Holiday Inn (1942)

"Holiday Inn" featured image

Holiday Inn (1942). 102 minutes. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Starring Bing Crosby (as Jim Hardy), Fred Astaire (as Ted Hanover), Marjorie Reynolds (as Linda Mason), Virginia Dale (as Lila Dixon), and Walter Abel (as Danny Reed). Story and songs by Irving Berlin. Choreography by Danny Dare.

Holiday Inn is a clever, Christmas-oriented spin on the “let’s put on a show” variety of Golden Age musical. It features Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as New York stage entertainers. Along with Virginia Dale, they form a song-and-dance trio that at the beginning of the film is slated for its farewell performance. Lila Dixon (played by Dale) plans to marry Jim Hardy (played by Crosby) and retire with him to a farm in Connecticut, but on the evening of their last show she reveals that she is in love with Ted Hanover (played by Astaire) and keen to keep on singing and dancing with him.  Crosby recovers quickly and in stride in a way that is characteristic of most of his movie characters, and he elects to retire to the farm anyway, where the daily grind of rural life slowly drives him mad. He reappears in New York at Hanover’s show a year later, fresh from the sanitarium, with an ingenious idea: he will stay on the farm but will transform it into a country nightclub, only to be open on major holidays.

Meanwhile, aspiring singer Linda Mason (played by Marjorie Reynolds), eager to become a part of show business, contrives to win an audition for Hardy’s Holiday Inn.  The two quickly develop feelings for one another, and Hardy casts her in his show. Hanover, who by now has been deserted by Lila, comes to Hardy’s first show of the year to see what his old partner is up to.  When he arrives, he is intoxicated, the result of drowning his sorrows earlier in the evening in New York, and he ends up dancing a limp, drunken dance on the floor of the club with Dale. Although Hanover can barely remember what he did the next morning, he and his drunken dance are a sensation.  Only his agent, Danny Reed, can recall the mysterious person Hanover danced with, but only from behind.  Their limited memories make for a few nights of silliness, where they attend the inn’s performances in the hopes of locating the mystery girl. As Hanover circulates the room trying out dancing partners, Reed stares down the girls’ backsides to see if they match his memory.  Finally, Hanover rediscovers Dale and persuades Hardy to allow him to become a fixture in the show with her, but Hardy worries that Hanover will once again run off with his love interest.

The holiday-themed songs that Hanover, Hardy, and Dale perform over the course of the year were all written by Irving Berlin, most of them specifically for this film.  The performances fall on New Year’s Eve (“Happy Holiday”/”Let’s Start the New Year Right”), Lincoln’s Birthday (“Abraham”), Valentine’s Day (“Be Careful, It’s My Heart”), Washington’s Birthday (“I Can’t Tell a Lie”), Easter (“Easter Parade”), and the Fourth of July (“Let’s Say It with Firecrackers”).  “Abraham” is, even by the standards of the time, a regrettable blackface number, yet it is unique insofar as it is designed by Hardy at the last minute to disguise Mason on stage so that Hanover will not recognize her.  The makeup and attire are thus about concealing identity and contribute to the comic plot.  It is interesting to note, though, that while for the film audience, the blackface element ostensibly has more to do with plot than a strong desire to participate in the rhetoric of minstrel shows, the live audience at Holiday Inn, who do not know about the plot contrivance, must experience the “Abraham” number as a straightforward blackface performance.  We, as film viewers, watch with access to both understandings, and this creates an intriguing tension: are we meant to enjoy the scene as a complex comedy independent of the blackface, or do we succumb to the world of the Inn’s audience? I suspect the answer is a mixture of both. The resulting sequence is distasteful and usually cut when the movie airs on television.

