While on the set of the 1935 Fred Astaire film “Top Hat,” songwriter Irving Berlin thought the idea of an inn only open on holidays would make for a great movie. He even hummed the melody to a song for the proposed film to Fred Astaire and director Mark Sandrich, claiming that the song might be good as a vehicle for Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Reportedly Astaire loved the song but director Sandrich passed on the tune.
Then in May of 1940, Irving Berlin was signed by Paramount Pictures to write songs for a movie musical based on his idea they titled “Holiday Inn.”
Irving Berlin began to write a song about each of the major holidays and found that, as a he was Jewish, writing about Christmas became most challenging.
Paramount signed Mark Sandrich to direct Holiday Inn and cast Bing Crosby along with Fred Astaire to star in the film with production set to begin in November of 1941.
During early rehearsals Bing Crosby first heard Irving Berlin’s new song titled “White Christmas,” however he reportedly did not immediately recognize the songs full potential.
Bing Crosby was quoted as saying at the time, “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”
Ironically, the song that Bing Crosby expected to become a hit was “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.”
Japan then attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and the focus of the Holiday Inn movie became the Fourth of July holiday segment. As a result Irving Berlin expanded Fred Astaire’s fire cracker dance to include a patriotic song highlighting the strength of the U.S. military.
Bing Crosby first performed Irving Berlin’s new song “White Christmas” on his Kraft Music Hall Christmas Day radio show December 25, 1941 to rave reviews.
Then near the end of filming for Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby sang White Christmas as a duet with actress Marjorie Reynolds. Her voice was then dubbed by Martha Mears. Ironically, the initial script had only Marjorie Reynolds singing the song, not Bing Crosby.
Filming ended for the movie in February with a release date set for August of 1942.
On May 29, 1942, Bing Crosby recorded the sound track for the song “White Christmas” along with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers for Decca Records.
The group spent all of 18 minutes recording the song.
White Christmas was then released on July 30, 1942 as part of an album of six songs from the upcoming film “Holiday Inn.”
The movie held its premiere at the New York Paramount Theatre in August of 1942 and soon became the highest grossing movie musical to date.
The song White Christmas went on to sell over 30 million records while topping the charts by October 31st and staying there for eleven weeks.
“White Christmas” also won Irving Berlin the Academy Award for Best Music in an Original Song, one of seven Oscar nominations he received during his career.
To this day, Irving Berlin is the only Academy Award presenter and Academy Award winner to open the “envelope” and read his or her own name (for “White Christmas”).
Reportedly, this situation was so awkward for Irving Berlin (since he had to present the Oscar to himself) that the Academy changed their own rules of protocol the following year to prevent this situation from ever arising again.
When the original master of White Christmas became damaged due to its frequent use in pressing additional singles, Bing Crosby was obliged to re-record the song on March 18, 1947 using the same musicians and backup singers as when they recorded the original on May 29, 1942.
Though both versions of White Christmas are very similar, it is this 1947 version that we are all familiar with.
Music critic Stephen Holden later credited the songs success with the fact that “the song also evokes a primal nostalgia—a pure childlike longing for roots, home and childhood—that goes way beyond the greeting imagery.”
The song White Christmas went on the chart another 16 times, becoming a hit for numerous artists such as Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Ernest Tubb, The Ravens, as well as The Drifters. It also marked the last time an Irving Berlin song would become a #1 hit upon release.
Today, the song has become a holiday perennial, as well as the best-selling single of all time.
According to Guinness World Records, Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” has “sold over 100 million copies around the world, with at least 50 million sales as singles”.
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