The “White Christmas” Ethics Guide 2020

2020 Introduction

I have some very dear friends who are still angry with me for writing this admittedly harsh analysis of their favorite Christmas movie. Maybe that’s why I didn’t post it last Christmas season; I don’t know. It really is an ethics mess, however, and as I’ve stated elsewhere this week on Ethics Alarms, if you are going to make an ethics movie, someone involved ought to have functioning ethics alarms. The heartwarming ending—I still get misty when the old general played by Dean Jagger, gets saluted and serenaded by his reunited army unit—doesn’t make up for all the gratuitous lying and betraying going on in the rest of the film.

I have never mentioned this here before, but the movie was the result of an ethical act by one of the most unlikely people imaginable, Danny Kaye. If you search for Danny here, you will find that I have more connections to him than to any other entertainer, primarily through my co-writing and direction of an original musical about him, written by his long-time publicist and my friend. I credited Kaye with my interest in performing, musicals, and comedy, but my research into the real man was disheartening: in stark contrast to his persona and his public image, Danny was a miserable, paranoid, selfish, mean and insecure sociopath when he wasn’t playing “Danny Kaye,” which could be on stage or off it. “White Christmas” had been conceived as a re-make of “Holiday Inn” with the same cast, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Fred couldn’t do the project, so his part was re-written for Donald O’Connor, who became ill so close shooting that there was no time to retool the script and have the film ready for its target holiday release. In desperation, the producers asked Kaye if he would play Bing’s side-kick even though it meant 1) playing a support, which he had never done in a movie since becoming a star 2) playing a role that couldn’t highlight his special talents 3) subordinate himself to Bing Crosby, who was indeed the bigger star and box office draw, and most daring of all, expose his own limitations by doing dance numbers created for Donald O’Connor. Kaye was not a trained dancer, just a gifted mimic and athlete who could do almost anything well. Danny (actually Sylvia, his wife, agent and and career Svengali) had his price for the rescue: he demanded $200,000 and 10% of the gross.

Everyone around Danny Kaye was shocked that he agreed to all of this. Not only did he agree, he also amazed everyone by not playing the under-appreciated star on set, by doing O’Connor’s choreography as well as he did, and by knowing how not to steal focus from the star, something he infamously refused to do when he was in “Lady in the Dark” with Gertrude Lawrence. The movie was the top grossing film of 1954, and the most successful movie musical up to that time.

Danny’s good deed was punished, because today it is by far the most seen of his films, and is likely to be the source of his public image as time goes on. Yet it is not his best movie, or a fair representation of what made him a unique and popular supporter. Like Darren McGavin, a fine and versatile dramatic actor cursed to be remembered only as the father in “A Christmas Story,” Danny’s slice of immortality also minimizes his legacy and talent. Watch “The Court Jester.” With your kids or grandchildren.

1. The First Scene

My original commentary on the first scene in the film, where Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny) are entertaining their comrades with a humble Christmas show on a battle field, was soon to be superseded by the analysis of commenters who found more ethics breaches than I did. Michael West referenced the screenplay:

Opening Scene in the Jeep as they hear the Entertainment show.

GEN CARLTON (To Adjutant): What’s this all about, Captain?

ADJUTANT: A little entertainment for the men, sir. Tonight’s Christmas Eve.

GEN CARLTON: These men are moving up tonight, General Waverly. They should be lined up for full inspection!

GEN WAVERLY (To Carlton): You’re absolutely right. (To Adjutant): There’s no Christmas in the Army, Captain.

ADJUTANT: Yes, sir.

GEN WAVERLY (To Carlton): There’s always a slip-up or two during a change in command. The men get a little loose. But I know I’m leaving them in good hands.

GEN CARLTON: (To Waverly): Thank you, General. (To Driver): Sergeant, take me to headquarters immediately! We’ll have those men turned out on the double!

The Sergeant looks at General Waverly.

GEN WAVERLY: Goodbye, Sergeant. Take the short cut.

SERGEANT: Yes, sir!

The jeep pulls off and makes a half circle. The Adjutant makes a gesture, as if to stop it. Waverly stops him. The Adjutant turns to him.

ADJUTANT: That’s not the way back to headquarters!

GEN WAVERLY: Joe, you know that, and I know that, but the new General doesn’t know it. Or he won’t for about an hour and a half.

ADJUTANT: That Sergeant’ll be a private tomorrow!

GEN WAVERLY: Yes… isn’t he lucky?

