It's quite rare to find someone who hasn't watched, or at least heard of, White Christmas. The ultimate holiday classic from 1954 has managed to delight generations of movie fans, immortalize Bing Crosby as a household name and forever cement the on-screen rendition of an iconic winter tune, named the best-selling single of all time, in plenty of hearts. Every winter, I come across White Christmas in one fashion or another — whether it's streaming on Netflix, cropping up as a Blu-Ray online or running as a special feature in theaters (a Fathom Events presentation always come to mind when I think of all the ways I've personally enjoyed this film). But while I certainly don't mind reliving the yuletide magic of White Christmas and will continue to do so for years to come, I am not here to talk about it. Instead, I will shift my focus to a similar musical that preceded it, one that deserves to be discovered by anyone who has yet to experience it.
Following its release in 1942, Holiday Inn became one of the top-grossing films of the year. Critics loved it, hailing the picture for its visual strengths, comedic touches, infectious dancing, top-notch acting and first-rate soundtrack. You name it, and Holiday Inn had it. Even without the visually stunning Technicolor treatment that benefitted so many of the musicals everyone knows and loves, the black and white masterpiece (which was later released in a colorized version I've never seen) is just as impressive. If anything, it actually paves the way for White Christmas, Bing and a Connecticut-turned-Vermont movie set to follow in its footsteps. And that's really where this holiday tale begins.
Although movie shorts were his primary focus throughout the 1920s and 1930s, director Mark Sandrich carved out a name for himself when the first "official" Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical — 1934's The Gay Divorcee — proved to be a tremendous success. The well-greased wheels of a cultural phenomenon were set in motion, and Mark was in for the ride of a lifetime as Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance and Carefree followed closely behind. It is of little wonder, then, that Mark was the right match for Holiday Inn and the talented performers who were chosen to bring it to life. Both Ginger and Rita Hayworth were considered for the musical, but neither made the cut as the director decided to balance the budget and invest in the casting of two leading male stars.
Part of the reason why Holiday Inn is so unforgettable is the surefire pairing of Fred Astaire with Bing Crosby — simply put, a match made in heaven. Jim Hardy (Bing) is the golden-voiced singer working alongside his stage partner, Ted Hanover (Fred), a tap-dancing extraordinaire. A strong sense of camaraderie is coupled with a little friendly competition as both men showcase their multifaceted skills and blur the lines between song and dance. The act is also rounded out by the lovely Virginia Dale in the role of Lila Dixon, who adds allure to the opening performance of "I'll Capture Your Heart Singing."
Jim's plans to retire turn sour when Lila, who has fallen in love with Ted, breaks off their engagement. The act is dissolved as Jim moves to a small town in Connecticut and attempts to lead a "Lazy" life. When Jim's daily routine of working his farm doesn't turn out the way he had hoped, he makes a life-changing decision that marks an important turning point in the story. An inspired plan to turn his Midville farm into a unique entertainment venue sets the stage for a kaleidoscope of eight national holidays that result in a series of one-of-a-kind, unforgettable production numbers. In that regard, Holiday Inn is no longer a Christmas film but an evergreen story that can easily be enjoyed all year long.
Romance is a popular theme in most musicals, but in Holiday Inn, love seems to take a few detours before arriving at its intended destination. Ted and Lila's affair, at its peak in the "You're Easy to Dance With" sequence, is matched by a fateful encounter between aspiring performer Linda Mason, played by Marjorie Reynolds, and the owner of an inn in Connecticut to which Danny Reed (Walter Abel), Ted's agent, refers her. Universal forces are further at play as Linda arrives at the charming entertainment venue in search of a job and discovers the true identity of the man with whom she interacted earlier. As Jim and Linda get to know each other, the pain of Lila's betrayal slowly melts away and is replaced by a glimmer of hope. In a particularly memorable scene, Jim performs "White Christmas" to the simple accompaniment of a piano. There are no bells and whistles in this production, but none are needed; the overall number is intimate enough to invoke a sense of youthful remembrance, familial longing and nostalgia.
