Bing Crosby’s character development in ‘White Christmas’: an analysis

This week, White Christmas:

  • Is a classic of its genre
  • Demonstrates some elegant character development
  • Is for life, not just for Christmas
White Christmas film poster

Why I’m writing this review

I’m mostly writing this because I love White Christmas.  I probably love it too much.  I am one of those people who can watch it any time of the year and still be moved to tears at the end.

But it’s not just a lovely old feel-good film (though it is that), it’s not just two singers and two dancers doing their thing with random routines to fill an hour and a half, it’s not just a spectacle of colour and movement (though it is that as well).  It’s one of the most tightly-plotted storylines I’ve ever seen.

Ok, so I might have a thing about White Christmas, but I’m serious.  It’s an incredible feat of narrative and character development, so subtly done that it doesn’t draw attention to itself and away from the glitz and glam of the song-and-dance routines, but it’s there.

I’m writing this review so you can see it, too.

This review will contain spoilers.  I don’t feel bad about that – you’ve had plenty of time to watch it since it was made in 1954.  And if you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?  Go and watch it!  Go on, I’ll wait.

Who are the main players?

Bob Wallace (played by Bing Crosby)

Phil Davis (played by Danny Kaye)

Betty Haynes (played by Rosemary Clooney)

Judy Haynes (played by Vera-Ellen)

Major General Waverly (played by Dean Jagger)

Emma Allen (played by the marvellous Mary Wickes)

Bing Crosby’s character, Bob Wallace

This is an ensemble film, following four main players (Bob Wallace, Phil Davis and the two Haynes sisters) but there is a strong argument to make that it is Bob Wallace who is the main character, the one who carries us through the film to the end.

There are several reasons for this:

The first is that he is the first main player to appear on screen and one of the four at the end.

The second is that he is the one driving a lot of the narrative.

The third is that he is the one with the most emotional attachments and relationships throughout the film, meaning he also gets more scenes of dialogue than the others (or he seems to).

The final reason is that he undergoes the biggest character transformation.

Bing Crosby in White Christmas

Establishing characters

Technically, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) comes on stage a mere second or so before Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), and they have an equal part to play in the opening song and dance.  However, that is background to the introduction of another character, General Waverly.

It is only when General Waverly has been established and has settled down to watch the show that the camera returns to the stage and Bob Wallace singing the famous song, White Christmas, in his inimitable style.  Phil Davis is sitting on the stage, present but not taking the spotlight.

Then Bob begins to make a speech, telling the men that they are moving out in the morning and that General Waverly is being replaced as their commanding officer.  This establishes several things:

  • He is a main character or even the main character
  • He has some authority over the other soldiers
  • He is liked and admired by the other men
  • He has information that others do not

When General Waverly confronts them about their festive show, Phil steps up to take the ‘blame’ for setting it up.  He also reveals a few things about Bob:

  • He is a captain, so is a higher rank than Phil and the other soldiers
  • He is a well-known and well-respected entertainer
  • He is self-assured and confident, unlike Phil who is bumbling and unsure (and nobody can do this in quite the way Danny Kaye does)
  • Bob is the one that General Waverly turns to for help when he becomes overwhelmed
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in White Christmas – you can see Bing Crosby’s character is stoic and self-assured

Character development

At the start of the story, Bob is independent, self-assured and cynical.

If you’ve seen the film, you might not agree with this statement to begin with.  You love the film, you love Bob and you can’t believe he starts out this cold and unfeeling.  Well, that’s because he’s played by Bing Crosby with affable politeness.  That doesn’t make him nice.

When Phil saves his life and is ‘injured’ doing it, Bob visits him in hospital.  That seems like a nice thing for him to do but he is doing it merely out of duty, as is made clear when he makes assurances of ‘if there’s anything you need, just pick up the phone’ and yet doesn’t want to hear about what Phil does actually need.

Phil suggests the work together, when they get back to America after the war, and Bob’s first reaction is to refuse.  He repeats, “I work alone,” several times.  He is independent, self-reliant and isolated.

