A very Crosby Christmas
Michigan claims connections — slim ones, OK, but still — to all three.
In December 2021, Michigan Today told the story of a writer named Valentine Davies, BA ’27, who jotted a rough idea for a movie on a couple sheets of paper, handed them to an old Michigan friend who had become a screenwriter, and saw his idea bloom into Miracle on 34th Street.
Then, last December, we profiled Virginia Patton (1925-2022), who made a brief but glowing appearance in It’s a Wonderful Life as the surprise bride-in-law of the movie’s protagonist, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart). In spite of a promising future in Hollywood, Patton soon quit the movies, married an auto executive, and spent the rest of her life as a businesswoman and civic leader in Ann Arbor.
Now we learn that Michigan’s William Clements Library — one of the world’s leading archives of U.S. history and Americana — holds a small but fascinating cache of papers of the singer and actor Bing Crosby (1903-77), including several items linked to White Christmas.
Experts will tell you that many historical documents are revealing not so much in the actual words on paper, but in the unspoken, even unconscious, assumptions and understandings beneath the surface.
That’s how it is with the Crosby documents in the Clements Library. On the surface, they deal in humdrum details. But between the lines, you get reminders that even in a quintessentially “wholesome” movie like White Christmas, the production process grappled with problems that boiled down to sex.
A slam-bang superstar
White Christmas was a Bing Crosby vehicle from start to finish.
It’s hard now to recall the singer’s staggering popularity. He recorded 396 songs that reached the pop charts (24 in 1939 alone), by far the largest number of any entertainer, and (depending on how you count) some 40 of those made number one. That’s twice as many number-ones as the Beatles had. Crosby sold more than 400 million records in all.
So it’s no surprise that collectors would prize his personal materials. That’s why the Clements holds 25 Crosby items.
Most of the star’s personal papers are at Crosby’s alma mater, Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. But some were acquired by collectors like the U-M alumnus Duane Norman Diedrich, BA ’56/MA ’57/PhD ’61.
Over many years, in consultation with Clements archivists, Diedrich, who served on the Clements Library Associates’ Board of Governors, amassed materials of historical interest in American education, philanthropy, patriotic songs, religion, and the presidency, among other fields. The trove — which Diedrichs left to the Clements upon his death in 2018 — contains papers signed by at least six U.S. presidents, Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, and James Naismith, the founder of basketball.
‘The single most elegant marriage of music and words…’
The master songwriter Irving Berlin considered the song “White Christmas,” which he wrote at the start of World War II, his greatest composition. And he told Hollywood he would release the song only when Bing Crosby agreed to sing it.
It debuted in the romantic comedy Holiday Inn, a Crosby hit with Fred Astaire released for Christmas 1942. Crosby gave it his signature “Everyman” stamp — “at once robustly masculine and intimate,” as music critic Jody Rosen put it, “stately and casual… (Crosby himself ascribed his success to the fact that his fans thought they could sing like him in the shower.)”
It won the 1942 Oscar for Best Original Song. And it made the Hit Parade that Christmas season and every one after it through 1952. By then, the song had sold at least 9 million copies.
A forgotten fact: Christmas songs were not considered pop music in the 1930s. It was Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” that would spark the seasonal trend that has produced everything from Gene Autry’s classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949) to Mariah Carey’s catchy “All I Want for Christmas is You” (2009).
“White Christmas” was covered again and again, eventually by rock-and-rollers like Elvis Presley; the doo-wop Drifters (it was their version that Macauley Culkin heroically lip-synched in the bathroom mirror in Home Alone ); and the soul star Otis Redding (his was recycled in Love, Actually ).
The song is now so brain-dead familiar that it’s hard to recapture its early impact on American ears. Rosen, who wrote a whole book about the song, called it “the single most elegant and economical marriage of music and words in a songwriting career [Berlin’s] dedicated to those virtues.”