SCENE CHANGE TO ENTERTAINMENT SITE:

CAPTAIN BOB WALLACE and PRIVATE PHILIP DAVIS are doing a number on stage to entertain a mass of 200 or so soldiers. GENERAL AND ADJUTANT just starting to take seats, off to one side where they are not noticed by the performers. ABOUT 6 SOLDIERS seated in audience. They look off, see General, start to rise. The General notices them – motions for them to sit down again, indicating he doesn’t want attention called to himself. Captain Wallace sings “White Christmas”.

CPT WALLACE: Well that just about wraps it up, fellas. It’s certainly too bad General Waverly couldn’t be here for this little yuletide clambake ’cause we really had a slam bang finished cooked up for him. I guess by now you know the Old Man’s being replaced by a new Commanding General fresh out of the Pentagon…it’s not a very nice Christmas present for a division like us that’s moving up. The Old Man’s moving toward the rear. That’s a direction he’s never taken in his entire life. Well all I can say is we owe an awful lot to General Waverly and to the way…

GEN WAVERLY: ATTENTION!

Every man is at attention and every head has turned to where General Waverly has taken up a position near the front of the platform.

GEN WAVERLY: Captain Wallace, who’s responsible for holding a show in this advanced area?

CPT WALLACE: Well sir as a matter of fact it was…

PVT DAVIS: …me Sir! It was my idea sir. Uh, I mean when you gotta entertainer sir of the caliber of Captain Wallace, sir…I mean sir…it’s Christmas Eve, sir. And well, sir, I mean that if you were in New York, Sir, you’d have to pay six sixty or even eight eighty to hear a great singer like Captain Wallace, sir.

GEN WAVERLY: I’m well aware of Captain Wallace’s capabilities. Who are you?

PVT DAVIS: Er…Phillip Davis, sir. Private First Class, sir.

GEN WAVERLY: Well, at ease, Davis.

DAVIS: Yes, Sir!

WAVERLY: I said, At Ease!

DAVIS: Oh, uh, Yes, sir, thank you sir.

WAVERLY: This division is now under the command of General Harold G. Carlton, and I don’t want anyone to forget it — not that he’ll let you. He’s tough — just what this sloppy outfit needs. He’ll have you standing inspection night and day — you may even learn how to march. And if you don’t give him everything you got, I may come back and fight for the enemy. Merry Christmas!

ASSEMBLED MEN: Merry Christmas!

GEN WAVERLY: Well, I guess, all I can say is, how much I…what a fine outfit…How am I going… (to Wallace) don’t just stand there, how am I going to get off…?

CPT WALLACE: We happen to have a slam-bang finish…He turns to the musicians, gives the downbeat.

They play “THE OLD MAN,” which is sung by the entire outfit.

ARTY FALLS IN VICINITY…Soldiers crouch…then finish singing.

GENERAL AND ADJUTANT DEPART.

MORE ARTY FALLS, ON SITE…Men scatter. Captain Wallace and Private Davis try to get men to cover. Private Davis man handles the Captain to cover as a wall collapses where he had just been standing.

Michael’s analysis:

“For starters, we see a mass of soldiers in an open air situation within effective range of enemy artillery fire. A single well-placed artillery round could eliminate approximately 200 soldiers — more than an entire World War 2 Infantry Company (whose authorized strength is about 190-195 men; but given this stage of the war and attrition, this could easily be 2-3 companies of EXPERIENCED soldiers). Someone in the chain of command KNOWS this to be true and authorized this gathering despite the obvious danger. We know for certain that the Adjutant knows what the gathering is, as he answers in line #2 precisely what is going on. But an Adjutant has no command authority, so someone else authorized the gathering. We have to assume General Waverly didn’t know until the Adjutant answered General Carlton’s inquiry based on General Waverly’s later questioning of Captain Wallace. We can’t ever be sure who actually made the decision to have the entertainment occur at that location since Private Wallace, breaking an incredible number of military bearing protocols, interrupts a Captain, to answer a General. This Private, Private Davis, accepts all responsibility for the decision to expose upwards of 2 companies-worth of men to devastating artillery fire.

