Disclaimer: This essay is about the character Major General Thomas F. Waverly as played by actor Dean Jagger. For an overview of the full plot of White Christmas, please read the follow-up post.
I just fell through the looking-glass and somersaulted my way into the cinematic world of Pine Tree, Vermont. It is December 1954, and you can call me Mae in Wonderland.
There’s fresh snow on the ground, it’s very Vermonty, and I’m better dressed than I was two hours ago.
Unsurprisingly, everything looks better in Technicolor.
I’m surrounded by a famous nightclub duo, their new costars/love interests, some backup dancers, a few locals, dozens of veterans, and one particularly sexy retired Army Major General named Thomas F. Waverly. He’s by far the most fascinating person here. I’d love to share what I’ve learned about him so far.
HE KEEPS HIS HUMOR EVEN AS HE ROLLS WITH THE PUNCHES:
The General was in a position of great power and responsibility for many years, but now he owns a
failing business located in the middle-of-nowhere Vermont. (It’s really quite lovely here, though. You should visit sometime.) Since he invested all of his money and resources in remodeling the place, he had nothing to fall back on— except faith that the tetchy weather would finally start cooperating enough to cough up an appropriate amount of winter revelers to get back in black. When two inept ex-soldiers who used to serve under him during WWII showed up unexpectedly at the Columbia Inn, he greeted them with warmth and humor rather than embarrassment born of his current circumstances! It didn’t help when Phil Davis, who is a terrifically nice man but something of a doofus (you’ll know what I mean if you ever get the chance to meet him!) thought that The General was working as a janitor.
- PHIL DAVIS: “General Waverly, a janitor!”
- THE GENERAL: “Never thought I’d make it, huh?”
- PD: Oh oh, yes sir! Sir. You could do anything you put your mind to, sir. But, uh, a janitor…”
- TG: “A matter of fact, it’s worse than that. I own this hotel.”
- PD: “A landlord!”
Although he could ill afford it, he insisted that the sister act he hired for the holidays stayed to fulfill the terms of their contract.
This meant that, with only a few locals in the audience, he paid out more than he took in. After Phil and his showbiz partner, Bob, sent for their theatrical troupe, The General threw a cast party. On the house.
I guess he isn’t the best businessman, but no man can be everything.
His peaceful country inn was descended upon by dozens of theatrical professionals, and no one bothered to tell him until after the fact. Sure, it paid some bills…but to what cost?
HE’S NOT READY TO PLAY HORSESHOES:
With a conflict raging in Korea, The General naturally thought that the Army could use his services again. He was grievously mistaken, yet showed nothing but good grace in the face of a seriously humiliating situation. He just wanted to feel like a useful human being again, which is something that still hasn’t been resolved. No amount of back-slaps, applause, or reminiscing with your old buddies can change that. I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY EVERYONE THINKS EVERYTHING IS ALL HUNKY-DORY NOW.
HE IS HONEST, BUT HIS FRIENDS ARE WILDLY MANIPULATIVE:
It seemed as if everyone was lying to The General, under the guise of being helpful. (Except for his granddaughter Susan, who is a sweet, quiet girl.) It was all for his greater good, and of course everything worked out in the end (mostly). But his friends willingly went to ridiculous lengths to protect his pride, which was definitely highly unnecessary given his level of maturity and class. I’m beginning to think they don’t know him very well.
I mean, come on! Was Phil really the best person to fake an injury?
HE’S SENTIMENTAL AND ISN’T AFRAID TO BE VULNERABLE:
Dozens of ex-servicemen from his battalion gathered at the Columbia Inn to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The General’s retirement. It was a sweet gesture, even though it required lots of lying and subterfuge to pull off.
In the end, he was surprised!
There’s no shame in his game.
Let’s be honest: he is the only real adult at the Columbia Inn. That’s another very attractive quality, isn’t it? At least it is to me, Mae in Wonderland. Which reminds me…this is where my reverie ends. I’d stay here if I could, but I’m only allowed to visit in two-hour increments.
Thanks for listening to my story. Now…
Yet, never fear!
I’ll be back in Pine Tree before the year is out.
I’m a Dean Jagger enthusiast. All of his performances intrigue me, from first to last, across a fifty year career. Low-budget flicks? Programmers? Sumptuously produced classics? The vessels don’t matter so much as the qualities he brings to an impressively wide array of characterizations: vitality, an unbeatable expressiveness, intelligence, humor, and a unique yet elusive eccentricity that is impossible to explain or pigeonhole but which is always present in his voice (that voice!), mannerisms, and bearing. Even though those traits are in his work, time and again, he is not a predictable actor playing variations on a successful persona. He infuses his characters with individuality. They read as separate men, totally unrelated to each other. One of his most famous roles is, of course, the subject of this essay: Major General Thomas F. Waverly in White Christmas (1954).
Real talk: On paper, The General is a thankless role. An entire big-budget, Irving Berlin musical revolves around this man, but he’s almost entirely superfluous to all of the fun that’s whirling around him. The plot literally couldn’t exist without him, yet he’s merely a figurehead. He isn’t rewarded with romance or participation in a production number. Despite admirable efforts to the contrary, during the bulk of the film he’s a passive vessel who is the subject of ongoing and serious manipulation. No one even has the sense to listen to his excellent advice. Is it any wonder that he wants to re-enlist in the Army? With friends like these…
Dean Jagger is a godsend. He gives The General remarkable emotional depth and subtle humanity, a thing that is rarely found in Technicolor extravaganzas. In his hands, no one is about to make a mockery of this man, however well-intentioned their efforts may be.
In other words: Major General Thomas F. Waverly is my fictional dream guy.
I’ve discussed Dean Jagger’s amazing expressiveness both here and in my review of Escape by Night. It is one of his many great gifts as an actor. Here are some more examples:
Don’t forget: Tweets=love.
#ReelInfatuation #reelinfatuation #charactercrush