Every year a dozen Christmas movies are made, but not all of them are good. Throughout the Christmas Season PCA Retro Review features the best in Christmas films that will entertain, shock, delight…and not star Tim Allen!
Holiday Inn (1942) – Remember last year when you watched White Christmas and thought to yourself “Wow. This movie isn’t all that good. I thought it was supposed to be a classic?” Well, what happened is you watched the wrong movie. The movie you should have watched was Holiday Inn, the film in which Bing Crosby first sang the classic holiday hit White Christmas! Pairing together Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire with the music of Irving Berlin, Holiday Inn is not only one of the most delightful original musicals ever to come out of Hollywood, but is more then a Christmas movie. It is twelve holidays packed into one, celebrating all of the American holidays from New Year to Thanksgiving! However, with the majority of the drama taking place during the yultide season, Holiday Inn will always be predominantly remembered as a Christmas movie.
Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire play song and dance team Jim Hardy and Ted Hanover, who, when the film opens, are about to perform their final show together. Jim plans to marry entertainer Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale), retire from show business and go into farming. Ted and Lila, however, have other plans and Lila leaves Jim for Ted to continue as his dance partner. Jim spends a year farming but has a nervous breakdown and ends up in a sanitarium where he comes up with a brilliant idea. He plans to turn his farm into an inn that is open only on holidays, and have a brand new original show each holiday with a big band, singers, dancers and the whole shebang. Jim auditions aspiring entertainer Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) and, falling in love with her, makes her his partner at the inn which is to be opened on New Years Eve. But when a jilted and drunk Ted Hanover shows up at the grand opening, having just had Lila run out on him with a Texas oilman, Ted dances with Linda to the excitement of the crowd. Unfortunately for Ted, he can’t remember what she looked like the next morning due to his state of intoxication. Thus a cat and mouse game begins between Jim and Ted as Ted and his excitable manager Danny Reed (Walter Abel) show up at the inn each holiday in search for the mysterious girl, while Jim tries to keep Linda away from them fearing he’ll lose another love to his former partner.
In 1942 Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire were two of the biggest leading men in the film industry. Pairing them together for Holiday Inn was pure genius and finally the two titans of the musical genre were brought together beautifully, ensuring the success fo the film Originally Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth were suggested to play the two female leads of the film, but Paramount could barely afford to put Astaire and Crosby in the same film, thus Virginia Dale and Marjorie Reynolds, both minor actresses, were far more affordable and are charming enough to enhance Crosby and Astaire’s performances. It is a mystery just why Dale and Reynolds didn’t go on to far bigger careers as a result of the success of Holiday Inn.
Bing Crosby plays the typical role that made him popular with audiences – laid back, charming and slightly sad. No wonders women loved him. Jim Hardy was the perfect role to help further establish Crosby’s public persona. It is Fred Astaire who goes out on a limb and defies type casting by playing a total asshole, albeit a charming and likeable one. In the role of Ted Hangover, Astaire is a girl stealing double crosser who is always thinking of himself, and his career, thus abusing his friendship with Jim. Possibly film’s first douche bag, Ted Hanover was a risky role for Fred Astaire to play, but he does it with a sense of class and charisma which still makes it impossible for the audience to hate him. Furthermore, Astaire does some of his most creative dance numbers ever in Holiday Inn, including a dynamic tap number involving lighting firecrackers with a cigarette and exploding them at his feet, and his intoxicated dance routine with Marjorie Reynolds in the New Years scene in which it was rumored that Astaire purposely got drunk on bourbon to perform (that’s what you call method acting). Even after nine glasses of bourbon, Astaire dances with pure perfection.
Of course the real star of Holiday Inn is the music by Irving Berlin. Berlin first came up with the idea for Holiday Inn after composing Easter Parade for the 1933 Broadway musical As Thousand Cheer. After the success of the song, Berlin got the idea to do an entire musical made up of holiday themed songs. Berlin reused Easter Parade in Holiday Inn, and it was later used again as the inspiration for the 1948 film of the same name. A number of the songs for Holiday Inn have become part of the musical cannon, including the Happy Holiday intro of Come to Holiday Inn, I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For and You’re Easy to Dance With. Berlin also included his earlier hit, Lazy, as part of the soundtrack. Yet not all the musical numbers work. The musical number for Washington’s Birthday, I Can’t Tell a Lie, is lyrically forced, and the number is only saved by the comical dance number which is worked into the film as part of Jim’s plot to keep Ted from kissing Linda. The Independence Day number, Song of Freedom, sounds too similar to the Lincoln’s Birthday number, Abraham, which is a much stronger number, and is accompanied by an awful patriotic montage (it was, of course, the height of WWII). The montage isn’t awful because of content, but is uninspired and lacks creativity or imagination compared to a decent patriotic montage such as Frank Capra’s montage in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Song of Freedom is the only mar on what is almost a perfect film, but it is saved by Fred Astaire’s performance of Let’s Say it with Firecrackers. Not all the musical numbers are memorable, but they range from above average to musical masterpieces.
