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. Continue reading

“Predator,” “White Christmas” And “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: Among Other Benefits, Freedom Of Expression Is Just A Lot Easier Than Creating And Enforcing Taboos

arnold-mud-face

We were watching “Predator” over the weekend, and saw Arnold Schwarzenegger color his skin black—using mud—to escape the deadly alien’s heat-based vision. Now, why doesn’t this qualify as blackface, thus threatening Arnold with “cancellation” and the film, an action classic, with permanent shelving? Don’t tell me it’s because there is a good reason for Arnold, who is as white as you can get, darkening his skin. We have been told that intentions don’t matter when it comes to this crime against racial justice. Fred Astaire wearing dark make-up to honor his black tap teachers in “Top Hat” is per se racist. Wearing black make-up to portray a black historical character in a private Halloween party is racist. Lawrence Olivier wearing dark make-up to play Othello is racist. Robert Downey, Jr. wearing dark make-up to satirize actors who go to excess to get in character for their roles is racist. Where is the “Exception for someone trying to avoid being killed by a hunter from outer space” written down?

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