Holiday Inn (1942)

When it’s on: Thursday, 28 December (5.40 am)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

There are several reasons why they don’t make films like Holiday Inn anymore. First, let’s get this out of the way – the Abraham song, performed on Lincoln’s Birthday (a Bank Holiday in Connecticut, where the film’s largely set) by Bing Crosby and his band in blackface, adding a ‘comedy’ black intonation to his lyrics. I don’t want to dwell on it because of the time when the film was made, but it’s there and unavoidable. Second, consider the big musical movie hit of the last twelve months, La La Land, its plot focusing on the rather chaste and sweet-natured romance and relationship between two characters, who then suffer the strain of their professions taking them in separate directions. Now, here’s a summary of Holiday Inn’s story:

Bing Crosby is engaged to Virginia Dale, his singing partner. However, the third member of the act, Fred Astaire, steals her away, leaving Bing to move to his farm in Connecticut alone. Recovering from his broken heart and turning the farm he’s unsuited to running into the eponymous Holiday Inn (so called because it’s only open on public holidays), Bing begins experiencing success again and sparks a cautious romance with Marjorie Reynolds, who he employs to sing with him. But then Fred turns up, having lost Virginia to a millionaire, likes the look of the winsome Marjorie and spends the rest of the film trying to snatch her away for marriage and the formation of a new dancing partnership…

That Fred Astaire – what a bastard, right? Some pal he turned out to be! Of course, in a plot that serves to link the songs together it’s all portrayed as innocent, knockabout fun, all’s fair in love and war, etc, and while Astaire essentially destroyed Crosby’s life in the opening act the pair remain friends. With the focus more on the talents involved in the picture, it’s up there with the best of them. Irving Berlin’s songs, 14 of which are used, are exquisite. Crosby and Astaire are both in top form, their abilities as the pinnacle of their individual crafts shown off to stunning effect, and there’s a chocolate box sheen to it that’s never less than warm and fuzzy. Holiday Inn itself, frequently shown wreathed in pristine, virgin snow, is the sort of venue you dream of staying at, and indeed inspired Kemmons Wilson to start his own chain of ‘Holiday Inn’ hotels – there are now over 1,000 of them worldwide. There’s even an oblique breaking of the fourth wall, when Crosby goes to Hollywood to see the production of the film based on his little hotel being shot, and discovers in a studio the perfect replica of it. It’s a wink to the audience, an acknowledgement of Holiday Inn’s sense of artifice, but without overstating the point it’s a nice little touch that’s only there if you want it to be.

Holiday Inn was directed by Mark Sandrich, best remembered for the hit movies he made with Astaire for RKO in the previous decade. Sandrich knew how to work with a supreme talent like Mr ‘Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little‘ and how to create the confectionery worlds of their films, which ever projected untroubled fantasies and emphasised the showcasing of Astaire’s act over the drama. Consider Top Hat, their best known and probably best collaboration, and its aim to dazzle viewers with Astaire’s dancing genius and make them forget about the Depression era taking place outside the cinema, and you get why these films were such a hit and changed the face of the Hollywood musical. Sandrich insisted on hiring Astaire for Holiday Inn, despite Paramount’s misgivings over the film’s rising production costs, though the director appreciated the obvious – that having Astaire and Crosby performing Berlin’s musical waxings was a direct translation into beautiful cinema. Watching it now, it’s near impossible to argue against this.

The studio saved a little money on using a relative unknown like Reynolds as its female lead. The ‘Saddle Cinderella’ was little known outside Westerns produced by Poverty Row studios and represented a cheap hire over Sandrich’s casting suggestions of Rita Hayworth and even Ginger Rogers, both of course prior on-screen dance partners for Astaire. Reynolds never used her appearance in Holiday Inn as a springboard to real stardom, but she’s perfectly sweet and charming in the film, holding her own against her male partners. One sequence really shows off her abilities. Performing a dance number with Astaire, the pair’s brief is to minuet romantically for Washington’s Birthday. But Crosby, aware and fearful of the spark of romance between them, sabotages the moments when they pause to kiss by changing the tempo to a frenetic jazz number, prompting the pair to switch to a faster paced dance routine, before reverting to the original music. It’s a complicated scene that must have been hell to film, and your eyes are on Astaire as he has to both switch seamlessly between dancing style while scowling his rising exasperation to Crosby, but Reynolds has to perform it also and never falters.

Astaire’s work was designed to stretch his talent, the product of an admirable work ethic that insisted he pulled off multi-layered turns that had never been seen before, when of course he could have produced more of the same to earn his money. This is displayed to best effect in the firecracker dance. Reynolds has failed to show for a number the pair are meant to perform for the Independence Day celebration, so Astaire is told to ‘improvise’ a solo routine, which he does with an energetic number that features him setting off firecrackers exploding in time with the beat. It took two days and multiple takes to get the sequence right, which makes it a real salute to Astaire’s sheer dedication to his craft.

Next to it, the best known moment is almost certainly Crosby’s performance of the song White Christmas, as a trivial side note written for this film rather than the more obvious White Christmas. Crosby plays it with absolute simplicity, sat at his piano within the snowbound confines of his charming hotel, and that combination of the setting, the lovely sentiments of the lyrics and naturally the star’s velvet vocals are more than enough to transform it into a classic, indeed the song has gone on to join an exclusive club of the 13 singles that have sold 15 million or more copies worldwide.

