#ReelInfatuation Blogathon: I’ll Follow the Old Man-Meditations on Dean Jagger as General Waverly in White Christmas

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.

"At Ease, Davis!"

“At Ease, Davis!”

  • 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!”

HE’S GENEROUS:

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.

Betty, Phil, and Judy

Betty, Phil, and Judy

"Nonsense! We've Made a Contract!"

“Nonsense! We’ve Made a 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.

Cast Party

Cast Party

I guess he isn’t the best businessman, but no man can be everything.

HE’S PATIENT:

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?

"We've established the fact the lodge is ideal!"

“We’ve established the fact the lodge is ideal!”

Greasepaint Pandemonium

Greasepaint Pandemonium

Wallace-Davis Productions

Wallace-Davis Productions

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.

Bad News from Washington

Bad News from Washington

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?

Phil Has an Ouchy

Phil Has an Ouchy

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!

Overcome with Emotion

Overcome with Emotion

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…

2016 beckons.

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).

White Christmas Poster

White Christmas Poster: The fifth-billed Jagger is nowhere to be seen…

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.

General Waverly

General Waverly

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:

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***

This is my entry in the #ReelInfatuation Blogathon, which I’m co-hosting with Ruth of Silver Screenings.

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Reel Infatuation Jagger Banner

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Dean Jagger Meme

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12 thoughts on “#ReelInfatuation Blogathon: I’ll Follow the Old Man-Meditations on Dean Jagger as General Waverly in White Christmas

  1. Pingback: #ReelInfatuation Blogathon: Part II-White Christmas (1954) Overview..with Lots of Pics | Font and Frock

  2. Pingback: #ReelInfatuation Blogathon: The Most Stylish Sisters of 1954 | Font and Frock

  3. Pingback: #ReelInfatuation Blogathon: Links to My Posts About Dean Jagger in White Christmas | A Small Press Life

  4. You’re right – General Waverly is the only adult at Columbia Inn. And he’s a very handsome one in his uniform.

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen White Christmas and, as I read all the ways Jagger is completely crush-worthy in this role, I started to wonder if I’ve ever really SEEN this movie?? These are things to think about the next time I see it.

    Thanks for being such a great co-host! 🙂

    Like

    • I’ve always adored the movie (even my husband came into our relationship loving it, and he was literally raised without Christmas), and my crush on The General goes back to when I was a teen. But, it took me re-watching this film multiple times in preparation for this blogathon to truly appreciate his character. I’m kind of ashamed to say that my initial reason for liking him was purely due to the hotness factor. But I’ll plead my long-ago youth for that…

      And thank you for being the co-hostest with the mostest. I’m afraid that’s your official title now.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is definitely one of my Christmas favorites too. Although the other characters are lovable, it is General Waverly who is the voice of reason and a safe haven in a storm. If it was not for Dean Jagger’s performance this movie would have ended up as another unmemorable “B” movie. As much as I liked the movie and loved that song, White Christmas, none of it would not have been believable without Jagger. I never realized this before reading your blog. Thank you for sharing it.

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    • I agree. It’s a fun movie with great musical numbers, but without Dean Jagger as General Waverly (and no other actor could have given him half the depth with the part as written–aside from a few humorous lines, there’s not much to work with) it would just have been another Technicolor party. Kind of like the sensational looking but overblown “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

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  6. Pingback: #ReelInfatuation Blogathon: Day 2 – Silver Screenings

  7. I appreciate your post very much, and have put the DVD on right now! I always enjoyed Crosby’s quips and the clever writing in this film. I find that the film rises above “There’s No Business Like Show Business” thanks to the dialogue and chemistry between the actors. Mary Wickes and the other character actors add a lot of wit, too. I enjoy this film due to the reasons I just mentioned; however, I’m revisiting it this minute so I may watch Dean Jagger’s appearance with a more careful eye. Thanks for giving me something new to savor in this film that already makes me smile.

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    • Thank you! WC definitely has top-notch production values and charming performances all around. Plus, unlike “There’s No Business Like Show Business” it truly has heart. And if I can get even one person to pay closer attention to any of Dean Jagger’s performances, I’m doing my job right!

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  8. Love White Christmas, but have never thought of General Waverly in terms of romance. You make an excellent argument for his case. Next time I view WC, I’ll be looking at him a little differently. 😉
    Thanks for co-hosting this fun blogathon!

    Like

    • Haha, and here I am…I’ve never thought of him in any terms but romance (even though that is totally not what his character is about). It’s definitely a to each their own type of thing, but I’m glad if I’ve made you rethink it even a little bit! 🙂

      Like

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