Will-they-or-won’t-they times two
In the years after World War II, Berlin thought the song had plenty left to give. So he pitched moviemakers on the idea of a movie built around the song — and Crosby, of course — and added a string of surplus Berlin tunes. Paramount Pictures bought the property and approved the storyline without even reading it.
The plot may have been rickety. But that didn’t matter. Just as in Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, the beating heart of White Christmas is the theme of practically all pop Yuletide culture — the triumph of small-town virtues over the cynical commercialism of the big city.
Closer to the surface, the script of White Christmas delivered a double dose of romantic tension. The audience wonders, “Will they (a: kiss, and b: get married) or won’t they?” with not just one couple but two.
Most importantly, the movie featured Crosby, the biggest pop star of an era just about to end (hello, Elvis), and the biggest song of the last 10 years as its title. It couldn’t miss, and it didn’t. White Christmas, directed by Michael Curtiz, was the top-grossing film of 1954. And its vigorous life as a rerun on TV and streaming video belies its age at nearly 70.
Mr. Breen reads the script
And now to those documents in the Clements Library.
Most are typewritten letters dealing with routine business matters. In one, Crosby gives permission for his own name to be used in the lyric of “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army.” (That only made it into the sheet music.) He signed it with his full name, Harry L. Crosby, Jr.
In a personal letter, Crosby turns down an invitation from a friend in Grosse Pointe, Mich. In a penciled note on the back of a menu, he leaves instructions for a friend about where to meet him later at the ballpark.
Other items related to White Christmas were more consequential.
The producers knew the movie was a sure hit. But they also knew it had to pass muster with Joseph Ignatius Breen, the longtime enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code.
“The Code” had come down after several years of increasingly risque film fare in the 1920s. The moviemakers called for it themselves to stave off looming censorship by higher authorities — the Catholic Church and possibly the federal government. It was a strict set of rules forbidding such horribles as “pointed profanity,” anything approaching nudity, “lustful kissing,” the sex act itself, especially if interracial, and any hint of “sexual perversion.”
Every line of movie script, every foot of film, and every musical lyric had to be approved before release. And the chief referee was Breen, a former journalist and tough lay Catholic leader who presided over Hollywood’s “decency” from 1934 to the year of White Christmas.
So in the Clements’s documents, we see Luigi Luraschi, the Paramount man who dealt with the censors, running things past Mr. Breen.
In signed replies, Breen tells Luraschi there is nothing objectionable in the Berlin songs “What Can You Do With a General?” and “Blue Skies.” Nor does he find anything wrong with “I’d Rather See a Minstrel Show,” which would later be seen as egregiously racist.
Breen points out “the need for the greatest possible care in the selection and photographing of the dresses and costumes of your women. The Production Code makes it mandatory that the intimate parts of the body — specifically, the breasts of women — be fully covered at all times.”
Breen also told Luraschi to have these lines killed: “Ma, unhook my bra!” and ” … you get both girls at once. Bad night.”
Lord help the mister
But Breen saves his strictest instructions for the catty “sisters” act, in which Crosby and his comic-actor sidekick, Danny Kaye, lip-synch the song “Sisters” and perform a semi-strip-tease gag in semi-drag.
At this, Breen got positively uncomfortable.
“There should be no reactions from the [night-club] audience to Bob and Phil’s performance of the ‘Stewart Sisters’ [changed in the movie to the Haynes Sisters] act, which would, in any way, lend a flavor of a ‘pansy’ routine to this bit of business.”
Breen’s nose had whiffed the scent of “perversion.”
But “Sisters” slipped through the censor’s barrier, and in some ways the routine is even more memorable than Crosby’s schmaltzy rendition of “White Christmas” at the movie’s climax.
And as “Bob” and “Phil” vamp through the number with their glittery-blue fans, Crosby appears to be collapsing in genuine laughter at Kaye’s over-the-top feminine antics.
So much for the censors.
Sources included Jody Rosen, White Christmas: The Story of an American Song (2002); Thomas Doherty, Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration (2007); and Thomas Wood, “‘White Christmas: From pop tune to picture,” New York Times, 10/18/1954.