“Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army”

How the classic holiday musical White Christmas reveals the impact of military service in World War II.

Each Christmas sees a return to the screen of the 1954 holiday classic, White Christmas. The film takes its title from the ever-popular Irving Berlin Christmas classic, first performed by Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942). The song instantly became an iconic tune during the war. Viewers laugh as Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye provide a hilarious lip-sync performance of “Sisters,” marvel at Vera-Ellen’s graceful dancing and Rosemary Clooney’s beautiful voice, and sink into that familiar Christmas feeling when they hear “White Christmas.” The film, musically brought to life with Berlin classics, was the most successful film of 1954. But looking past the iconic music, dazzling dance scenes, and comedic genius, the film provides intriguing commentary on the life of veterans after World War II. 

The film begins in Europe on Christmas Eve 1944, where we meet Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) as they perform a Christmas show for their fictitious 151st Division. As the men deal with disheartening news that not only are they being moved up to the front, but Major General Thomas Waverly (Dean Jagger) is being relieved, they give Waverly a sendoff with the song “The Old Man.” After the performance, the group comes under an aerial attack, and Davis, a private, pushes Wallace to safety, injuring his own arm in the process. Wallace visits Davis in the field hospital, where he offers to pay the debt he feels he owes to Davis for saving his life. The result is the wildly successful postwar musical duo of Wallace and Davis. 

As the film transitions to the postwar era, the glitz and glamor of the costumes and the current story take center stage, but beneath it all, there is a theme of camaraderie and obligation that Wallace and Davis have not only to each other, but to the men with whom they served. Throughout the film, Wallace and Davis use the excuse “It’s for a pal in the army” as they do something out of the ordinary:  

Davis: Give me one reason, one good reason, why we should spend our last two hours in Florida looking at the sisters of Freckle-Face Haynes, the dog-faced boy.

Wallace: Let's just say we're doing it for a pal in the army, huh?

Davis: Well, it’s not good, but it’s a reason.

When the two singers find themselves coming to the rescue of the Haynes sisters, Davis uses the “doing it for a pal in the army” line to talk Wallace into performing a hilarious lip-sync of the song “Sisters,” something he knew Wallace was going to hate. 

Their attraction to the Haynes sisters results in Wallace and Davis cancelling their plans for New York and traveling to Vermont where Betty (Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen) are scheduled to entertain at a ski lodge over the Christmas holiday. Arriving in an unseasonably warm Vermont, the sisters find out that their services won’t be needed. No snow means no guests. Meanwhile, a startling surprise (more than no snow) awaits Wallace and Davis. The owner of the inn is none other than General Waverly. Wallace and Davis snap to attention, shocked to learn their former general now runs an inn. Waverly decides to keep the agreement with the Haynes sisters, and Wallace hatches a plan to help Waverly: his and Davis’ whole show will perform at the inn on Christmas Eve.

After learning Waverly’s request to return to active duty has been denied, Wallace decides to take things one step further and puts out a plea via the Ed Harrison television program to the men of the 151st Division to come to the inn for the show. The response is overwhelming, and as Waverly enters the dining room (in his dress uniform, thanks to his scheming housekeeper and granddaughter), he is met with great applause and men of his former division perform “The Old Man,” as they had on Christmas Eve 10 years before. As the show goes on, it begins to snow, creating a perfect backdrop for the show and film’s finale—“White Christmas.”

Throughout the film, Wallace and Davis do things they would really prefer not to—including for one another—out of a sense of loyalty they feel to fellow veterans. The lengths Wallace and Davis go to help the Haynes sisters is driven by their sense of loyalty to the women’s brother they served with. Those who served felt a sense of camaraderie and understanding. Regardless of branch or location of service, they had a shared experience that civilians could not understand. In The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), three veterans returning home find themselves drawn together over their war experiences despite differences in age, rank, background, and social status. (Hear these themes discussed in the Museum’s podcast Service on Celluloid in episode 102, The Best Years of Our Lives.

However, it is through Berlin’s songs that the postwar experience of the veteran comes through strongest. Songs such as “What Can You Do With A General?” and “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army” reflect a postwar experience that goes against the rosy sense most Americans have of what returning to civilian life was like for veterans. “What Can You Do with a General?” highlights the issue of finding meaningful postwar work for men who wore bars or stars on their jackets. What civilian work could compare to leading men during war? This is the exact situation that Waverly faces. A man loved, admired, and willingly followed by thousands of men, he finds himself running a ski lodge in Vermont. When Wallace and Davis first see Waverly at the lodge, Davis can’t believe Waverly is working as a janitor, to which Waverly responds, it’s worse—he owns the place. Clearly, it wasn’t what he had envisioned for himself at the end of the war. On the Ed Harrison show, Wallace performs the “General” song as part of his plea to get men of the 151st Division together to remind Waverly they haven’t forgotten him.

They fill his chest with medals while he's across the foam
And they spread the crimson carpet when he comes marching home
The next day someone hollers when he comes into view
‘Here comes the general’ and they all say ‘General who?’
They're delighted that he came
But they can't recall his name

The film also touches on the experience of many enlisted men returning home. The song “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army” highlights the mixed feelings of many war veterans—I thought it was the worst time of my life, but maybe it wasn’t. The Best Years of Our Lives reflects heavily on this theme as well. After getting out of the military, many young men struggled to find their place in the civilian world. Despite the belief of many today that the postwar world was a golden age for America, many veterans struggled to transition back into civilian life. Veterans of many wars would likely connect with Berlin’s lyrics, sung cheerfully and humorously by the film’s stars: 

When I was mustered out
I thought without a doubt
That I was through with all my care and strife
I thought that I was then
The happiest of men
But after months of tough civilian life

Gee, I wish I was back in the Army
The Army wasn't really bad at all

Despite the glitz, glamour, and humor of the film, White Christmas has surprising depth. Released nearly a decade after the war, it was an instant hit. Highlighting the struggles of some veterans in the postwar world would have been less surprising to audiences then as it may be today. The idea of the war years as a high point in the lives of many was likely very real to veterans who saw the film in 1954. As the decades wore on and the war became a distant memory for filmmakers, the notion that men struggled with life after the war was replaced by large action sequences and heroics. To cap the emotional ride for veterans watching the film in 1954, it ends with a magnificent performance of “White Christmas.” The movie no doubt brought back memories of Christmases aboard ships or in foxholes for veterans, and of quiet Christmases on the Home Front, waiting for a service member’s return. For others, such as Donna Ray Moore,  the song evoked cherished memories with loved ones who never returned from war.

Contributor

Kali Martin

Kali Martin earned a bachelor's degree in International Studies and German at the University of Miami and a master's degree in Military a...
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