Renowned composer Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" made its debut on the Kraft Music Hall radio show in 1941 and was professionally recorded by Bing Crosby in a studio the following year. After its heartwarming appearance in Holiday Inn, the beloved song made yet another comeback, along with its two male co-stars in tow, in 1946's Blue Skies. But even after its 1954 appearance in White Christmas, where it was performed more than once, the classic tune took on a life force that is still going strong today. To this day, "White Christmas" has been covered by countless vocalists representing a multitude of genres, but it is Bing's quintessential version from the 1940s that has truly stood the test of time.
The fantastic soundtrack speaks for itself, gifting the audience with 12 new and two recycled songs that make up the unforgettable Holiday Inn score. While the highly popular "Easter Parade", which also appeared in 1948's Easter Parade, and "Happy Holiday", a Christmastime staple, speak for themselves, one song in particular stands out as Berlin's intended breakout hit. "Be Careful, It's My Heart" takes place during Valentine's Day, by which point Linda has agreed to remain at the inn with Jim. Still wary of heartbreak, the crooner uses the lyrics of a song he wrote as a plea for Linda to safeguard his feelings. Jim's hopes and dreams, however well-meaning, are almost always bittersweet. He longs for happiness, but it seems to be out of reach — especially when Ted is around.
Jim's earlier decision to let Lila go when she left him for Ted is a curious one. Stepping aside, Jim chooses to walk away and start his life anew. Once Ted pursues Linda in an attempt to make her his new dancing partner, having stumbled into her at the previous year's New Year's Eve celebration ("Let's Start the New Year Right"), Jim is once again presented with an opportunity to right a wrong. Whether he will fight for what is right and rightfully his remains to be seen, but it nevertheless makes for a very interesting behavioral analysis and character development.
While solid performances and cinematography are equally as important to the progression of any good film, a key turning point — maybe even a plot twist — can enhance the development of a storyline. The great thing about Holiday Inn is that it doesn't shy away from conflict; on the contrary, the musical delivers an element of surprise that makes one second-guess the possibility of a happy ending. When Ted and Danny arrange an audition with Hollywood agents, the possibility of Jim losing Linda to the motion picture industry becomes all too real. Through a series of misunderstandings and encounters, Linda, who is stranded on the roadside, is picked up by Lila. On her way to the same audition, Lila is determined to resume her partnership with Ted even as the latter has vowed to dance with Linda by his side.
Though it's been hard to root for Ted throughout the movie, he becomes highly unlikable toward the end of the film. For by the time Linda is cast in a Hollywood production about a snow-clad inn that's open only during the holidays, Ted is no longer willing to work with her in a strictly professional capacity. Much to the audience's annoyance, Ted makes a bold move and proposes marriage — something that Jim didn't have the audacity or the financial means to do — a gesture that would have felt like the worst sort of betrayal had certain scenes not been embellished with well-timed touches of comedy. Lila's intentions in seeking Ted after a failed dalliance with a penniless millionaire leaves viewers to question her ability of making a solid commitment.
Jim, who tends to wallow in self-pity whenever he can't have his way, gains the strength to go after what he wants only after his housekeeper, Mamie (wonderfully portrayed by Louise Beavers), gives him a motherly bit of advice. By comparison, Linda turns out to be the most sympathetic of all the main characters. Her move to Hollywood isn't selfish or centered around the idea of stardom and success. A misunderstanding with Jim leads her to make the hasty decision, of course, but she struggles with her own conscience and is waiting for a confirmation, a sign, to follow her heart. When the familiar and comforting sounds of "White Christmas" send Linda down a path of remembrance, she knows what she values most and, most importantly, who she truly is. And therein is where the magic of this musical lies.
