Film Reviews

Holiday Inn (1942)

This is part of Family Friendly Reviews’ Christmas Movie Blogathon–for more entries, check the website or #ChristmasMovieBlogathon on Twitter.

Holiday Inn, the 1942 musical that teamed up Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire for the first time, is… mostly a Christmas movie.  It begins and ends at Christmas, of course, and won an Oscar for spawning the classic song, “White Christmas”–which later became a star on its own in the film White Christmas, as well as holding the record as the best-selling song for over 50 years. But Holiday Inn was never designed to be a vehicle for delivering Christmas songs unto a willing audience. Rather, the point was to cover a whole range of holidays throughout the year, from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve, and allow people to accent nearly every moment of their life with a specialized Irving Berlin song. (People at this time already had “God Bless America,” but were sadly lacking any Berlin tunes to play for Thanksgiving, Washington’s Birthday, or many other holidays.) So, though I’m comfortable calling it a Christmas movie, it is a bit of an accidental Christmas movie.

Holiday Inn-newyearsIndeed, one of the most astounding things about watching Holiday Inn is Berlin’s seemingly effortless production of timeless, classic holiday song after timeless, classic holiday song, for ALL holidays. I never would have expected a songwriter to draw such inspiration from presidential birthdays. That’s in part because he wasn’t struggling to come up with a prescribed list of songs to fit the plot–the idea for the film came from him. Or perhaps more accurately, the idea for creating a bevy of holiday songs came to him, and he later dreamed up a loose storyline to connect those songs after connecting with director Mark Sandrich.

Part of what makes Holiday Inn an odd choice for being remembered as a “Christmas movie” is that the values espoused by the characters aren’t particularly nice or warm. The movie opens with Marjorie Reynolds rejecting Crosby’s proposal at the last second to go off dancing with Astaire (an understandable choice, but not particularly kind). Lazy old Crosby decides he not only doesn’t really want to work the nightly dance circuit anymore, but doesn’t really want to work much at all, so he retreats from the limelight by opening an inn upstate that only opens for business on public holidays–he figures he’ll only have to work a few days a year that way. Then, when Reynolds ultimately ditches Astaire for a millionaire, Astaire visits the inn and tries to steal Crosby’s new partner, and new love interest, played by Virginia Dale. Crosby reacts to this by basically locking Dale away and not allowing her to make her own choices, because he’s afraid of losing her. It’s pretty dark, cynical, even bitter at times–this is not a Bass/Rankin special by any means.

Fred Astaire on his way to steal your girl
Fred Astaire on his way to steal your girl

But that’s part of what makes it interesting to me. A lot of Christmas movies are all about the feel-good moments and people who are good and true and kind at heart. But that’s not necessarily real from an everyday perspective. As a Christmas movie, I love Holiday Inn primarily because it’s about flawed people, and flawed people who don’t always get better just because of the date. Holiday Inn has a façade of a happy ending, but I don’t think it particularly sells the fact that things are going to stay this way, or that it’s the “right” ending for each character. And I kind of like that–a little bittersweet chocolate in your Christmas cocoa.

About halfway through filming in 1941, life outside the production took a serious turn–Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War 2. There are lots of stories about how filming was affected by new wartime rations–how Edith Head snatched up every last gold bead in Hollywood for the dresses, or how producers tracked down remaining rubber balloons for the Fourth of July number. It’s unclear exactly how many of these tales were fluff invented by studio publicity, but they were an amusing, escapist bit of gossip for a nation in flux. The most obvious WW2 influence is a short montage of newsreel footage promoting America’s values and military prowess during the Independence Day number. It’s a bit out of place, but given that Astaire’s “Firecracker Number” comes next–one of his greatest dance sequences of all time–I’m willing to overlook it.

By the way, Astaire’s workload for Holiday Inn included three months of rehearsals, two months of filming, and an additional MONTH after filming to repeat his already-complex dances for enhanced audio recording. That certainly required some amazing precision. Unsurprisingly, he reportedly worked through his career’s 600th pair of shoes during production of this film.

Paramount had initially balked at paying for both Crosby and Astaire in the same movie, but eventually relinquished–but did hold out on casting a Ginger Rogers or a Rita Hayworth for the female leads. Instead, they went with an “eleventh hour” call to relative unknowns Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale. Before Holiday Inn, Reynolds had been working steadily in penny westerns, earning her a reign as “queen of the horse operas.” The casting of these actresses alongside such major Hollywood players formed an appealing “Cinderella girl” narrative in the fan magazines, and both Reynolds and Dale enjoyed fawning profiles celebrating their good fortune.

Beyond the obvious rah-rah military numbers, Holiday Inn is also distinctly American in its choices of holidays: half of the celebrations depicted are only holidays in the United States. Sandrich noted that choosing these specific holidays for the film necessarily made it a purely American–and hence patriotic–movie, but, shrugging off any suggestion of valuing propaganda over entertainment, said his intention was only “that you come out of the theater being proud to be an American.”

And I think that’s certainly true–whether or not that was the intention when they set out to start making this movie, the resulting film is imbued with the kinetic kind of patriotism we most typically associate with this early war period. It’s not just the overt military references, but also the warm feeling of nostalgia invoked by focusing on holidays–part of the success of “White Christmas” came from  soldiers requesting the song while overseas, to feel a connection to back home. This movie definitely captures that feeling, even with–or maybe because of–the rough edges.

Check out the rest of the Christmas Movie Blogathon entries here:

10 thoughts on “Holiday Inn (1942)”

  1. Surely there were no bigger musical stars at the time than Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and it is a thrill to see them in a movie together for the first time. I liked Virginia Dale as the Lila and Marjorie Reynolds as Linda. They were good foils and partners for the fellows. However, Walter Abel darn near steals the thing for me as their manager Danny. The story works perfectly well as a very funny movie without music, but with Irving’s songs it is truly classic and so much fun to watch. It’s one of my New Year’s Eve movies. Like a grand party, it’s a perfect December film and choice for the blogathon. Well done!

    1. Yes, I love that you could make a case for watching it on pretty much any holiday–which I’m sure was partly Berlin’s intentions :)

      I remember even as a kid being astounded that they could get Bing AND Fred into one movie, and complex debates with my mom about whether we’d rather have a partner who sang or one who danced!

  2. My mother and I love this movie! Every Christmas she brings out her copy to watch. it was a joy to see Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby share the screen. Sometimes I find myself singing “Lazy.” Irving Berlin was pure genius. Thank you for all of the interesting information in your article.

    1. Thanks for reading! Berlin really makes it look easy here… I feel like I’m going to have these songs stuck in my head for the next year! (Not that I’m complaining…)

  3. Love the animated gif! :)

    Thanks for participating in the Christmas Movie Blogathon! I still haven’t seen this movie but I’m looking forward to it now…I always like to hear the stories behind the production and they make me want to watch the films even more!

  4. First, thank you so much for the kind comment in my blog!
    Now, waht a great review of a film I love so much! All the joy in this film contrasts well with the flaws of the characters. And how much I want an Irving Berlin song for each holiday!
    Merry Christmas!

  5. What a wonderful review of what is, in my opinion, an under-valued classic. I’d never really considered it as a ‘Christmas’ film before, but you certainly persuaded me. I’ve always really admired the decision to cast Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale, as it made it much less of a ‘starry’ film – with Rita or Ginger it would’ve become just about the actors. Astaire and Crosby carry it far enough.
    Merry Christmas!

    1. Thanks! I may have shoehorned in the Christmas designation so I could watch it, but it’s certainly a perfect “holiday” movie… for about 9 months out of the year.

      A Happy New Year to you!

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