Friday, February 19, 2010

Holiday Inn: A Review

Happy Holidays Inn-Deed...

What do you get when you mix a crooner, a hoofer, a couple of girls, and some songs via Berlin? A delightful romp that shows why the movie musical is a uniquely American creation.

Jim, the crooner (Bing Crosby) and Ted, the hoofer (Fred Astaire) are part of a musical trio with Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale). While she's accepted Jim's marriage proposal she's not willing to give up show business and move to a farm, which is exactly what Jim is planning. She dumps him for Ted and the bright lights on what would have been their last performance one Christmas Eve. Jim decides to follow on his plans, but finds life on the farm to be a nightmare. Next Christmas Eve, Jim visits Ted and his old agent and tells them of a new plan: turn his farm into an inn that is open ONLY on holidays. Aspiring singer Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) discovers the agent and he gives her Jim's card so that she can audition for Jim. She and Jim soon fall in love, while Ted discovers to his horror that Lila has dumped HIM to go after a Texas millionaire. Over the course of the following holidays the guys battle it out for Linda's affection and career.

It's a threadbare plot, but we don't care. Holiday Inn has one purpose: to give light entertainment and delightful songs, and it succeeds on a grand scale. For example, we KNOW from the get-go that Jim and Linda are meant to be together, and it's fun seeing how rather silly situations keep them from being together until the last reel. Here we get to see two of the greatest performers of their field: Crosby singing and Astaire dancing. Irving Berlin's songs are beautiful and add the right touch of romance and/or comedy to each scene.

The risk in a concept like Holiday Inn is that the musical numbers could end up repetitive, but director Mark Sandrich ensures that each song (set in a different holiday) has its own mood. For example, the number for George Washington's Birthday (I Can't Tell A Lie) has a great balance while changing the tempo from period music to uptempo jazz, and Astaire's dancing matches each perfectly. There is also the simple elegance of Easter Parade and the amazing number for the 4th of July and Astaire's inventive genius with the firecrackers. A simply amazing number.

The highlight of course is the song White Christmas. It is simple, beautiful, elegant, and nostalgic (curious that it took a Jewish Russian immigrant man to write one of the best and most quintessential American Christmas songs ever written). The song is already brilliant, but adding Crosby's beautiful voice to it makes it even more special. His singing adds greatly to the songs from White Christmas to Easter Parade to the Valentine's Day song that was earmarked as the big number in Holiday InnBe Careful, It's My Heart.

Of course, Astaire can match him with his dancing, like when he crashes the New Year's Eve party at Holiday Inn. He is suppose to be drunk, but even when looking tipsy he still has an extraordinary grace in his movement, as also when he does the Easy To Dance With number at a club or while performing with Reynolds in Be Careful, It's My Heart. It is doubtful that anyone will ever be able to dance like Astaire (with only Gene Kelly being the closest thing to his equal in film). Few films have catered to the specific and extraordinary talents of the performers.

There are a few flaws with the film that date it. For example, the extravagant 4th of July number is very patriotic but its inclusion of footage of both General Douglas MacArthur and President Franklin D. Roosevelt make it a bit of a period piece (and strike me as a touch propaganistic, though given it was made in 1942 I'm willing to forgive it). Even more shocking to modern audiences is the Abraham number for the Lincoln's Birthday sequence. It's already bad enough that Crosby is in blackface, and even more appalling that the only African-American in the cast (Louise Beavers) has to sing a song with a line about Lincoln "setting the darky free" (which in itself is cringe-inducing). What really horrifies is seeing Reynolds in blackface, looking like a frightful and grotesque parody of a pickaninny, down to the white circle around the lips and the hair. For a first-time viewer, it can cause a shock of horror, so be forewarned.

I digress to wonder whether the whole number should be cut. It goes against all my instincts because I'm a firm believer a film should be seen as it was intended to be seen, but I found the whole number so distasteful that I wonder if it might now be better to remove it and include it as a special feature. I've come to the conclusion that it is best to make a brief announcement about it before the film starts, so as to warn the audience and let them decide. Now I should point out that the plot takes great pains to give a REASON for all the make-up, but it doesn't make it any easier to accept. Also, there is nothing in the history of anyone involved in the production that would make us think they were racists. Unfortunately, this sort of thing was just a product of its time, and mercifully so.

That one flaw aside, Holiday Inn is still a delight. Brilliant musical numbers and the extraordinary talents of Crosby and Astaire lift the film to a masterful level. Holiday Inn shows that in a certain way, every day's a holiday.

Update: As part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon I participate from time to time, I wrote about the Abraham number and on the issue of whether it should be removed or not for future releases.

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