As noted earlier, Holiday Inn is a unique vehicle in that it covers a span of two years in the lives of its characters and the holidays during which the overall story takes place. Mark Sandrich adds festive touches to the seasons with the turning of calendar pages, making for very effortless and consistent scenic transitions. Some holidays that are of a particular historical significance are preserved for our viewing pleasure in a cinematic time capsule. As we head into fall and another calendar page turns, an animated turkey is indecisive about a November date and cannot seem to land on the right spot. This is because of Franksgiving, a 1939 initiative taken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up by a week in an attempt to bolster retail sales during the tail end of the Great Depression. This move caused a nationwide disruption of holiday plans and traditions observed by millions of Americans, most notably college football, and led to a political rivalry between the Republican and Democrats parties. Once Thanksgiving was officially assigned to the last Thursday of the month in 1941, a tradition that is still observed today, the change went into effect the year of Holiday Inn's release.
Washington's Birthday, which we now know as Presidents' Day, is highlighted during a ball for the ages in "I Can't Tell a Lie," a number made all the more striking because of its lavish costumes and clever choreography. Another US president's birthday is also celebrated in the film but not in a way that is suitable for modern-day viewing. As timeless as Holiday Inn may be, it dates and gives itself away as a product of a bygone era when Jim dons a blackface and joins Linda and the band for a (what I consider to be an offensive) minstrel show. The "Abraham" segment, which has been omitted from television broadcasts as early as the 1980s, is quite uncomfortable to watch. When I watch the uncut version of Holiday Inn at home, I prefer to skip the highly questionably and unnecessary birthday tribute to President Lincoln and wait until my next viewing of White Christmas to appreciate the remedial treatment the song received through Vera-Ellen's interpretation.
Another theme that is evident throughout the film is that of patriotism, a direct result of the devastating effects felt during the course of World War II. Bing Crosby's "Song of Freedom" is a fitting tribute to the war effort and the ultimate morale-booster that moviegoers needed at a time when theaters offered an escape from reality. There is plenty of historical footage to appreciate and admire, and Bing fares extremely well in leading the performance to victory. But like Ted, Fred Astaire and his showstopping "Let's Say it with Firecrackers" number, another patriotic entry in the Holiday Inn repertoire, ends up stealing Jim's thunder.
Added to the film following the attack on Pearl Harbor, which coincided with the production of Holiday Inn, the awe-inspiring routine took 38 takes to perfect, three days to rehearse and two days to film. Special effects were edited to make the firecracker explosions more pronounced as they coincided with each shoe-tapping step. As mesmerizing to watch as it is to listen to, Ted's delivery — meant to be a last-minute improvision in the story — transforms into performance art at its best in the expert hands (make that toes) of Fred Astaire. This number, along with the famous ceiling dance from 1951's Royal Wedding, is among the dancer's best. And it just happens to be one of my personal favorites.
Almost 81 years have passed since Holiday Inn first made its glorious debut during what was considered the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whenever the story comes back to life, it's hard to believe that the three leading performers who made the film so iconic are no longer with us, having died within 10 years of each other decades ago (Bing Crosby in 1977, Fred Astaire in 1987 and Marjorie Reynolds in 1997). Bing Crosby's name and recognizable voice live on through an expansive music catalog, countless compilations, original reissues and holiday albums that grace the shelves of local record stores. And then there is a cultural phenomenon that I simply can't explain, and that is that younger generations know virtually nothing about the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Fred Astaire. I'll never forget the day when I sat down to lunch with a biography about Fred in an employee cafeteria and caught the attention of a colleague in her mid-twenties. When she asked me what I was reading, and I responded oh-so-casually, she followed up with a question I'll never forget. "Who is that?"
While the above encounter baffles me, even makes me sad, I am that much more appreciative of connecting with communities of classic film lovers — and a few close friends — who acknowledge and value the same artists I do. One particular friend, who has an impeccable taste in works of art, literature and theater, happened to wonder into a local library in Wichita Falls, Texas. There, she stumbled upon a hardbound autobiography entitled Steps in Time, which made its way to me. The book was of a bright green color but missing its dust jacket. Not too appealing at first glance, but when opened, the contents revealed an advance presentation copy that the author made available to close acquaintances and his publisher prior to release. Underneath the script of the dedication message was a genuine signature of the man behind the book. A man who will continue to live on through its pages and beyond.
And as Fred himself would say, "They can't take that away from me."