“This information leaves us with two options: Either it really was Private Davis’s idea to have the venue at that location, in which case, Private Davis’s commanding officer and the various commanding officers AND EVERYONE ELSE in their chain of command are colossally INEPT for agreeing to the idea. The second option is that Captain Wallace DID indeed make the decision to have the venue at that site, and now he’s standing there like a lump allowing a subordinate to cut him off mid-sentence, a military no-no, and then allowing the subordinate to take the heat of any potential censure that was forthcoming. Of course, since he’s a Private trying to cover for his boss, he’ll say anything, so I won’t even ding him for the horrible excuse that 200 men should be exposed to German artillery fire because CPT Wallace is a famous singer – we all know it’s worth dying to hear Bing sing…

“But of course, even General Waverly doesn’t seem to mind that 200 of his soldiers are idling around with a population density rivaling that of Bombay, just one artillery strike away from having more in common with mist than with humanity. When HE discovered what was going on by the Adjutant’s answer in line #2, he should have immediately ordered the soldiers disperse and had about two dozen commissioned officers who had every ability to stop the farce standing in his headquarters receiving the most royal dressing down of their careers and maybe a few firings.

“What possibly does General Waverly think outweighs the need to disperse a mass of soldiers within effective range of artillery? Why, a Christmas music concert of course! It is Christmas Eve, after all! Now, the Army does a really good job bending over backwards for the morale, welfare, and recreation of soldiers, much more than was ever considered a military precedent. BUT, we learn from the dialogue, the entire division is on orders to “move up tonight.” This somewhat vague description could range anywhere from simply occupying a section of the line to relieve a unit coming back or it could mean they are initiating a major offensive operation. We learn, however, that this movement, whatever it is, is occurring in mere hours. Having experienced large movements of soldiers myself, I know that if a Division is stepping off in a few hours, the men down to the platoon level are ALREADY in their assembly areas doing final preparations. This is apparent to the new commander, General Carlton, who is astonished that the men aren’t doing their final checks of equipment and gear.

“Which leads us to the next bit: General Waverly is none too concerned about the unjustifiable exposure he’s tolerating of his…well, now General Carlton’s men…as we know Waverly has just been replaced by General Carlton, who, trope-tastically, we learn is one of those wretched new leaders who is probably horribly incompetent. The movie lets us know early on that he’s a despicable piss-and-vinegar type when he is mad that the men are having Christmas entertainment. Never mind that we now know that Carlton is severely concerned about a huge mass of men within artillery range open and exposed as well as not anywhere near where they ought to be to initiate movement of the entire Division.

“The movie also lets us know he’s a jerk because it pushes the whole “fresh out of __” trope. The usual way this plays out is the “fresh out of West Point” or “fresh out of ROTC” smear applied to new Lieutenants who assume Platoon Leadership with little to no actual experience. Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly play out on the General level. Yes, the General ranks expanded rapidly during World War II, but an individual didn’t become one by being a complete buffoon (and yes there are always exceptions — but General Carlton, who seems to have a sense of urgency that no one in Waverly’s sphere of influence seems to possess, does not seem to be the exception).

“Never mind, we’ll go on with the traditional “smearing of the new guy who replaces the beloved experienced leader.” In the original script I copied and analyzed, the dialogue was OVERTLY insubordinate and actively undermining of the men’s confidence in their new commander. In the corrected dialogue, though cleaned up a lot, there are still hints of undermining the new guy’s authority before he even makes a decision as the commander. There’s General Waverly’s smart-ass “There’s no Christmas in the Army” jab as a response to Carlton’s concern about the location and timing of the entertainment event — which he says “knowingly” to the Adjutant, who, we must remind ourselves no longer works for the Waverly but for Carlton.

“There is the extra-rotten move when Carlton, recognizing the imminent danger as well as the horrifying breach of schedule in implementing the plan of operations, indicates he plans to move to Headquarters immediately to begin rectifying the situation and is undermined either by the Sergeant driving Carlton or by General Waverly himself. The driver decides to undermine Carlton’s ability to fix the problem by taking an extra long route back to headquarters. Between a driver and a singing-private, this division is apparently full of the lowest-ranking guys thinking they know best when to leave a behind-the-schedule division exposed to enemy fire just so they can catch a few tunes from Bing. The only other possible explanation is that General Waverly, himself, with a nod-nod wink-wink, authorized the driver to follow the reckless plan to take an hour-and-a-half detour, which we assume will require another hour-and-a-half correction before Carlton can get to Headquarters. Just as with the Adjutant before, let’s again consider that this driver no longer works for Waverly, but for Carlton The Sergeant is being openly insubordinate.

