The 2021 “White Christmas” Ethics Companion, Part 2

[Part I is here.]

Michael West’s thorough exposition of the wartime military weirdness that begins the film in Part I explains why my WWII vet and retired combat officer father, a big a fan of Bing and Danny as he was, disliked “White Christmas.”

Now where were we? Oh, right, “The First Scene”.

The movie moves into its funny guilt extortion phase when Phil Davis rescues his smooth-singing captain from 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 movie 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.

2. 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 and “On the Town” fame, as kid sister Judy. Did you know that in the “Sisters” number, Clooney sang both parts? And that Vera-Ellen’s real singing voice is never heard in the entire film?). 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 use 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. But Betty criticizing Bob is like Bill Cosby reprimanding a rapist.

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

3. 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. This is aiding and abetting a breach of contract and theft. Nice.

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. (Like, for example, John Landis, who lied to Donald Sutherland and used his gag bare-butt take in “Animal House” after promising not to.) The director’s 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, before the Wuhan Virus struck.) What is the Radio City Music Hall Christmas 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 (and, I daresay, in Hollywood to the day.) 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.

4. 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. Or, as we see later, New York City.

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 the industry’s ethics most resemble those of Columbia drug cartels. And the guys behaving this way in “White Christmas” are the heroes.

Meanwhile, there are no Golden Rule second thoughts from Betty and Judy about the performers they put out of work by batting their eyes—screw those other women! It’s everyone for themselves in this warm-hearted Christmas classic!

5. 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 The Big Appele  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.

Before Betty bolts, 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. (well, and the fact that it’s a stupid plan.) 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 for any reason. This is a theatrical cardinal sin. I have personally blacklisted actors for less. 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 with 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, like, say, Arbor Day. That song, as I bet you could guess, is the featured song on Lincoln’s Birthday, back when Abe had his own federal holiday, as he still deserves. When I first wrote up this ethics guide, the number had been banned on YouTube. Now it’s back, though for some reason in a colorized version. As Samuel L. Jackson would say, “Hold on to your butts…”

 

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 with 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 that.

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.

 6. 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. 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 understady 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 (a confidentiality breach), 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 good intentions justify anything.

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, so it doesn’t feel like a minstrel number. Today, nobody under the age of about 80 is likely to have any idea what “Mr. Bones” refers to. Just so you know, here he is:

Mr. Bones

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! By this point, poor Curtiz was clearly in “Oh, the hell with it” mode), 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 they’re going on long honeymoons anyway.

Of course they are.

3 thoughts on “The 2021 “White Christmas” Ethics Companion, Part 2

  1. Regarding 4. At The Inn:

    I meant to mention this last year, but didn’t have time. I can’t remember if it’s explicitly stated or heavily implied, but what’s going on is that the show in Vermont is optional, and missing cast or numbers that won’t work due to missing preformers are being replaced by the Haynes sisters (and some new numbers, like the blessings number Bob wants to work out with Betty.)

    (I know that Bob says something along the lines of “we’ll get everyone we can, and anyone who can’t make it we’ll fill in with the Haynes sisters.” I can’t remember if there’s more to that conversation that elaborates or spells it out explicitly.)

    So the female leads Betty and Judy fill in for appear to be cast members who couldn’t make it or didn’t want to.

    Now, it’s fair to point out that this is show biz, and even if contractually you don’t have to come to a special last minute performance your producers want to put on, exercising that freedom means someone will go on in your place, and if that person is better, you will be out of a job anyway. How far “above and beyond” people are willing to go to look good to employers is fine line in any cutthroat business, and I admit the ethics of it are messy, but it’s unfair to accuse Bob of demanding the cast show up in Vermont. They were offered a bonus gig with no stated or planned threat if they didn’t take it, even if the (im)moral luck of show biz is hanging over them.

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