The Ghosts of “White Christmas” Past

One of the things I most look forward to about Christmas is sitting down with Kelly in my in-laws large family room on Christmas Eve and watching White Christmas. If I had to pick a favorite movie, that would be it. I never tire of the movie, though I watch it sparingly, and usually only around Christmastime.

As much as I love watching the movie, I am struck by the knowledge that the people who seem so alive and vibrant on the screen are almost all dead today. The movie was released in 1954, making it 62 years old. Watching the movie, I can’t help but think of the passage of time. Last night, I decided to look up the 8 actors who had what I consider to be significant roles in the picture. Here is what I learned.

1. Bing Crosby, b. 1903, d. 1977. Bing is one of my favorite entertainers. I know more Bing Crosby songs by heart than I do from any other performer. I’ve sung those songs to all three of my kids in place of lullabies when they were babies. Bing lived another 23 years after White Christmas appeared. He died from a heart attack in Spain, after finishing a round of golf with friends.

2. Danny Kaye, b. 1911, d. 1987. Kaye’s comic gag (holding his injured arm when he wants Crosby to do something for him) has become a long-standing joke between me and one of my friends at work. In meetings, inevitably, one of us will hold our arms in pain when we are trying to convince the other to do something our way. Kaye lived another 33 years after White Christmas.

3. Rosemary Clooney, b. 1928, d. 2002. In the DVD version of White Christmas, Rosemary Clooney provides the commentary track. She had a long career after White Christmas, including a memorable guest appearance on E. R.. She lived another 48 years after the movie was released.

4. Vera-Ellen Westmeier Rohe, b. 1921, d.1981. Vera-Ellen, who played Clooney’s sister in White Christmas withdrew from public life in the early 1960s after losing a daughter to SIDS. She was 60-year-old when she died in 1981, 27 years after White Christmas was released.

5. Dean Jagger, b. 1903, d. 1991. I always found it amusing that, although Jagger played the old, retired General Waverly, he was actually a few months younger than Bing Crosby. His film career stretched from 1929 to 1987. He was well into his 80s when he died in 1991, 37 years after White Christmas was released.

6. Mary Wickes, b. 1910, d. 1995. Mary Wickes, the gossipy innkeeper, was another actress with a long career after White Christmas, including films like Postcards from the Edge, and Sister Act. She died in 1995, 41 years after White Christmas was released.

7. Johnny Grant, b. 1923, d. 2008. Grant, who played Ed Harrison in White Christmas seemed familiar to me. When I looked him up, I realized why. He was the honorary mayor of Hollywood. He was 84-year-old when he died, some 54 years after the release of White Christmas.

8. Anne Whitfield, b. 1938. Last, but not least, is Anne Whitfield, who played General Waverly’s granddaughter, Susan, in White Christmas. When I watch an old movie, I am particularly curious what the life of the children in the movie was like. How did they grow up? What happened to them? Well, I’m pleased to end this macabre parade on a happy note. Anne Whitfield is still alive as of this writing. Young Susan Waverly, who wasn’t more than 16 when the movie was released, is now 78 years old. She has the dubious honor of winning this little contest.

Maybe, by writing this piece, I’ve gotten it out of my system. I’m hopeful that when I sit down to watch the movie on Christmas Eve, I will no longer wonder if everyone I am seeing is still with us today. Instead, I’ll try to enjoy the picture. Bing Crosby would be 113 years old this year. Like they sing in the movie, “We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go…” I’d follow him back to Pine Tree, Vermont anytime.

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