As cinema, Holiday Inn is the equivalent of comfort food, the dramatic tensions suggested by its plot never amounting to more than the next song and dance number, the inimitable winning qualities of Louise Beavers’s house servant, the many screwball comic moments, the warm hug of Berlin’s music. Certain elements ensure that it’s utterly of its time, such as the tribute Crosby performs to America’s armed forces as the country entered World War Two. Ultimately Holiday Inn is rooted in a more innocent and less knowing cinematic era, but even now there’s little here that isn’t simply enjoyable. The two main stars are at the height of their powers, and the talent they bring to the film make it a real joy to watch.

Holiday Inn: ****

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15 Replies to “Holiday Inn (1942)”

  1. I like this a lot. That star pairing is hard to beat and their respective talents are shown off well. You’re right that the drama is never explored or exploited to any extent, but I think (speaking now from my admittedly limited experience of the genre) that the classic Hollywood musicals tended towards that approach more often than not.

    1. Thanks Colin, completely agree. Because of my own limited knowledge of musicals and screwball comedy set-ups, I generally watch these things with better experience of the more dramatic genres, particularly Noir, and thought it would be fun to imagine this story from that perspective. No harm done in HOLIDAY INN, of course, which is entirely the point, but in the sort of films I am more likely to see it would be very different…

      On an unrelated note, BBC iPlayer currently has THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS available and I caught it last night, which I believe marked the ‘star making’ appearance of Stephen Boyd. Really liked the film, quite suspenseful considering most of it is just planning, but once Boyd turns up it becomes something more sinister and he very much commands the screen. You can certainly see what the fuss surrounding him was all about – very good stuff.

      1. Yes, I think I first stumbled on that film quite by chance on a TV broadcast many years ago. Despite, or maybe because of, the detailed build up and planning, I found myself drawn in and then, as you say, Boyd shows up and drives it all along nicely till the end. A very good movie indeed.

      2. It’s certainly one of those films that sounds quite dull in the telling, and yet it’s that attention to detail – the love letter from Gloria Grahame, etc, included with the dead marine’s documents – that adds a note of authenticity. I haven’t read a lot about it but it seems the film is based on a true story and is reasonably faithful apart from the completely fictional spy story featuring Boyd, but he electrifies its last third and comes across as imposing and dangerous, despite doing little more than rely on sheer physical appearance.

      3. I think it is those little asides and bits of business that keep you aware that a proper human story is unfolding amid the intrigue. Lots of little character moments combine to create this effect, and then as you say, there’s Boyd later on and the air of menace he brings.

  2. This is a better movie that WHITE CHRISTMAS admittedly, though I love the later version too as it was directed by my all time fave studio director, Mike Curtiz. But I know what you mean – in real life if I got mucked about by a so-called “friend” more than gentle banter would follow!

    1. Thanks Sergio – wouldn’t it be a lovely world if all such ‘messings around’ could be resolved with a song and dance number? As for Curtiz, I can absolutely see where you’re coming from – so many classics, with the romanticism and Errol Flynn’s merry Robin making THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD one of my all-time favourites. I have THE EGYPTIAN on my long, long list of classics that I need to see – historical epic, great cast (love Victor Mature in this setting), and of course Curtiz.

      1. One shouldn’t get me started on Curtiz but .. I mean, – look at the output!

        Horror
        DR X
        MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM
        THE WALKING DEAD

        Film Noir
        MILDRED PIERCE
        THE BREAKING POINT
        THE UNSUSPECTED

        Dramas
        FOUR DAUGHTERS
        CASABLANCA

        Period films
        THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX
        THE SEA WOLF

        Comedies
        LIFE WITH FATHER

        Mysteries
        THE KENNEL MURDER CASE

        Gangster / Crime
        20,000 YEARS IN SING SING
        ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES

        Swashbucklers
        CAPTAIN BLOOD
        CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE
        THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD
        THE SEA HAWK

        Westerns
        DODGE CITY
        THE COMANCHEROS

        Musicals
        YANKEE DOODLE DANDY
        THIS IS THE ARMY
        WHITE CHRISTMAS
        KING CREOLE

        And tons more besides 🙂

      2. Ha ha clearly shouldn’t get you started! But doubtless that’s an impressive body of work, some – quite a lot! – I haven’t seen. Still, many I have and surely anyone with an interest in classic cinema should have at least one of these at the top of their favourites list. Reminds me, we normally set up a viewing of CASABLANCA over the Christmas period, more out of habit and the sheer pleasure of it than for any better reason (of course there doesn’t need to be a reason at all :))

      1. Quite right. By the way, that blackface sequence does stand out nowadays. It is integrated into the plot and exists for a reason – even if it’s a tad weak – other than sheer bloody-mindedness, but still it gives one pause. Couldn’t really fault much else.

  3. I’m sure it only really hits a bum note because it’s a 75 year old movie that’s being shown in more keenly observed and sensitive times – I didn’t want to dwell on it too much because criticising any classic for being ‘of its time’ and innocently done, rather than deliberately making an unsavoury statement, is ultimately redundant, though it is there and can’t be ignored. Perhaps it’s for this reason that I’ve never sat through THE BIRTH OF A NATION, though I’m also intrigued to know whether the film’s racist elements are actually present, or if it’s modern politically correct sensibilities being applied to a very old film featuring similarly old attitudes… Then there’s the part of me that knows it’s an important landmark and ought to be watched on those merits alone, but that’s another story…

    As for HOLIDAY INN the Song of Freedom is just as jarring in the way it thrusts the real world into a fluffy romantic fantasy, And yet both songs are quite lovely and performed beautifully, and these elements aside there’s the dancing of Fred Astaire that raises just about anything to the heights.

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