Sunday, January 6, 2013

Obscure Heroes

As part of my family’s traditions around the holiday season, we sat down one evening this past Christmas around the sparkling tree with pizza slices in hand and watched White Christmas, starring Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby. (Aside: the pizza is not actually part of the tradition.)


It was as the first scene opened amid crumbling structures in a World War II scene that I began to notice the obscurities of the story. The little things. I commented on them, but felt that my interruptions were not well-received. So had to satisfy myself with being the only one to spy the inn housekeeper and the General’s granddaughter step back out of a spotlight—for the second time, without having stepped back into it. And I chuckled to myself when the General skipped shaking one poor soldier’s hand. Obscurities.

Now, those familiar with the classic film will realize that both things I mentioned happen at the end of the film. So what was at the beginning? Well, most noticeably to me, it was a character. A very specific character who barely had a name; appeared in a grand total of two separate scenes, and was given very few lines. But I liked him. A lot. And I wanted to know why.

I went back to the film to bleed it for insight.

Unfortunately, very little information is given about him in the film. His first line is in defense of a holiday party one of the army divisions is holding: ‘A little entertainment for the men, sir. Tonight’s Christmas Eve.’ He’s addressed as ‘Captain’. In the memorable bit where General Waverly sends his replacement on a roundabout way to headquarters, this captain points it out, to which Waverly replies: ‘Joe, you know that and I know that, but the General doesn’t know it. At least he won’t, for about an hour and a half.’ So this character, we may presume, is named Captain Joe. An internet search yields that he is Adjutant Captain, meaning he is General Waverly’s right-hand man, his assistant so to speak.


(Captain Joe, pictured standing to the right of General Waverly. This character is so obscure that it took me absolute ages to find any pictures of him, which is why this post comes so late...or, early, depending on your point of view.)

In some scenes, the captain looks like he might be more comfortable in a Western somewhere (Indeed, the actor, Richard Shannon, was more well-known for general roles as a cowboy.), but it’s amazing to me how so small a character has so much, well…character. He follows the General about and has comfortable conversations with him. When Waverly sits in the back row to enjoy some of Bob’s singing, Captain Joe stands behind him. When Waverly is walking away from his outfit, the captain follows. When Waverly, who walks with something of a limp, climbs into a jeep, Joe is there to support him. He seems like a good soldier, a good man. But what caused him to stick out to me? I’m afraid I don’t have a solid answer.

The captain does not appear again until the very end of the story, when the 151 Division shows up to honor their General. Once again, Captain Joe is there, right behind him. And when General Waverly’s eyes well up with tears, Joe is watching him…and smiles. A careful observer will note that, after seating his General, Captain Joe takes a seat on the opposite side of the table to watch Wallace and Davis perform “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army”. But his chair is conspicuously empty when the crowd applauds at the end of the song. Why? Because he is outside looking at the snow as it falls around the Vermont inn. So he reenters to lean down and whisper something into Waverly’s ear. And then General Waverly, Wallace and Davis, Betty and Judy, and all the rest get their White Christmas.

So, there it is, my obscure favorite character of the film. Why this ‘Captain Joe’ grabs my attention, I cannot now guess, but he isn’t the only one. Often, it seems, there are minor characters in the stories of both film and page that become stars in their own right, sometimes to only a few people.

The king in Disney’s Tangled, for example, is quite possibly the best character of the entire story. He doesn’t even say a word.


Hawkeye appearing briefly in Thor is one of the foremost reasons I love that movie—and also, quite possibly, the best part of The Avengers.

In what stories do you find a favorite character who sits in the midst of the background noise and relative obscurity? What is your favorite character or part of White Christmas? Or your favorite Christmas film?

1 comment:

  1. Jurgen, from the movie Equilibrium. He's in a grand total of two scenes, one in which he says nothing and the other in which he's revealed as the leader of the underground resistance. But one of his lines - "Some of us have to allow ourselves not to feel, so that others can know the joy of feeling." - just gets me every time. Best character in the movie - well, except for maybe Sean Bean's character, but you can guess what happened to him early on. ; )

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