Of course, the most famous musical number to come out of Holiday Inn is White Christmas which, in the film, is sang beautifully as a duet between Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds (who’s voice was reportedly dubbed by Martha Mears). Personally, I prefer the song as a duet between the pair and am shocked that recordings of the track are nearly impossible to find considering that it has never been commercially available. When Holiday Inn was first released, the Valentine Day number, Be Careful, It’s My Heart, was the song that the studio predicted would be the hit and Crosby’s version of the song was the first record cut commercially for the film. However, history would prove that White Christmas would be the big seller. With the WWII in full force, White Christmas became an anthem for soldier’s overseas and for their families back home missing their loved ones. Released commercially for Christmas 1942, Crosby’s version of White Christmas raced to the top of the Billboard charts for the final week of October and remained there for eleven weeks. It would return to the top of the charts again in 1943, as well as 1946 and 1947. To date no other song has reached the number one position as many times as White Christmas. More importantly, Crosby’s recording of White Christmas sold over fifty million copies and would hold the record for the highest selling single of all time for an astonishing fifty five years until it was topped by Elton John’s reworking of Candle in the Wind released prior to Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Naturally White Christmas won the Academy Award for best song at the 1943 Oscars, and it has become possibly the most important Christmas song of the 20th Century.
With the song White Christmas still maintaining its popularity in 1954 Paramount decided to exploit its lasting power by casting Bing Crosby in a film titled White Christmas. The studio tried to get Fred Astaire to join him, but Astaire wisely backed out, but the crew returned to the same inn which they filmed the earlier picture, and brought back the music of Irving Berlin. For the most part, White Christmas is a less inspired film then Holiday Inn. While Holiday Inn was a totally original concept, White Christmas seems far more forced. Yet, with White Christmas being the actual title of the movie, it has managed to eclipse Holiday Inn in populairty despite being a far inferior film.
So if Holiday Inn is so good, why doesn’t it get shown on television every year like the rest of the holiday films? A big part of that has to do with the number revolving around Lincoln’s Birthday. For the Abraham number, Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds don black face in a giant minstrel show inspired musical number. Reynolds’ costume itself is way over the top, and despite the fact that it is a celebration of the freedom of African American’s from Southern slavery; the entire number is terribly misguided. In fact, at one point actress Louise Beavers, who plays the stereotypical “Mamie” role to the point that her characters name is actually Mamie, sings to her children “When black folks lived in slavery/Who was it that set the darkies free/Abraham, Abraham.” For years stations aired Holiday Inn on television, cutting out the sequence entirely despite the fact that a number of key plot points take place during the sequence, including Crosby and Reynolds’ characters getting engaged, and Ted and his manager starting their search for the mysterious blonde. Eventually, most networks just became nervous about running the film altogether with it’s dated and insensitive portrayal of black culture, and dropped it from most stations. Currently American Movie Classics is the only station in the US that continues to air Holiday Inn during the holidays. Yet, when put into it’s historical context, it is obvious that the people involved in the making of Holiday Inn where not deliberately trying to be racist as much as they were ignorant to their subject matter and it becomes a glaring look at the ignorance of Hollywood in regards to ethnic stereotyping during the golden age of cinema.
And for those who are wondering, yes, the hotel chain did take their name from the film Holiday Inn. Opening the franchise in 1952, founder Kemmon Wilson had the name Holiday Inn suggest to him by one of his architects as a joke, but the idea stuck with him. Today Holiday Inn is one of the most popular hotel chains world wide with over two thousand locations! The hotel chain is opened more then fifteen times a year, and there is no musical extravaganza, but you can get a nice room at a reasonable price, and the spirit of the film lives on.
Holiday Inn has its share of flaws, but the flaws are few and far between. If you’ve never seen Holiday Inn, bypass White Christmas this year and watch the film which started the White Christmas phenomena. If you have seen it, relive the magic of Crosby, Astaire and Berlin and share it with your family and friends. It’s a film that lasts all year long, but is pure perfection for the Christmas season.