“Even if Waverly was not responsible for the three-hour diversion, he immediately became complicit when the Adjutant, in an apparent realization who his new boss is (Carlton), moved to correct the driver but was stopped from doing so…by General Waverly

“The last bit of insubordination and undermining the chain of command comes from the subtle digs Captain Wallace makes during his speech. His “Fresh out of the Pentagon” disdain undermines faith that Carlton may be a good commander, followed by the snide “not a nice Christmas present” for the division is enough to get any soldier censured. Soldiers and peers WILL whisper about their leaders, but an open act of insubordination like that? Stamped out like a spark in a dry forest… I won’t even address the fact that it’s a COMMISSIONED OFFICER making the openly insubordinate comments and a CAPTAIN no less. He would be dismissed and transferred immediately.

“But hey, I suppose Waverly recognized all their rotten conduct when he feebly tried to make things right by saying “hey guys, he’s a good commander, never mind all the stuff we said before and our attitudes we displayed before!” A few moments later, just to do Carlton some justice, the artillery shelling arrives.”

Coemmenter SykesFive–never to be heard from again!—added this critique of General Waverley (Dean Jagger):

As the scene opens, Major General Waverly is being relieved for frankly the only reason American unit commanders were relieved during the war: he didn’t take the objectives. That is failure. It could be lack of aggression or poor coordination or anything else, but ultimately it is failure and the commanding officer will pay the price. He will be shuffled off to a rear area command, or maybe just left to bum around the theater, and be out of the Army by the end of 1945 because his record will be so tarnished. He will be lucky not to revert to his prewar rank.

“Waverly’s age suggests he was a company-grade officer during WWI and may or may not have seen combat during that conflict’s closing weeks, then spent decades idling in the interwar army. Apart from whatever happened in 1918, Waverly has no more combat experience than anyone else in the division. He is not an experienced commander by any measure. He had the right credentials–a few articles in service journals, no serious problems on his posts, and of course a West Point Ring–but had never really been tested as a field-grade officer. Again this is a common profile.This is a very common profile for WWII US Army division commanders.

“So in 1940, let’s say Colonel Waverly seemed like a likely candidate for command of an infantry division in the expanding army. He did well enough with some trial commands–all during stateside training and expansion–and was promoted to one and then two stars. He seemed competent enough when the 151st Division was formed and went through let’s say nearly two years of intensive training in Texas or California or wherever. And so the division was sent to Europe in let’s say August 1944, then spent a couple months languishing in Normandy or the Pas de Calais region, during which time Waverly was a friendly presence at other officers’ headquarters as well as around his division. Bear in mind that at this point, and really for the whole war after the breakout from Normandy, the limit on American frontline strength was providing fuel and artillery shells. There were more men and tanks than could be sustained at the front.

Unfortunately, Waverly’s performance when the division entered first combat in, let’s imagine. November-December 1944, possibly in the later phases of the Hurtgen Forest or Roer River fighting, was simply intolerable. Waverly simply couldn’t bring himself to treat his men as expendable, but that is indeed the whole reason they were brought to Europe under his command: to be expended. His offensives plodded. Small units stopped when they came under fire and did not advance until artillery had obliterated the enemy position, which had likely been abandoned by then and new positions established. The division could only attack in one direction at a time. It never followed up adequately. So he had to go, and Major General Carlton–a younger man, someone’s protege–was tapped by the army commander. Quite likely a number of regiment and battalion commanders were also sacked.

The division rank and file’s perception of Waverly is somewhat different from the higher echelons’ and military historians’. Waverly was their father figure during training. He let them get by with some things but “kept them on the ball” in a way they appreciated, which may or may not have coincided with proper military discipline. In combat, he did not risk his men’s lives willingly, and indeed the 151st Division probably suffered comparatively low casualties in the Hurtgen or Roer campaigns. Sure, they didn’t take the objectives, but to the GIs that was better than taking serious losses like their neighboring units had.

The new commander, Carlton, is unfamiliar but is rumored to be a hard-charger who is indifferent to casualties. Surely he’ll get a lot of men killed after seeing the results of Waverly’s failure. He is not incompetent–in fact he may amass a great record–but to the men he will seem like a butcher, unlike the kindly Waverly. And indeed at reunions men who were privates and sergeants in the 151st Division will say that the division was never the same after Waverly left, because their small wars were worsened and the steady toll of casualties in 1945 will seem to be Carlton’s fault. Of course it was Carlton who led them when they and three other divisions claimed each independently to have liberated Dusseldorf or Fulda or Neuschwanstein or wherever, and it was Carlton who stayed in the army, commanded his branch school, and briefly commanded a corps in Korea.

