Directed by Mark Sandrich
The United States of America
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten,
and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow
Ah! The musical! The mere word conjures up myriad memories of a happier time. The delightful choreography of Busby Berkeley and Bob Fosse! The melodies of Gershwin! The music and lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein! And then there are the films! From the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), it was only a matter of time until this great art form began to grace the celluloid landscape. When The Broadway Melody (1929) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was obvious that the musical was here to stay! Soon, Technicolor playgrounds ruled the movie houses. This was back in the day when movie stars needed to be able to sing, dance, and act in order to make it. Even Hollywood tough guys like James Cagney found an audience in the musical. But whenever the word musical is mentioned, those who know Hollywood instantly think of two people: Fred Astaire (the feet) and Bing Crosby (the voice).
Oh yes, that's not to say that I have forgotten about Ginger Rogers. She was a phenomenal dancer and even a phenomenal actress (she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1940 for her performance in Kitty Foyle). But when it comes to dancing, Astaire always seemed to be the most resilient. I'm not talking about his dancing skills. I am quite aware of the old adage Rogers did everything Astaire did but backwards and in heels. What I mean is that while nobody really remembers what Rogers did after she split up with Astaire, Astaire was different. His dancing career soared on to new partners and new movies. He was the living embodiment of dance. A consummate professional, Astaire was as hardworking as he was talented, rehearsing his numbers for hours until they became second nature. Watching him on screen is to behold somebody completely devoted to his craft, and loving every second of it.
But then there is Bing Crosby! The voice that made a million women swoon! It can't be emphasized how popular he was. In terms of ticket sales, Crosby is the third most popular actor of all time in terms of ticket sales, behind only Clark Gable and John Wayne. In 1948, he beat out Jackie Robinson and Pope Pius XII for number one in the “most admired man alive” poll. Not only was he a terrific singer, but he was also a dynamite actor, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Father Chuck O'Malley in Going My Way (1944). He teamed up with Bob Hope for a series of seven Road to... musical comedies between 1940 and 1962. He has one of the most recognizable voices in recorded history. Even people who have never seen his movies know his voice and the songs that they are forever linked to.
So it is no surprise that when Astaire and Crosby got together in 1942 to make a musical, what resulted was one of the most entertaining films the genre has ever witnessed. But little is known within the public consciousness about the film itself and the impact that it had on the film industry and popular culture. Few know that this film is the birthplace of one of the holidays most famous songs, White Christmas. Fewer know that Bing Crosby hated it and only sang it because he was under contract. What even fewer know is that the song White Christmas was so popular that it inspired the movie White Christmas (1954). And yet, to those who know, the film Holiday Inn is one of the true forgotten pleasures of the Christmas season.
But is it correct to call it a Christmas movie? Sure, it begins around Christmas and ends about two years later on New Year's Eve, but Holiday Inn is a celebration of all the major holidays. It doesn't have a plot so much as an excuse to roll out musical number after musical number. It revolves around best friends Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire) who perform a musical act in Manhattan with Ted's girlfriend Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale). The opening scene sets the dynamic for the entire film. Both men try to woo Lila. Crosby croons, “I'll capture her heart singing!! Ba-bada-ba-boo, Ba-bada-ba-boo.” Astaire jumps up and belts, “I'll capture her heart DANCING!!” He starts to tap dance, tackity-tackity-tack.
Crosby leaves the act on Christmas Eve to go live on a farm in Connecticut. Of course, it is not as relaxing as he would have hoped, so one year later he is back in New York. He tells Astaire that he has a new idea for how he can use his farm. He will turn it into a theater called “Holiday Inn” which will only be open on holidays. So, we follow the inn and its employees for a year as they go through all the major holidays, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, and some less than essential ones, Washington's Birthday, Lincoln's Birthday, etc, etc. Along the way he hires Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) who he quickly falls in love with. Astaire gets dumped by Lila who goes off to live with a Texas millionaire. Astaire shows up, falls in love with Linda, a love triangle is formed, jealousy erupts. But why am I telling you this? You don't really care about the plot. Besides, it's one of those silly Hollywood plots where the entire mess can be solved with a single line: “Ted, I love Linda.” But instead it goes unsaid and we get more and more musical set pieces.
But what set pieces and numbers they are! Crosby and Astaire are both at the very top of their game. So marvelously set up, so marvelously executed! Such bold confidence in Crosby's voice. Such precision in Astaire's steps. How can you pick out a best one?
There's the New Year's Eve dance where a newly single Fred Astaire meets Linda for the first time. Stinking drunk, he dances a ridiculous dance that genuinely makes him look intoxicated. That Reynolds is able to not only keep up with him but match him is a miracle in itself. The mere thought of how hard Astaire had to work to nail such a difficult dance makes my feet hurt.
Or what about Valentine's Day where Jim reunites with Linda for a heartbreakingly beautiful dance that matches anything that Astaire did with Rogers? While they dance away in front of a giant paper heart an oblivious Bing Crosby croons (yes I know I have used that word a lot, but how else would you describe his voice) Be Careful, It's My Heart.
But then there is the Independence Day show where Astaire is forced to “improvise” an entire dance. Thankfully, with a pair of tap shoes and some firecrackers, Astaire puts on what could be the most exciting dance of his career. And yes, I say that after seeing many of his movies.
Then we get to Lincoln's Birthday where we are treated to a nice...black face number....
Okay, truth be told, although Crosby starts up by playing up the Uncle Remus bit, he actually is very respectable. The song is about former slaves praising Lincoln, or “Abraham,” for setting them free. It's a genuinely heartfelt number. But then....
Oh! I forgot about Washington's Birthday! But you know what, I'll let you discover that one for yourself.
And then finally, we have Bing Crosby singing White Christmas underneath a Christmas tree. What else do I need to say? Seek this movie out. Find it. But beware, it has been colorized. Go for the original black and white. It's much more satisfying. Not to mention, much more true to the original purpose of the film. If the filmmakers had wanted it in color, they would have put it in color! So find it. Watch it. Love it. Preferably with somebody you love and care for. And may your Christmas season, all of them, be bright.