I just watched“White Christmas” again when my wife wasn’t around (she hates it), and was again struck by how entertaining it manages to be while making no sense at all and containing one ethics breach or gaffe after another. Ethics Alarms did an ethics review of the film in 2012, and reading it now, I realize I was too kind. This is an update.
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 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. 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. (It’s not a plot feature, but the battlefield set for the entire opening sequence is itself unethical by being chintzy even by musical standards: it looks like they are filming a skit for a Bob Hope Christmas Special. I thought it was lousy when I saw it as a kid.) Phil 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 exploitative, but Bing accepts the ploy with good spirits, and the next we see 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 as Betty. and Vera-Ellen, of wasp-waist fame, as kid sister Judy. Did you know that in the “Sisters” number, Clooney sang both parts? ). 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. This one is a double beach of ethics: Judy uses her brother’s name and contacts without his permission or knowledge, and lures Wallace and Davis to the night club under false pretenses.
Bing dismisses Judy’s cheat by noting that everyone “has an angle” in show business, so he’s not angry. Rosemary is, though, and reprimands Bing for being cynical. That’s right: Vera/Judy uses their brother’s name to trick two Broadway stars into watching their little act, and Rosemary/ Betty is annoyed because Bing/Bob (Bing’s bandleader, look-alike, sound-alike brother was also named Bob) shrugs off the lie as show business as usual. True, Betty is technically correct to flag the Everybody Does It rationalization, but shouldn’t she be grateful that Bob isn’t reaming out the Haynes sisters and leaving the club in a huff? OK, nice and uncynical is better than nice and cynical, but Bob is still giving her and Judy a break.
As we soon find out, however, Betty is prone to flying off the handle.
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. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was smoking a joint and set the carpet on fire. In either event, they still owe for the bill. This happens in old movies all the time: the heroes stiff landlords what they are owed, and the landlords are the villains. Whole generations were raised to believe that skipping out on the rent was the kind of thing good people did.
How many liberals got started with this concept, I wonder?
Phil/Danny arranges to let the sisters escape (thus abetting theft) to the train, which will take the girls to a gig at a Vermont inn. 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 jump on the same train. (The number was largely improvised by Bing and Danny, and the take used in the film by the director, Michael Curtiz, who was a long way from “Casablanca,” was supposed to be ditched. The famously unflappable Crosby was cracked up by Kaye’s clowning, and reportedly was angry that an “unprofessional” moment made it into the film. Not unethical by Curtiz, unless he promised Bing he wouldn’t use the take, though. His duty is to the film, not the star.)
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 commander 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.
If they had any honor, they wouldn’t accept it. The Haynes sisters are cashing in, clearly, on sexist male bias. Then again, this is how the Betty and Judy—especially Judy– roll. It’s how all gorgeous women roll in Hollywood films. Is it unethical for women to appeal to men’s brain-numbing hormones with faint suggestions of potential lust and love that the women know is a fantasy, because they also know many men fall for it no many how many times experience proves them to be saps?
I think so.
But then I’m bitter.
Now Bob/Bing 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, and the theater owners, who were counting on some Christmas tourist trade, and couldn’t possibly get another show ready. It’s a bright line breach of fiduciary duty, and in the real world of show business would get the team sued faster than Danny Kaye could sing “Tchaikovsky.”
The laws of economic reality, contracts and common sense don’t operate in Vermont, apparently.
This would explain Bernie Sanders.
When the cast gets to the inn, Betty 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. (Everybody’s got an angle). This is inexcusable, irresponsible, and wrong. Wallace and Davis have seen the sister perform one number (that the guys did better), if you don’t count the dumb “Snow” number they jam on in the dining car, and based on that, kick out the equivalent female leads that made the Broadway show the success it apparently was. This kind of thing may 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 about the performers they put out of work by batting their eyes—screw the other women! It’s everyone for themselves in this warm-hearted Christmas classic!
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 would 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. Their idiotic and unethical solution? They announce, falsely, that they are getting married, not just deceiving Betty, but the whole cast of the show, a massive, manipulative lie. It doesn’t work, but that’s due to moral luck.
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. For most performers, doing this would guarantee a lifetime, career-ending industry blackball, and should. You don’t leave a show and cast when everyone is relying on you because you have an argument with an another cast member or the producer, or anyone. This is a theatrical cardinal sin. Moreover, Betty is being paid, by the General last we heard, to perform.
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 dancers (including pre-West Side Story George Chakiris) who were backing up Vera-Ellen in Vermont, during the rehearsal for the (god awful) “Abraham Number.” I know, the producers of the movie were just trying to save money by using the same dancers on both scenes….like that WWII set. The nightclub owner who hired her and allowed her to break he commitments to everybody to get back at Bob is also open to a massive lawsuit for interference with contractual arrangements.
[Side note: “White Christmas” misses having a political correctness problem by a hair…actually two hairs. That “Abraham” number was imported from the inspiration for “White Christmas,” “Holiday Inn,” and in that film, Bing sings about Abraham Lincoln in blackface. In the later “Mistrel Number,” Rosemary and Bing do a “Mister Bones” exchange; “Mister Bones” (or “Brother Bones” is also part of the blackface tradition.]
Then Betty sees the Pseudo Ed Sullivan Show broadcast and realizes that Bob’s motives are pure, and realizes that she made a big mistake. So she breaches her contract in New York, leaves the owner high and dry with advance sales to refund, and returns to the Vermont show a day or tow before it opens. (This means displacing the performer, probably a talented chorus member looking for her big break who has studied around the clock and rehearsed until her feet were bleeding to step in for Betty, who isn’t a big star and yet believes–correctly!—that she can just jump in and out of shows, songs, dance numbers and commitments at her whim and it’s up to everyone else to adjust.
I would never allow Betty back in the show, and neither should Bob, no matter what his designs on her may be. This is a pure conflict of interest on his part. Now, if the chorus sub for Betty isn’t up to the role, Bob’s got an ethics conflict. His duty is to put on the best show, and that may mean holding his nose, taking Betty back and restoring her songs to her. Yet how can he trust her? How can anyone in the cast trust her? And Bob has proven that where she is concerned, blood is not rushing to his brain, so his judgment can’t be trusted to sort out the issue.
Phil should make the call, but he’s an idiot.
Meanwhile, nobody punches the housekeeper in the nose. She sparked this debacle by eavesdropping on a private conversation (dishonest, unfair, a breach of respect, autonomy and privacy), revealed it to others (confidentiality), and got the facts wrong, causing chaos. (Irresponsible and incompetent.) Then she lies to General Waverly about sending all his suits to the cleaners to trick him into wearing his old uniform. This is based on the rationalization that it’s all for the best. Since this whole plot is in Ethics Hell by now, I think I’ll give her a pass.
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.