Waverly is jaded by the whole experience in 1945. He refused to send his men to their deaths. That is why he sends that jeep down the wrong road–depriving the division of its leadership for hours–and envies the sergeant’s escape from the responsibilities of rank. That is also why he doesn’t really care about the men having some fun. Carlton is just going to get them killed anyway.

This explains why my WWII vet and retired combat officer father, a big a fan of Bing and Danny as he was, disliked “White Christmas.”

The movie moves into its funny guilt extortion phase when Phil Davis rescues his smooth-singing captainfrom being crushed by a falling wall in a World War II bombing raid, and injures his arm in the process. (It’s not a plot feature, but the battlefield set for the entire opening sequence is itself unethically unprofessional 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. Michael Curtiz deserved better; the man directed “Casablanca.” Show some respect.) 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 of the new team of Wallace and Davis, it is knocking ’em dead and rising in the ranks of stage stars.

Wallace and Davis

The act looks terrible. Bing was never much of a dancer, a game hoofer at best, and you don’t feature the greatest voice in the history of American popular music by having him sing exclusively duets. Nevertheless, all we see of the team’s rise is both of them singing and corny dancing inferior to what Bing did with Bob Hope in the “Road” movies.

Never mind. 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 (“Everybody Does It”) , 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 the beneficiary of Judy’s angle, Betty is ethically estopped from complaining that Bing/Bob’s reaction was “I don’t expect any better.” I can, she can’t. He should expect better: accepting unethical conduct allows it to thrive.

As we soon find out, however, Betty often flies off the handle.

Sisters

It seems that the Haynes Sisters 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 ( and in the real life adventures of Judy Garland): 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? No wonder socialism isn’t dead.

Phil 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 Curtiz 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, though ,unless he promised Bing he wouldn’t use the take. His duty is to the film, not the star. It’s also one of the few moments in the film allowing Kaye to be Kaye.

The lovely sisters are going to Vermont, so Danny and Bing, who gave the entire cast the holidays off with full pay (I doubt that Broadway ever shut down shows over the holidays, which is a prime tourist period. What is the Radio City Music Hall show for? But this is a necessary plot contrivance.) . 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 the closest thing to 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 Bob, Phil, Judy and Betty 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.

At The Inn

Now Bob/Bing  gets the generous, kind, irresponsible and stupid idea to haul the whole Broadway show up to Vermont for the holidays  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 perhaps 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 the team sued faster than Danny Kaye could sing “Tchaikovsky.”

Not only that, but the team is reneging on its promise to give the cast and crew the holidays off, with pay! Now he’s not only telling them to change their plans, leave their families and get back to work, but he’s dragging them to Vermont! Nice. Maybe Marx was right after all.

The laws of economic reality, contracts and common sense don’t operate in Vermont, apparently.

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.  It’s also impossible, but we will ignore that. Wallace and Davis have seen the sisters perform one number (that the guys did better), if you don’t count the dumb “Snow” number they jam on in the dining car. Based on that, they kick out the equivalent female leads that made the Broadway show the success it apparently was. This kind of thing actually happens in show business, which is why its ethics most resemble those of Columbia drug cartels. And the guys behaving this way 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’s Heartwarming Scheme And Betty’s Betrayal

Bob 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 relevant to a few hundred men in the audience of millions. 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.  The housekeeper also spreads bad information based on sloppy and incompetent research, not considering the possibility that she may not know the whole story. She has an obligation to check with Bing, but doesn’t.

Today, she’d be a New York Times reporter.

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?

Of course, Rosemary Clooney leaving the show concocted with the idea of lifting General Waverly out of looming bankruptcy would, in the real world, kill the show, or at least require a delayed opening, costing a lot and undermining the beneficent plan. None of this matters to Betty, who apparently feels it’s  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 only to moral luck. Betty still abandons the show and Bob, and also sabotages her sister, the general, the inn, and her fellow cast members. Remember, she’s the ethical sister. 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 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. Lawsuits.

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 “Abraham Number.” ( Aside: All we see in that rehearsal is a dance, and only someone familiar 1942’s “Holiday Inn” would recognize the music. The Abraham Number is a vestige of the movie this one ripped off.  In that crazy movie musical, Bing and Fred own the inn, which has the idiotic business model of only opening on holidays. That song, as I bet you could guess, is the featured song on Lincoln’s Birthday, back when Abe had his own day. I can’t describe how bad it is, but it isn’t even on YouTube, so here is a photo that gives you a hint:

Yes, that’s Bing, and this was no homage to Bill Robinson.)

