It's not exactly a new statement, but every season reminds me that White Christmas is one of the weakest movies ever to gain the "Christmas Classic" label. It's the sort of movie that, simply based on the talent involved ought to be good, and of course there's a nostalgic haze around any old movie with well-known stars (that's why we use the term "classic" interchangeably with "old"). But every one of these great talents is below his or her best form, and in Danny Kaye's case, is overcompensating for the fact that the part is wrong for him. (Crosby was supposed to be partnered by a dancer, the way he was in the Astaire movies, and Donald O'Connor was supposed to play the part. Paramount was lucky to get their new hire, Kaye, to fill in for him when he pulled out, but this is not Kaye's kind of part and the dance-related songs are clearly meant for an Astaire or O'Connor.) Michael Curtiz once again demonstrates how flaccid his direction became after leaving Warners, and the songs, apart from the recycled title song, are really nothing special.
What always surprises me about Irving Berlin is how few great "unsung" songs he really wrote. Most songwriters of that generation who were on Berlin's level -- and there were very few who were -- turned out many songs that didn't become hits for one reason or another, but were every bit as good as their hits. You can go through the catalogue of the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and Kern (these are the four people or teams who, along with Berlin, made up the top tier of New York-based theatre songwriting in the '30s), and find lots of hidden gems. With Berlin, I don't think you can. Not that he never wrote a good song that didn't become a hit, but I've rarely been blown away by one of his unknown works, the way I'm frequently blown away by Rodgers and Hart rarities. I can name a few songs by Berlin that aren't famous but should be, like "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun." I can name dozens of great Rodgers and Hart or Kern songs that deserve to be famous.
Maybe this has something to do with Berlin's style of prizing simplicity above all: simple lyrical hooks, simple musical ideas. They weren't as simple as they sounded, of course, and he worked like crazy to make his songs seem simple (the point of a song like "White Christmas" is that it needs to sound like a thought you yourself might spontaneously express, and that's a tremendously difficult thing for a professional songwriter to accomplish).
But most of his songs, from the 1910s through the 1960s, have certain stock ideas and formulas built in. If the song is inspired, then it can turn those formulaic phrases into something that resembles folk art; it feels like this song has existed forever.
If the song is not inspired, then there's nothing left in it except the formulaic bits -- which is how you get a dismal song like "What Can You Do With a General." It's a completely generic melody married to a completely generic lyric, and there are a lot of songs like this in Berlin's catalogue, where you can almost sense what the next line or musical phrase is going to be.
Even Berlin's greatest score, Annie Get Your Gun, has a few bits like that, some lazy-sounding introductory verses and one song, "I'll Share It All With You" (which is usually cut) that doesn't seem to be about much of anything. Overall, though, it's obvious that with Annie Get Your Gun, challenged by the presence of Rodgers and Hammerstein as producers and by the fact that he was replacing Kern on the project, Berlin made an unusual effort on nearly every song. (Or maybe it was more that with Rodgers and Hammerstein, he couldn't get away with less than top-quality work; most producers who worked with Berlin were understandably deferential to him.) The result was a score where the majority of songs are hits, or at least popular with audiences. But most of his scores are a mix of inspired songs and rather mediocre ones; that's how "A Fella With an Umbrella" turns up in Easter Parade.
Because of the harmonic and structural surprises Rodgers, Gershwin, Kern and Porter liked to pull, they could astonish you even in songs that didn't have what it took to become hits. Berlin, I think, wasn't naturally surprising; he wanted songs to sound inevitable, not calculated. But, being a great craftsman, he could incorporate unusual or surprising elements into his work; he did it in "Annie Get Your Gun," and he did it in a song like "Cheek To Cheek," with its extra-long refrain.
And even a conventionally-structured Berlin hit like "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" is masterful; again, it never sounds cliche'd, it just sounds like we've been singing it all our lives. (And it can't be emphasized enough: good lyricists use concrete images over abstract ones wherever possible. This song is about a metaphor -- love does not, in fact, keep you warm -- but the lyric is mostly concrete: snow, wind, icicles, overcoats, gloves.)
So I don't want to make Berlin sound like some kind of naif or unsophisticated composer; it's easy to portray him that way because he couldn't read music (there were other songwriters who couldn't; I think he deliberately played it up because the image of the untutored child of nature was good for his brand name). He was brilliant at adapting his basic style and formulas to whatever type of rhythms and harmonies were popular at a particular time; from ragtime onward, his hit songs are timeless but have the sound of their era. The difference between a Berlin hit and a Berlin non-hit is that the hits have some kind of spark in them, something that keeps them from being just a collection of stock gestures. One of the things that often provided the spark was Berlin's ability to keep up with and learn from what his contemporaries were doing: "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is informed by the major/minor shifts and structural games that Berlin's friend Cole Porter loved so much.
Berlin's problem by the early '50s, which I think helps explain why his songs in White Christmas are mostly lackluster, is that he couldn't go to other influences or styles to inform his songs and keep them from sounding cliche'd. The pop music of the era was already starting to fragment, and didn't really provide clues as to how his music should sound. (Porter, who had also in his own way tried to keep up with the times, also started to seem a little lost around this time.) Then the arrival of rock n' roll completely wrecked Berlin's working method: the most popular songs of the period weren't compatible with his "base" style, and so all he could really do was produce the bare outlines of a Berlin song, with nothing to ignite it. That's why his last score, Mr. President, is generic-sounding and bland almost from beginning to end (except for his attempt at rock on "The Washington Twist," which isn't as bad a song as it's made out to be). He could always write a Berlin tune and a Berlin lyric, but he couldn't always make it something special.