Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Holiday Inn (1942)

Director: Mark Sandrich                                Writers: Claude Binyon & Elmer Rice
Music: Irving Berlin                                      Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale

The precursor to White Christmas, this is actually the first film to contain Crosby’s hit song of the same name. Holiday Inn is the template for the later film with the idea of a nightclub in the country away from New York City but close enough for urban dwellers to drive up and enjoy. For many people, myself included, it’s the more successful of the two. For one thing, it begins as a love triangle rather than a quartet, and then focuses on two separate story lines. The sophistication of Fred Astaire rather than the over-the-top scenery chewing of Danny Kaye is far more enjoyable, as is the lack of the ponderous sentimentality of the later film. This one is actually played for fun and as a result it becomes so.

The film begins with Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Virginia Dale as a nightclub trio, dancing and singing. But Crosby plans on marrying Dale and retiring to the country. Unbeknownst to him, however, she has actually fallen in love with Astaire, and Crosby goes to the country alone. After a year of hard work on the farm, however, Crosby has had enough, and comes upon the idea of having his farmhouse host a variety show on every holiday, making him enough money to live on the rest of the year. Thus, Holiday Inn is born. His first act is newcomer Marjorie Reynolds and they open on New Year’s Eve. But when Astaire loses Dale to a rich Texan and comes out to the Inn drunk, he falls into the arms of Reynolds and they do a great dance routine. Unfortunately, he doesn’t remember who she is and Crosby wants to keep it that way. When Astaire does find her, Crosby thinks he’s going to lose out again and vows to do everything he can to stop it.

The idea for the show came from composer Irving Berlin, who wanted to write a series of songs that corresponded to every holiday. In addition to “White Christmas,” which won him an Oscar for best song that year, he reprised “Easter Parade” from his 1933 show As Thousands Cheer and both songs would eventually go on to have films built around and titled after each. There are some nice comedy bits that bring to mind screwball comedy without completely devolving into that form. And while the songs take on the feeling of a review, the storyline still holds up and the competition between the two leads is well done. Marjorie Reynolds does a great job dancing with Astaire and holds her own in the lead female role. Walter Abel plays the comedic agent of Astaire, and James Bell puts in a brief appearance as a Hollywood studio executive.

It’s pretty clear that the reason for this film’s lack of popularity compared to White Christmas, in addition to the lack of Technicolor, is the racial stereotyping that is prevalent in the film. Crosby has Louise Beavers working for him as a cook, and she has two little children who tag around for comedy relief, sometimes dressed up for the holidays. And if that wasn’t bad enough, when Astaire first comes to look for Reynolds at the Inn on Lincoln’s Birthday, Crosby has the brilliant idea to hide her from Astaire by having them perform in blackface. During the performance the whole band and all of the dancers have blacked up as well. It’s the kiss of death for TV airplay and more than a little embarrassing to watch. That aside, however, it’s an entertaining film, beginning and ending during Christmas, both times featuring Berlin’s signature song. Holiday Inn has a decidedly major flaw, but is a holiday classic nonetheless.

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