Phil manages to manipulate him into agreeing to give it a try, by playing on his guilt.  This is less creepy than it sounds, honest.

Bob then learns to work with others.

He and Phil work together on stage, singing and dancing, and they become a huge success.  Phil even manages to persuade him (guilting him again) to become a producer and they become even more successful than ever.

He is still emotionally isolated, though.

As Phil tries to set him up with women, Bob rebuffs them all and Phil confronts him about it.  He claims Bob is a ‘lonely and bitter man’, which he is.  Successful, yes.  Working with Phil, yes.  But otherwise lonely.

He is too afraid to date any of the women in his industry, not seeing them as suitable as they are ambitious and wouldn’t want to settle down and have children (I know, I know, a product of its time).  He opens up to Phil at this point and shares his fears that the women won’t be ready to commit, and shares his desire to one day find a woman he can love and marry.  Phil comments that it’s the first time he’s opened up to him like that and thus Bob takes another step on his journey of self-discovery.  He has learned to communicate his emotions.

He is now emotionally ready to meet a love interest.

Now, nobody likes to reduce Betty Haynes (the fabulous Rosemary Clooney) to merely ‘a love interest’, and maybe one day I will do a whole piece on her, but for now, that is what she is – in relation to Bob, she is his love interest.

When he meets the Haynes sisters, Bob is instantly attracted to Betty.  However, their world-views clash: Betty is naïve, good-hearted and honest, whereas Bob is cynical, practical and blunt.  Clearly, he is not ready to be her love interest.

Bob starts to do things for other people.

So far, all of what Bob has done has been, if not selfish, then practical or out of duty.  He agreed to partner with Phil, but that was because he owed him a debt and it drove him forward on his road to business and financial success.  He agreed to see the Haynes sisters’ act out of duty to an old pal in the army.

Even helping the sisters escape an extortionist, he is pushed into it by Phil, and he is angry and grouchy that he had to give up his train ticket for the sisters, too.

However, upon discovering that the general he so liked and admired owns the Inn he is staying at, he does something kind.  He arranges to get his whole show to the Inn to perform and draw a crowd, to bolster business for the general.  It’s not a completely unselfish act, since he tells the general (truthfully) that he can test new material ready to take back to New York, but it is still a generous thing to do.

He and Betty begin to fall for each other.

It is only now that Bob has learned to work with others that he can woo Betty as they rehearse for their show.

It’s also only once he has learned to communicate his emotions that he can create an emotional bond with her.

Just when it’s going well for him, it all crumbles.

So far, Bob has never been unsure of anything.  He has been talented, wealthy, successful and desired.  His own physical, emotional and financial safety has never been on the line.  Now it is.  Betty turns against him.

What is worse, he doesn’t know why.

At first, he is confident he can woo her again but she refuses to be appeased by sweet talk and champaign. 

He becomes unsure of himself and loses confidence.

Having failed to reconcile with Betty, she leaves.  He has lost all of his power: he has no hold over her and is reduced to begging.  It’s his first brush with humility.

Luckily – or inevitably – he wins Betty’s heart and her trust by doing something unselfish.

Given that he had previously stated openly that ‘everyone has an angle’, it’s understandable that she didn’t trust him.  When he said he was doing something kind, and Emma said he was using the general’s misfortune to get publicity, she came to the conclusion that – exactly as he had said – he was playing an angle.

You see, if Bob hadn’t changed over the course of the story, he couldn’t have earned the respect of either the general or Betty – he would have betrayed both with his cynicism and self-interest.

As it is, he has become a kinder, better man who values the friends he has and is willing to put his heart on the line.  It is this which makes him a suitable love interest for Betty.

White Christmas finale – Bob kisses Betty

Conclusion

Over the course of White Christmas, Bob Wallace goes from being a confident, self-interested man who is driven at work and keeps his emotions to himself, to a humble, generous man willing to do something unselfish to help his friends.

He is the character who changes most over the course of the story and it’s his journey we follow from the very opening scene to the closing credits.

It’s his transformation that gives this seemingly light and fluffy film such an emotional punch.

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