Wednesday, September 14, 2011

“White Christmas:” Columbia Inn in Pine Tree, Vermont


White Christmas finale

Watching White Christmas while we decorate butter cookies has been a tradition in my family for so long that I can recite most of the lines with the actors. I also have a tendency to sing along with them, and I have even been known to try to dance to a few of the numbers–which always ends with me saying, “Man, I wish I knew how to tap dance!”

That’s how carried away I get when this movie is on. It never fails to get me into the Christmas spirit!

Columbia Inn-White Christmas

It’s more than just the funny lines, the light-hearted romance, the classic songs sung by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, and the amazing dance numbers by Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye that I love, though. Who can forget the cozy Columbia Inn in Pine Tree, Vermont, where most of the action takes place?

taxi at the inn

Thanks to the Columbia Inn, I spend each Christmas fantasizing about opening one of my own in Vermont. Sadly, it wasn’t real, though. The exteriors and interiors were all created on the soundstages at Paramount.

entry hall at the inn

When I get my own inn, my first priority will be to find a big-hearted, wise-cracking housekeeper like Mary Wickes who played Emma Allen.

front desk at the inn

Rosemary Clooney was only 26 and her love interest, Bing Crosby, was 51 when they made the movie in 1954. Somehow I never really noticed the age difference when watching the movie. They seemed so perfect for each other.

In the DVD commentary she says that the highlight of doing this film was getting to work with Bing, who became a close friend in real life. In fact, Clooney signed with Paramount primarily because they promised her she’d get to work with him. She had grown up listening to him on the radio.

front desk at the inn 2

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play the successful song-and-dance duo Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, who met when they were in the Army together. They’re startled when their former General walks in the door of the inn, carrying firewood. They think he’s a janitor at the inn. “Worse,” he says. “I own the place.”

seeing General Waverly-first time

Dean Jagger, the actor who played General Waverly, was the same age as Crosby (51), but he’s treated like a much older man in the movie.

Rosemary Clooney & Mary Wickes front desk

The barn beside the inn is actually a big dining room where Betty and Judy perform their famous number “Sisters.” Vera-Ellen was an amazing dancer, but she couldn’t sing. Her voice was dubbed in this movie by Trudy Stevens.

performing Sisters in the Dining Rm

In real life, Rosemary had been part of a sister act with her real-life sister Betty that started in Cincinnati.

Rosemary and Betty Clooney

Interestingly, Vera-Ellen was born in Norwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, and carpooled to dancing classes with Doris Day. That must have been some dance studio!

eating in the dining room

White Christmas was intended to reunite Crosby and Fred Astaire, who had previously co-starred in the classic Holiday Inn (1942). This was considered a partial remake. Astaire turned the project down after reading the script, though, and Danny Kaye was given the part.

Guest Cottages:

guest cottages-Columbia Inn

The concept for the movie came from the song “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin, which was hugely popular at the time (and still is!). He built the rest of the songs around what was a loose script, adding “Count Your Blessings,” “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.”

Haynes Sisters guest cottage 1

Vera-Ellen was 33 and 7 years older, but she played Betty’s little sister Judy. Or “her little chick” as she referred to herself.

She reportedly suffered from anorexia, which is why she is wearing turtlenecks and some padding with all of her costumes in this film.

Haynes Sisters guest cottage 2

After White Christmas, Vera-Ellen only appeared in one more movie, 1957′s Let’s Be Happy, before retiring from the screen. She had crippling arthritis that made it difficult to dance when she got older, so she became a dance teacher. She died of cancer in 1981.

Betty and Bob in the dining room 1

“Our shooting schedule wasn’t hard,” Rosemary Clooney later recalled. “Bing liked to get a little golf in while it was still light. He really didn’t like to work all that much.”

Betty and Bob in the dining rm 2

One of my favorite scenes is when Bob and Betty meet up in the dining room after hours and he sings “Count Your Blessings” to her by the fire…

Betty and Bob by the fire

“Count Your Blessings” earned White Christmas an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

I’ve always thought it was cool how the windowseat wraps all the way around the room:

Phil and Judy look out the windows

Cast Party:

cast party 3

I’m in love with this velvet dress that Betty wears during the cast party (Edith Head designed the costumes, which is why they’re all so fabulous):

cast party 2

Clooney said Bing sang all the time throughout his daily life. If you visited him at his house, he’d be singing as he went up the stairs or walked down the hall. “He even sang on his bike. But he would sing parts of songs. The middle of a song, and then drop it,” she laughed.

cast party 1

She also said that Bing never sentimentalized anything. “He was one of the most honest performers I’ve ever been around.”

“I treasured his friendship,” Clooney said. After having 5 children in 5 years, “I went nuts.” She was in a psychiatric hospital and Bing sent her a letter saying, “If there’s anything you need, one phone call will do it. I’m here for you.”

Bob Hope, on the other hand, sent her a big bouquet of flowers with the note, “I hope it’s a boy!” Clooney said, “That was the first time I laughed in three months.”

cast party 4

We get a glimpse of the kitchen after Betty hears about Judy and Phil’s surprise engagement and leaves the party:


In the DVD commentary, when Betty gets mad at Bob because of a misunderstanding and goes to New York without telling anyone first, Clooney says, “I always thought I overreacted to this. I mean, come on. Why didn’t she just ask him what was going on? Dummy!”

Some of the other great sets in the movie include the Miami nightclub Novello’s, which is entirely open to the outside (no roof):


The Train Car:

train car

This is the way I want to travel!

train car-Snow

The Carousel Club in New York City where Betty goes after leaving the inn in a huff features not only another great set, but a great dress, as well, designed by Edith Head (Clooney remembered, “Those gloves were so uncomfortable. They were covered in rhinestones, so they would catch on anything I touched!”):

Rosemary Clooney-You Done Me Wrong dress

The closeup of uncredited dancer George Chakiris in the “You Done Me Wrong”number prompted so much fan mail addressed to “The man dancing next to Rosemary Clooney” that it kick-started his acting career. He went on to win Best Supporting actor for his role as Bernardo in West Side Story.

Rosemary Clooney-George Chakiris

The train station scenes were shot at Fox, the only studio in town at the time that had one.

Train Station-Pine Tree

Back to the Inn…it’s the night of the big musical that Bob and Phil have put together in honor of General Waverly.

Playing Around-placard

Emma Allen has to convince her boss to wear his uniform. He doesn’t realize that they’ve invited his former unit to the show.

Waverly's bedroom

upstairs hallway

General Waverly comes downstairs

The General’s granddaughter Susan was played by Anne Whitfield.

front entry decorated for Cmas

The General opens the door and walks outside, amazed that it’s snowing at last:

Major General Waverly-snow

The dining room is packed for the show:

audience at the show

White Christmas was the first movie to be filmed in the new VistaVision process, with color by Technicolor.

Clooney explained in the commentary that “There were two stages at Paramount, and when they opened up the back (when it was snowing), that was the second stage behind us.”

White Christmas finale-snow-wide shot

Every time they get to the finale of the show, opening the doors to reveal the snow outside, I get teary-eyed. I love that part! I always hope for a White Christmas, and this year I actually got one. Did you?

TV/Movie Houses has photos from more Classic Christmas Films, including Christmas in Connecticut and A Christmas Story.

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