I just completed my obligatory annual viewing of “White Christmas,” one of the stranger members of the Yuletide Movie Pantheon. Yes, I still get a lump in my throat when the old general, played by Dean Jagger, gets saluted by his reunited army unit, which has gathered at his struggling, snowless, Vermont inn on Christmas Eve to remind him that he is still remembered and loved. Nonetheless, it is by far the strangest of the Christmas movies, and also the most unethical. Though everything works out in the end, the characters in the rather sloppy plot spend the whole movie lying, extorting, betraying, manipulating and generally mistreating each other, always with no recriminations at all, and usually with no consequences either.
The movie starts out with guilt extortion, as army private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) rescues his smooth-singing captain, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) from being crushed by a falling wall in a World War II bombing raid, and then uses Wallace’s debt of gratitude to coerce him into accepting the aspiring comic as a partner in Wallace’s already successful civilian act. This is obviously unfair and coercive, but Bing accepts the ploy with good spirits, and the next thing we see is the new team of Wallace and Davis knocking ’em dead and rising in the ranks of stage stars. Now they have a show on Broadway, and as a favor to a mutual army buddy, they agree to watch the boonies nightclub act of “The Haynes Sisters” (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, of wasp-waist fame). Bing is immediately smitten with older sister Rosemary, but there is a tiff over the fact that younger sister Judy fooled them into seeing their act: she, not her brother, had sent the letter asking for a “favor.” This is the first revealed of many lies woven into the script.
It seems that the girls are about to be arrested because they skipped out of their hotel room without paying, because, they say, the owner wanted to charge them for a burnt hole in their room’s carpet. Phil assumes, without confirming it, that this is an attempted scam by the hotel, though Judy, who relates the circumstances, is already established as a con-artist; personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was smoking a joint and set the carpet on fire. Phil/Danny arranges to let the sisters escape to the train (taking them to a gig at a Vermont inn) while Wallace and Davis stall the fuzz by doing the sisters’ final number (and apparently the act’s only number) in drag. Thanks for the obstruction of justice, guys! The boys barely escape arrest themselves after their spoof and get on the same train.
The lovely sisters are going to Vermont, so Danny and Bing, who have a whole cast and show waiting for them and depending on them in New York, decide to abandon their responsibilities and chase tail to Vermont too. Surprise #1 when they get to the inn: no snow. Surprise #2: the inn is owned by none other than General Waverly, Bob and Phil’s much-admired general during the war, now retired and going broke running a ski lodge where nobody can ski. The general is the only consistently ethical character in this movie, and he, against all self-interest, says that he will pay the Haynes Sisters full salary to play to crickets, though he had an out in their contract that could have saved him half their fees.
Now Bob/Bing (Bing’s real brother was named Bob, you know) gets the generous, kind, irresponsible and stupid idea to haul the whole Broadway show up to Vermont from New York on the theory that Wallace and Davis will draw the customers that the lack of white stuff is keeping away. He is doing this at a guaranteed financial loss, not just to him, but to Phil, and also his investors, who he doesn’t consult or let in on his plans. It’s a bright line breach of fiduciary duty, and in the real world of show business would get him sued faster than Danny Kaye could sing “Tchaikovsky.”
When the cast gets to the inn, Betty (that’s Rosemary Clooney’s character’s name) and Judy are suddenly installed as the two female leads in the show, meaning that whoever they replaced had their contracts breached without warning because Danny and Bing have designs on the Haynes sister. This kind of thing does happen in show business, but it is despicable, conflicted, dishonest and irresponsible when it does. And the guys doing it in “White Christmas” are the heroes. Meanwhile, no Golden Rule second thoughts from Betty and Judy—screw the other women! If the sisters can get the producer/stars to replace them by batting their eyes at them, tough luck for the losers.
Bob then gets the brainstorm of holding a reunion of the general’s men on Christmas eve, when the show is scheduled to open. This nicely solves the problem that the performance will have no audience otherwise, but it requires Bob to pull out an IOU from an Ed Sullivan-like TV variety show host, who lets Bob turn a nationally broadcast TV show into a personal commercial, both for the general’s surprise party and the stage show. This would be illegal today, and may have been in 1954. I’m sure the TV show’s sponsors would have been annoyed, and with good cause.
But as Bob is arranging the deal, the inn’s busybody housekeeper, played by the wonderful Mary Wickes, eavesdrops on half the conversation by listening in on the extension phone. She thinks that Bob and Phil are setting up General Waverly for a nationally televised, “This is Your Life”-style exploitation of his fall from military power to struggling innkeeper, which would humiliate the old man. She’s a rat for wiretapping, and she also decides to tell Betty about the supposed plot, killing the apparent romance between her and Der Bingle. Betty’s so disillusioned by what she sees as his heartless and crass use of the general for cheap publicity that she just quits the show, and runs to New York to open a new solo act. Huh? If she was so concerned about the general, why didn’t she warn him what was about to happen? (Wickes doesn’t tell him either, though she says that the humiliation will kill him. Maybe she wants him dead.) Why doesn’t Betty/Rosemary tell her sister, rather than just leaving their long-time act with no notice but a cowardly note? Why doesn’t she confront Bob? No, better to leave everybody in the lurch and guessing, without being responsible and trying to address any of the problems she sees, or thinks she sees.
Meanwhile, Judy and Phil get the idea that what is really stopping older sister Betty’s budding romance with Bing/Bob is that she wants to see little sister Judy safely married first. Naturally, they announce, falsely, that they are getting married, not just deceiving Betty, but the whole cast of the show, a massive, manipulative lie. Of course it doesn’t work. Betty still abandons the show and Bob, but also sabotages her sister, the general, the inn, and her fellow cast members, since it is rather difficult to replace your leading lady a week before your elaborate musical revue opens in Nowheresville, Vermont. Betty also appears to steal some of the show’s dancers out of spite, since the men we see cavorting with her in her New York nightclub number are the same guys who were backing up Vera-Ellen in Vermont, during the rehearsal for the (god awful) “Minstrel Number.” Or the producers of the movie were just trying to save money by using the same dancers on both scenes.
Ah, but when Betty sees the Pseudo Ed Sullivan Show broadcast and realizes that Bob’s motives are pure, she realizes that she made a big mistake. So she breaks her contract in New York, and returns to the show, and her leading role. Nobody punches the housekeeper in the nose. The general is touched when he sees all his men gathered, and they again sing the catchy song they serenaded him with while the Germans were bombing them all those years ago. Just in time for the finale, it starts to snow (and a horse drawn sleigh appears seconds after the first flake hits the ground), as Bing, Danny, Rosemary and Vera-Ellen sing “White Christmas” in the fruitiest Santa costumes you ever saw in your life. Judy’s going to marry Phil for real now, Betty will wed Bob, and Bob and Phil, knowing that the show that they all headline is scheduled to go on the road, that the cast needs it to do so to get paid, and that the whole enterprise will fall apart without them, agree that what the hell, they’re going on long honeymoons anyway.
Of course they are.