A quick glance at the calendar reveals we’ve reached peak holiday season. I’ve got a to-do list that would make Santa sweat—gifts to buy and food preparation for holiday parties. And I’ve still not managed to put my tree up.
There hasn’t even been time for a Hallmark Holiday movie, one of my favorite indulgences.
But there’s always time for Bing.
Bing Crosby was an entertainment icon in the 1940s, a singer and actor who was a pioneer in early audio recording. He’s an Academy Award Winner with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was a major influence on Frank Sinatra.
But today, he’s mostly known as the singer of “White Christmas,” one of the best-selling songs of all time.
It was the cornerstone song of the 1954 classic musical White Christmas, but it was not the first time Bing crooned the Irving Berlin classic in a movie.
He sang it a dozen years earlier in 1942’s Holiday Inn.
Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire play Jim Hardy and Ted Hanover, a pair of singing and dancing showmen. Jim has plans to marry his co-star Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) and retire to a quiet life as a farmer. When Lilia decides she wants to continue in show business, she jilts Jim and runs off with Ted.
Jim turns his farm into the Holiday Inn, a resort that is only open on holidays. Jim and his band put on singing and dancing extravaganzas, and they only have to work 15 days a year.
(Tell that to those rehearsing.)
He hires Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) as his lead dancer and they’re soon in love. They’re about to get engaged when Ted Hanover turns up after Lilia jilts him for a millionaire.
Soon Ted and Jim are once again in love with the same woman.
Will Linda stay at the rustic Holiday Inn for a quiet life with Jim or will the promise of movie fame dancing with Ted lure her to Hollywood?
Holiday Inn is a magical delight, funny, romantic, and filled with first-rate singing and dancing.
Fred Astaire absolutely outdoes himself in the dance sequences—for their Independence Day celebration, he did a tap dance with firecrackers that took 38 takes before he was satisfied.
A perfectionist on every level, no one held Astaire to a higher standard than the one he set for himself.
As was typical for him, he lost over twenty pounds during the filming of Holiday Inn due to the rigors of his rehearsals.
And my particular favorite is when he shows up at the inn drop down drunk and still manages to dance with Linda on New Year’s Eve.
And if you doubt just how good Ginger Rogers was, know that Astaire requested a stand-in for Marjorie Reynolds for some of their dances in Holiday Inn, something never required of Ginger. Astaire and Rogers scenes were often an uncut shot of a single take. In the President’s Day number in Holiday Inn, you can see cuts and a wide angle shot as a double is subbed in for Reynolds.
The film is not quite as well remembered as such classics as It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), or Miracle on 34th Street (1947) for several reasons. First, it’s not a Christmas movie in the strictest sense of the word, but a holiday film. It’s also been eclipsed by White Christmas, where the famous song is put on stronger display and Rosemary Clooney provides female star power.
And as most of the musicals in the 1930s and early 40s, Holiday Inn contains a number done in blackface. While seen as beyond the pale today, in Holiday Inn the number in question is a celebration of Abraham Lincoln and the emancipation of American slaves. It is of its time, meant as a celebration and not as a symbol of disrespect.
However, the modern injunction against blackface means that this film wasn’t often shown on network television. The blackface number was often cut from showings in the 1980s, though it is restored today when shown on TCM or streaming services.
Especially before the internet, repetition on network television was the way a movie wormed its way not just into the public’s heart, but their very consciousness. Films like The Wizard of Oz endure today because adults of a certain age watched them year after year on television when they were children.
And that goes double for Christmas films.
Viewers will have to decide for themselves if the blackface in Holiday Inn is a dealbreaker, but it’s really a wonderfully charming holiday film.
And Astaire’s firecracker dance should not be regulated to the dust bin of history.
- Giddins, Gary. Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946. 2018.
- Ben Mankiewicz Turner Classic Movies Film Introduction
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