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.