Inciting Event: After Phil’s rant that his singing partner Bob is a “miserable, lonely, unhappy man” because he hasn’t got the “most important thing—a girl,” Bob reveals he’s agreed to audition a sister act for the sake of an old Army buddy, Benny Haynes, the dog-faced boy.
I love this movie. I watch it every Christmas. But if you’d asked me what I thought it was about, before I sat down to do the structural analysis for it this time, I would have said: it’s about saving General Waverly’s inn. But it’s not. As proven by all its major structural points, this story is clearly a love story: about getting Bob to fall in love and stop being miserable (and giving Phil “forty-five minutes—all to myself”).
First Plot Point: When the Haynes sisters—Betty and Judy—are threatened by their landlord, Phil gives them his and Bob’s train tickets to New York and helps them sneak out of the club. This is the Key Event that ends the First Act. We then have a fairly long interlude before the door fully opens onto the Second Act with the First Plot Point: when Bob discovers what Phil has done, decides to be gracious, and finally agrees to go to visit Vermont, where the sisters are going to be performing over Christmas at a ski lodge.
First Pinch Point: They arrive at the Columbia Inn in Pine Tree, Vermont, only to discover unseasonably warm temperatures and no snow on the ground—and that girls’ act has been canceled. This is an immediate (if instantly overshadowed) threat to Phil’s plan to throw Bob and Betty together. They further learn that the innkeeper is their beloved Army commander General Waverly, whose business is now in danger.
The plot turn arrives when Bob and Phil decide to bring their show to Pine Tree in an attempt to draw business back to the inn. From here on, the surface plot becomes all about saving the inn—but the underlying pull of the plot is still about Bob and Betty’s romance.
Midpoint: After Phil and Judy finagle Betty into going to visit Bob in the lobby at night, Betty decides Bob is her knight in shining armor. They kiss, swinging their relationship around into something more definite and active.
The subplot’s Midpoint arrives the next day when Bob learns General Waverly has been rejected in his desire to return to active duty in the Army. He decides to gather the old division to remind the general how much he is loved.
Second Pinch Point: After Bob makes a deal to go on television, Betty mistakenly thinks he is trying to commercialize on the general’s hard luck. She rejects Bob, and their relationship immediately becomes icy, much to his bewilderment. Phil and Judy then hatch a plan to get “mother hen” to leave the nest by faking their own engagement.
Third Plot Point: After Phil and Judy announce their engagement at the cast party, Betty takes a job in New York and leaves. This a classic low moment for a love story: the (seeming) death of the relationship.
Climax: Christmas Eve—the night of the show—arrives, and Betty returns (having seen Bob’s heartfelt tribute to the general on television). The show—and the romantic culmination—is what the entire story has been building toward.
Climactic Moment: Betty gives Bob the statuette of a knight on a white horse—and they make up. Bob is no longer a “miserable, lonely, unhappy man.”
Resolution: They raise the back of stage to reveal the falling snow—and the general’s saved inn.
Notes: This is an excellent story on so many levels. The plotting is deep and intricate. Every scene matters; every scene offers interesting new information and decisions on the characters’ parts. The dialogue is brilliantly deep and subtextual: nothing on-the-nose here.