Snappy, Not Sappy Holidays
My family watches Holiday Inn every Christmas, yet I’ve never met anybody else my age who has seen it. But Bing Crosby! Fred Astaire! Irving Berlin! For a long time the musical was a well known favorite, but when cable started taking off in the ‘80s and the perennial, over-played Christmas movies got codified into a core curriculum, the sprightly musical that introduced the song, “White Christmas” to the world and inspired a highway hotel chain, somehow got shafted over the plodding bore of a film, White Christmas. Not that it’s been completely forgotten. Holiday Inn usually makes the airwaves once a year, late at night on a retro station. What happened?
Besides Crosby and Astaire, most of the cast is mostly made up of forgotten journeymen of the studio system. The story, conceived by Irving Berlin, is a blatant showcase for his music. (And I’m surprised, given the merchandising possibilities, that this idea hasn’t been mined by executives since.) The original trailer included with Universal Studio’s new Collector’s Set edition reveals that it was sold less like a movie than as a revue. “10 Bing Crosby Vocals!” “6 Fred Astaire Dances!” But it’s not at all tossed together. The movie as a whole is casual and clever, classy and breezy in the manner of its two stars.
Setting up the cyclical nature of the plot, it opens on Christmas Eve before the last performance of the high-class song and dance team of Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire). Hardy is retiring from showbiz shallowness for the easy life on a farm in Connecticut with performer Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale). But Dixon leaves Hardy for Hanover and Jim retires to his farm alone. He soon discovers that the rural life isn’t as relaxing as he imagined.
A year later he hits on the idea of turning his country house into a nightclub that is only open on the holidays and will be so successful he won’t have to work the rest of the year. He hires wide-eyed ingénue Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) as his leading lady and the Holiday Inn takes off. Each holiday is an excuse for a themed production number – most notably “White Christmas”, “Happy Holidays”, and “Easter Parade”.
Meanwhile, Dixon has ditched Hanover and Hanover, miserable and drunk, heads over to his old friend’s club for New Year’s. He dances sloppy with Linda in one of Astaire’s showcase numbers. (According to an included interview with daughter Ava Astaire, Fred got drunk during the filming for accuracy.) The next day he decides that Linda should be his partner but, having blacked out, he has no idea what she looks like.
The majority of the movie is spent with Jim, who has fallen for Linda, trying to prevent Ted from figuring out who she is every time a holiday rolls around. Eventually Ted figures it out, steals Linda as his partner, and takes her to Hollywood where, in an ahead-of-its time meta-twist, they decide to make the movie Holiday Inn.
The romantic storyline that drives the story isn’t anything special, but it’s given enough sexual snappiness by the four leads (and Edith Head’s dresses for the ladies), and adds a nice screwball element that elevates it above the Hallmark card schmaltz that tends to smother most holiday entertainments.
But the movie is dated in ways both big and small. There’s an animated interlude with a turkey that I never understood and looked up for the sake of this article and discovered that it’s a joke about Franklin Roosevelt, who considered changing the date of Thanksgiving. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor during shooting and a blandly patriotic sequence inspired by Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech was inserted for the 4th of July segment that confusedly turns into a Capra-esque war montage. (This is probably the dullest part of the movie, but it pretty much recovers with Astaire’s subsequent, celebrated tap dance, where he lights off firecrackers and then dances in response to their pop.)
And then there’s the Lincoln’s Birthday number, “Abraham”. In order to prevent Ted from finding out about Linda, Jim hits on a wonderful idea. “I thought it over and I believe the number might over a little better in blackface.” If there’s one reason why this movie faded from public view (at a time when the NAACP was pressuring networks to mothball old tapes with offensive elements), I suspect this is it. The awkwardness is not helped by cuts to Jim’s literally-named Mamie (Louise Beavers) and her children singing along. That the song is partially an ode to Lincoln freeing the slaves only complicates this bizarre racist pageant.
On the commentary track film, historian Ken Barnes attempts to “examine the issue in its proper perspective.” This means trying to excuse blackface a bit to emphatically as an incomprehensible, but at the time perfectly normal, part of a past culture. Minstrelsy is complicated, but this scene is horribly uncomfortable to watch. And perhaps Holiday Inn deserved time out in the cold because of it. But I agree with Barnes that it’s important that we still recognize the existence of this white elephant in the Inn and that it’s wrong for to remove the scene for broadcast (as some television stations have done in the past).
The additional extras are a little bit ho-hum. But a brief history of how the musical sequences were recorded (first the music, then the shooting was dubbed, then the taps were post synced) and how the movie was re-colorized by Legend Films for the second disc (getting better, particularly on backgrounds but still too pastel-hued and uneven on actors) are of some interest.
Jane Huizenga, the Production Director for Legend Films, says that “a lot of the younger people especially have no interest in seeing something in black & white so when you put something in color it gives it a whole new life.” That didn’t happen with the first major wave of colorization occurred in the ‘80s and I would bet that’s even more the case now.
Perhaps I should just resign myself to the inevitable diminishing interest of each successive generation to older entertainments. Still I think Holiday Inn is due for a little popular revival, at least to give people a breather from endless repeats of A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life.