I love Christmas, and I love Bing Crosby; but despite this I don’t like his 1954 holiday musical White Christmas which just seemed like an excuse to film a Christmas concert with his friends Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney. Despite this, I was very interested to see his seasonal predecessor Holiday Inn, a film famous for not only inspiring the hotel brand, but for being the debut of a few now classic Irving Berlin Christmas songs.
The story is about Jim Hardy played by Crosby, who was part of a song and dance trio with Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) until Lila broke his heart by falling for Ted. He leaves the group to work on his family farm in Connecticut where a year later he has an idea to lift his spirits. He decides to turn the farm into a hotel called the Holiday Inn which would specialize in lodging and entertaining guests on national holidays. He brings in a young talent called Linda (Marjorie Reynolds) who is looking for a big break, and he begins to romance her. But things get difficult when Ted having been left by Lila, shows up and singles Linda out as his new dance partner.
Sounds like a harmless if not all that exciting romantic comedy and there’s certainly more substance to the plot than in White Christmas. The idea of this specific hotel is cute and I like how individual holidays act as a good pacing device to move the story through a year (but seriously, no Halloween, what the fuck?!). Of course in this regard it’s only half a Christmas movie with the winter holiday just serving as a pair of emotional high points. But between those points, the story feels a little soulless and not all that compelling, despite a unique set-up of transitioning through holidays.
It might be because the characters don’t bring anything new. Starting with Jim. Bing Crosby’s good of course, but he’s playing himself which has always been his best role. He’s a popular musical entertainer just like in White Christmas and High Society, with a personality and charisma pretty much the same as you’d find in any of his concerts or specials. And so it doesn’t really make for an interesting character, nor for one who’s genuine drama you engage with. We don’t see him recover from heartbreak or even see his failed relationship with Lila affect his character apart from providing a background to his conflict with Ted. Also the film relishes in the sentimental which Crosby doesn’t quite convey here, due again to the lack of character in Jim. For the record though, Crosby can be very entertaining when essentially playing himself, especially in the context of a full-on comedy like the Road to… films with Bob Hope. He just doesn’t do so here.
As for Fred Astaire, he was good but possibly a little underused. Astaire was always a better dancer than singer, and his singing was fine, but it’s his energetic choreography that’s remembered best from the likes of Swing Time and Shall We Dance. In Holiday Inn he gets a few chances to shine including a drunken coupling with Linda, but he’s always overshadowed either by Crosby the bigger star, or the plot itself. It’s ironic that Crosby actually gets much more stage-time in this film considering his dancing by comparison is just average. Astaire performs as best he can and though he too has tendency to often play one part, I’ll give him credit that he’s trying to get across a character. Marjorie Reynolds is the only other cast member who stands out and Linda is perhaps the most interesting character. You do buy her aspirations for stardom and she has the talent enough for it. There’s a moment where Jim interferes with her big break and you feel her anger with his actions.
The most famous thing to come from Holiday Inn is the now classic holiday song “White Christmas”. It and the other songs, among which are the well-known “Happy Holidays” and “Easter Parade” were written by Irving Berlin one of the greats of his time. And it’s a testament to his talents that they’re still sung today, hell, “White Christmas” virtually became Crosby’s signature. The scene where he and Reynolds first sing it may be the film’s best, as the pure festiveness of the song in combination with the warm environment, lighting, and atmosphere makes for an unabashedly Christmas moment. It’s slightly corny, like the touch of Crosby hitting the bells on his tree with his pipe for effect, but it works overall. To a lesser extent so do a couple other song sequences. They even work to highlight some of the better comedy bits. I already mentioned the drunken dance but there’s also a scene where Ted and Linda are dancing together on Washington’s Birthday (now Presidents’ Day) and Jim is doing the music, frequently changing the tempo to prevent them from kissing. It’s cute and gets a few laughs. There are definite problems with a couple song sequences though, aside from the fact that a number of them have nothing to do with the plot and are just there to showcase the holiday in question. This movie was made in 1942 and so on Independence Day there’s a rousing song about freedom and the American way, and the importance of the troops fighting the war. It’s overly patriotic and takes you out of the movie, being tonally so at odds with everything else and clearly just inserted in for its nationalistic message. But then again, by the time this song comes up, the audience probably won’t notice -being as they’ll still be reeling from the Lincoln’s Birthday number.
Um… yeah…, there’s blackface in this movie. At one stage in an effort to hide Linda from Ted, Jim puts on a number called “Abraham” in honour of Lincoln’s birthday, and you can guess who all the singers are playing. This makes the film on a whole pretty controversial to say the least. On the one hand, it’s nowhere near Birth of a Nation or The Jazz Singer levels of uncomfortable, largely because it’s brief and unnecessary. But that’s just it, it’s brief and unnecessary. It comes out of nowhere and the plot device it’s conveying could easily have been done in a number of other ways. Though I heavily disagree with edited versions of the film that eliminate this scene (in effect, pretending this kind of minstrel performance never happened), it is incredibly awkward. The song itself isn’t one of the highlights either and a perfect reason why this movie is far from a holiday classic.
However Holiday Inn is not an otherwise good film ruined by racism. Even without the “Abraham” sequence it falls short of being entirely an enjoyable experience. I definitely got more out of it than I did White Christmas. Which is a shame because that film had just as much talent in Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Berlin, and director Michael Curtiz. There are certainly good moments in this film like that first singing of “White Christmas”, some of Astaire’s and Reynold’s scenes, and an occasional nice holiday atmosphere. But it’s got too much in the way of uninteresting characters, a premise that doesn’t quite deliver on a decent idea, and an all too convenient, saccharine ending. In addition to the brief excessive patriotism and racism. Though it gave us a wonderful gift of a timeless song and a perfectly good real-life international hotel chain, it’s certainly not worth joining the ranks of Christmas classics.