Anyway, back to the same dancers being in New York and Vermont: I know, the producers of the movie were just trying to save money by using the same dancers in both scenes….like that WWII set. It’s “oh, the audience doesn’t care, what the hell” movie-making. It’s unprofessional, and exactly what distinguished MGM from the other studios in this era. MGM would never do this.

The nightclub owner who hired Betty and allowed her to break her commitments to everybody to get back at Bob is also open to a massive lawsuit for interference with contractual arrangements.

 A Happy Ending

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 new contract in New York, leaves the owner high and dry with advance sales to refund, and returns to the Vermont show a day or two 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.  The show begins, and “White Christmas” just barely misses falling into the same trap as its predecessor. In “Minstrel Number,” Rosemary, Vera, Danny and Bing do a “Mister Bones” routine; “Mister Bones” (or “Brother Bones” )is also part of the blackface tradition, but the gang is all white.

Whew! Close one!

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 and that the cast needs it to get paid, apparently don’t care. Even though the whole enterprise will fall apart without them, the four stars agree that what the hell, they’re going on long honeymoons anyway.

Of course they are.

9 thoughts on “The “White Christmas” Ethics Guide 2020

  1. Jack,
    Reading your ethics analyses of classic movies always makes me wonder to what extent and for how long popular entertainment has been skewing our perceptions of unethical conduct, depicting it as justifiable, acceptable or even commendable behavior if delivered with a laugh and/or a song and “for a good cause.” Many people (me included) regularly decry the sorry state of more recent movies and TV shows and their glorification of a plethora of unethical behaviors, but it is always beneficial to be reminded that this is not just a contemporary phenomenon. Thank you!

    • I stopped watching 24 right after Kiefer Sutherland’s character tortures his ex-wife’s current husband with household electricity (no pun intended) in order to extract the details of some impending disaster. Of course, he was completely innocent, and also he was best buds an episode or two later helping solve the next crisis.
      Similarly, an episode of MacGyver shows police executing a no-knock warrant with a bearcat ripping the door of a house to seize drugs before they could be flushed.

      Both obviously written justifying the actions of new government policies at the time, and both taking, IMO, the wrong side of the argument.

      But really, I wanted to comment that the Court Jester is indeed fantastic, and it’s worth watching to see the elder Carradine in his prime, even if only for one short scene, and Angela Lansbury in her’s.

  2. To add on to Syke’s commentary on the record of Waverly being less aggressive than neighboring units:

    That’s the great trade off in war – aggression generally means apparently more casualties, but soft-footing a battle may actually mean more casualties later…or more casualties absorbed by neighboring units who find their flanks opened or find themselves taking on the burden of the objects failed by their less aggressive neighbors.

    Let’s pretend Division X, Y, and Z all assault towards separate objectives. Division Y, led by Waverly, takes its time and avoids risks accumulating only 100 casualties on the attack, but not really reaching the final objective. Divisions X & Z, achieve their objectives, but absorb 300 casualties each in the effort, and compel the enemy to withdraw from the objective assigned to Y. So we’ve taken 700 casualties among 3 divisions.

    The great hypothetical unknown, but reasonable to assume reality, is that if all 3 divisions were equally aggressive, perhaps they only take 150 to 200 casualties each. For an aggregate of 450-600…much less than the prior scenario. BUT, now the Division Y commander has actually taken 50-100% more casualties personally than he would have before.

  3. In 1979, one of the few times I was in NYC after making a permanent move West, the date coincided with the anniversary of my father’s death on March 15th, 1963. During the get-together, Harry, one of his best old friends from childhood – also his cardiologist whom I remembered with eyes streaming at the funeral and an angry scold between sobs “why didn’t you listen to me?” – cornered me during the evening and began in a whisper what I thought would be a repeat of the funeral exhortation or yet another Caesar quote that had gone around after people who knew him discovered he’d died on the Ides of March … (my dad was an obstetrician and a great fan of the play … lots of caesarean jokes; he’d have loved them all).

    Reluctantly, I leaned in to listen to Harry. “Your papa was so lucky he didn’t live to hear that Danny Kaye was a schmuck.” Harry was right. Both times.

    • I passed this story along to Brian Childers, my Danny Kaye.

      Danny was really a tortured soul, which is why he was such a schmuck when he wasn’t performing. Bob McElwaine, who knew both him and Sylvia well (apparently he REALLY knew Sylvia) said that because he was abused by both his father and his older brothers, Danny found the only time he was in control and felt loved was when he was clowning and making his family laugh. When he wasn’t performing, he felt isolated, angry and frightened.

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