|Danny Kaye nearly played this scene in a flowing white beard and overstuffed red suit.|
As the top moneymaker of 1954 and a perennial TV favorite ever since, White Christmas may have become Danny Kaye’s most-remembered movie—but it very nearly wasn’t his first Christmas movie. A decade earlier, Kaye had begun production of another holiday-themed classic—until an on-set injury led to the project losing its festive trimmings.
Back in 1944, Sam Goldwyn put his writers to work preparing a follow-up to Danny’s debut in Up in Arms. Over the first few drafts, the story evolved from Danny playing a bookish genius who disguises himself as a nightclub performer to help solve a murder into making the nightclub performer Danny’s obnoxious twin—who becomes the murder victim—and who returns as a ghost to assist his brother.
Goldwyn, though, didn’t want the story to get too grim, so for draft number 6, he brought in Jo Swerling, a frequent collaborator of All American director Frank Capra. Among Swerling’s suggestions: re-setting the story at Christmas time. The holidays would be worked into the storyline, most notably during the climax, in which gangsters chase Danny’s bookworm character through a crowded department store.
Swerling and Mel Shavelson scripted a string of comedy sequences, as Kaye tries dodging the hitmen on elevators, hiding out amid a nylons sale, and mixing in with the Goldwyn Girls as models in a fashion show (a scene copied a couple of years later in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). Danny finally swipes a Santa costume and takes the place of St. Nick greeting kids in the toy department. But the gangsters recognize him and start chasing Santa through the store, to the customers’ disbelief. Danny finally makes it into the package room and slides out of the building on a package chute. But the hoods aren’t far behind. On the street, they run up behind Santa and grab him—only to discover it’s a Salvation Army Santa. They look up, and there’s a Santa on every corner.
Danny flees to the nightclub. The gangsters arrive a moment later, but—noticing the DA in the audience—Kaye (still dressed as Santa) bounds on to the stage, in the middle of Vera-Ellen’s dance routine, and makes up a song in which he lyrically reenacts the murder he’s witnessed, playing all the characters himself.
Executives at the studio loved the film’s new holiday overlay so much, they wanted to rename the movie The Christmas Spirit and release it in December. Goldwyn enjoyed the Christmas elements, but thought there were too many holiday pictures all ready. He’d stick with the name Wonder Man. After five more script rewrites, filming began in July 1944, with some Christmas elements—particularly the Santa store chase—intact. Unfortunately, four days into production, Danny severely wrenched his knee finishing up the film’s opening dance number.
With Kaye (and sometimes two of him!) in almost every scene, production had to be shut down for three weeks. During that time, the director brought in gagwriter Phil Rapp to completely revise the screenplay. To save time and money, Rapp cut the entire department store sequence and ultimately all other Christmas references (since, without the Santa finale and with no chance of making a December release date, they were unneccessary).
Swerling would get a supernatural Christmas story filmed, however. Right after working on Wonder Man, he rejoined Capra one final time—to help write It’s a Wonderful Life.