. That sounds like kind of a hefty midnight snack, and not a particularly appetizing one at that. Here's a recipe for liverwurst sandwiches (although not for how to make the stuff, it's a kind of sausage), if you dare!
The crowning glory, food-wise, of this cocktail-infused musical is the ginormous white three-tiered cake that makes its appearance in the final scene (accompanied by champagne, of course). The cake, laden with red candles, is in honor of the 10th anniversary reunion of all the fellows from the 151st Division, who have answered the call of duty and made a bee-line for Vermont to help make up for General Waverly's lack of skiers.
During the show put on for the General and their Army pals, Wallace and Davis perform "Gee, I Wish I Was Back In The Army" with some help from the Hanes Sisters. They reminisce about the benefits of Army life, among them "Three meals a day for which you didn't pay:"
In the end, we get a rousing rendition of "White Christmas" as the snow begins to fall outside in the Vermont night. (We knew it was going to start snowing, of course...this is Hollywood!) The cast and audience raise their champagne coupes to toast the holidays and the Christmas snow.
(If you're a classic movie buff like me, here are some more fun ideas!
+ Check out Girl Singer: An Autobiography by Rosemary Clooney (1999). And yes, she's George Clooney's aunt :)
+ For more about 50's dance phenomenon Vera-Ellen, try Vera-Ellen: The Magic and the Mystery by David Soren (2008)
+ Listen to Bing Crosby's cheery Christmas Classics CD, which includes many of the songs from his original 1962 recording
+ Danny Kaye had a brilliant, eclectic career, which extended to being a USO performer, pilot, chef, UNICEF ambassador, and children's book author! Find a used copy of his 1960 Stories From Many Lands, inspired by his many travels throughout his career.)