Particularly astonishing is the Fourth of July routine, which Hanover dances solo. With his partner Dale delayed, he improvises by grabbing two handfuls of fireworks, lights a cigarette, and enters the stage alone.  His performance begins impeccably as he intertwines his tap steps with firecrackers that explode when tossed on the floor.  Hanover’s taps and the explosives are in perfect sync with the music, and he suavely shuffles along while puffing on the cigarette the entire time.  He then ramps up the performance by using the cigarette to light a second kind of firecracker that has to burn before it crackles, complicating the dance’s timing.  A devious look passes over Hanover’s face as he does this, heightening our sense that pleasure, playfulness, and experimentation are driving the performance. The whole act has an astonishing feeling of spontaneity and unpredictability to it, both because in the dramatic context, Hanover is improvising and also because we know that outside of the dance’s fiction, it takes quite a bit of luck for the firecrackers to explode at exactly the right time.  There is also a real element of danger: only at the end, when the music reaches a climax and Hanover begins twirling wildly about the stage, do we notice that for the dance’s conclusion, additional explosives have been rigged to the dance floor and are going off close to Hanover and his feet.  It is one of the coolest, riskiest, and most exciting numbers that Astaire ever danced and provides evidence of how innovative and experimental he could be as a performer.

Towards the end of the film, Dale and Hanover are offered parts in a movie about Hardy’s unique inn, and they fly off to Hollywood to star in the production.  Hardy is left alone and miserable, reading in fan magazines about the relationship that may or may not be developing between Dale and Hanover, until his housekeeper persuades him to fly to Hollywood to win Dale back. At the movie studio where Dale and Hanover are filming, Hardy enters a soundstage and the camera reveals one of the strangest sights I have seen in a movie that has no pretensions to surrealism. It is the set for the movie being made about the Holiday Inn, on which Dale is about to film her final scene—except that it is not just a Hollywood set that has been constructed for the movie within the movie: it is the actual set that we have been watching for most of Holiday Inn.  In other words, the simulation of the inn is just the actual set that the rest of the movie took place on, except that now we are seeing it as a set, rather than as a real farm in Connecticut.

This moment in the movie reminds me of the final scene in White Christmas (1954),  where the stage show that Bing Crosby puts on in the old Vermont barn transforms as the backdrop is moved aside to reveal the world outside of the barn performance covered in falling snow.  In both movies, the performance space mingles with the external fiction of the movie in a complex way. However, whereas the moment of revelation in White Christmas deconstructs the fiction of the finale’s performance to the audience in the barn who are watching Crosby sing, the moment of revelation in Holiday Inn deconstructs the fiction of the entire movie. In Holiday Inn, we are reminded not just of how expertly the Hollywood of the movie has recreated Hardy’s inn, but of just how expertly the real Hollywood invented Hardy’s inn in the first place.  And if we believe that what Dale and Hanover are doing in Hollywood is exceptional in its reproduction of Hardy’s real life that is accurate down to the most minute detail, then to a certain extent we must also consent that what the whole movie is doing is exceptional, too—after all, Dale and Hanover’s film is merely reproducing something, whereas Holiday Inn is manufacturing it from scratch.

There are further similarities between White Christmas and Holiday Inn: White Christmas is another Crosby film that focuses on putting on a show at an East Coast inn at Christmastime, with the song “White Christmas” as its centerpiece—but the now ubiquitous “White Christmas”  was actually written especially for Holiday Inn over ten years earlier.  “White Christmas” is a marvelous secular Christmas song, primarily because of its melancholy overtones, and it is warmly and richly sung by Crosby in both movies.  It is hard to imagine a time before “White Christmas” was synonymous with the Christmas season, when it was possible to see Holiday Inn in the theater and hear the song in a fresh way.

Holiday Inn combines one of the most intriguing voices in movies (Crosby’s) with some of the most life-affirming dancing in movies (Astaire’s) and mixes them up with the pleasures and comforts of the American calendar.  And yet I cannot leave you without mentioning this: there is something very wrong about this picture.  The problem lies primarily in the love story. Crosby’s character Hardy, who is in love with Dale and becomes perplexed and saddened when she runs off with Astaire’s character Hanover, ultimately triumphs when he flies to Hollywood and woos her back.  In other words, Bing wins over Astaire—but this is quite wrong.  Controversial as it may seem, and much as I admire Crosby’s singing and easy-going screen persona, I find Astaire by far the more charming man.  He’s got the moves, the wit, and the savoir faire.  Even his singing is, I must admit, to me preferable to Crosby’s—and Astaire sings in his usual lovely way all throughout the picture.  I always feel cheated when I see him lose at the end of this movie.  Irving Berlin, I don’t know what you were thinking.