It will be interesting to see if the 1954 Christmas movie musical “White Christmas” experiences a major drop-off in TV showings this year, as a victim of the anti-whaite racism going viral during The Great Stupid.” It would not surprise me. Not only is the title a problem for the George Floyd Freakout-deranged, but the film is about as white as a movie can be. No inter-racial couples! Last time I watched the movie I wasn’t searching for Extras of Color, and maybe there are a couple dark faces in General Waverley’s troops and a even an African American dancer in there somewhere, but the movie definitely wouldn’t do well by current Oscar check-box standards.
Stipulated: this is an entertaining movie with an effectively sentimental and moving climax. That should be enough, and in 1954 it definitely was enough: the movie was a critical and box office hit. There are good reasons to be grateful for it today, too, provided “White Christmas” isn’t “canceled.”
Most importantly, it has been the most visible yearly reminder of the talents of Bing Crosby, by any measure one of the most important cultural figures and remarkable performing artists in U.S. history. The film also is, a bit perversely, the only easily accessible clue to alert younger generations that Danny Kaye was a unique and impressive performer as well—I say perversely because this is neither a typical Kaye movie nor one that reveals most of the qualities that made him a star. (Watch “The Court Jester” hans “Hans Christian Anderson”.)
Then there is Rosemary Clooney. Without “White Christmas” Bing’s romantic interest in the film would be almost totally forgotten, yet she was one of the greatest of all female popular vocal stars. Clooney joined Dinah Shore, Patti Paige, Doris Day and Peggy Lee in the dominant all-blonde singing quintette during the Fifties. Dinah lasted the longest, reinventing herself repeatedly despite the least impressive voice of the five; Patti Paige had the biggest selling records; Doris became an iconic movie star, and Peggy Lee, who was also a successful songwriter, had the reputation of being the genius in the group, but Rosemary could sing them all under the carpet. Unfortunately, she also suffered from emotional and substance abuse problems, had a breakdown, battled with weight gain, and disappeared from the scenes for more than a decade until she reemerged, older, saner, fatter and with a diminished voice, to star again on the night club circuit. That is the Clooney most people remember now, but that’s unfair to her legacy. In “White Christmas,” she’s in top form.
So why does Ethics Alarms dump on “White Christmas” every year? It comes down to what I wrote in last year’s intro: if you are going to make an ethics movie, someone involved ought to have functioning ethics alarms. I was gratified when I watched the PBS documentary about Bing Crosby and learned that he was critical of “White Christmas” despite its success because he felt the movie should have and could have been much better with a more carefully constructed story, as in “one that made sense.” The heartwarming ending 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, not to mention the mind-blowing leaps of logic and assaults on common sense, required to get there.
The most ethical feature of the movie was an ethical act that allowed it to be made, performed by one of the most unlikely people imaginable, Danny Kaye. I credit Kaye with my interest in performing, musicals, and comedy, but my research into the real man, when I was in the process of collaborating on a musical about his relationship with his wife and muse, songwriter Sylvia Fine, revealed that 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 as that black and white musical, 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 to 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 demanded $200,000 and 10% of the gross, to rescue the project, but he still was doing so at considerable personal risk…and he didn’t need the money.
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.
I have been punished by writing this critique: I used to enjoy the film despite its annoyances, and now those are all I see. But it really is an ethics mess, and as bing sensed, perhaps, it didn’t have to be.
“White Christmas” is offered by Netflix year-round.
For now, at least.
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 stalwart Ethics Alarms commenter Michael West. It really should be a guest post, so I’m going to turn over the Ethics Companion to him for the rest of Part I.
Opening Scene in the Jeep as they hear the troops’ holiday 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.
“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.”
Part 2 continues the ethics analysis of the rest of the film.