Holiday Inn, the 1942 musical that teamed up Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire for the first time, is… mostly a Christmas movie. It begins and ends at Christmas, of course, and won an Oscar for spawning the classic song, “White Christmas”–which later became a star on its own in the film White Christmas, as well as holding the record as the best-selling song for over 50 years. But Holiday Inn was never designed to be a vehicle for delivering Christmas songs unto a willing audience. Rather, the point was to cover a whole range of holidays throughout the year, from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve, and allow people to accent nearly every moment of their life with a specialized Irving Berlin song. (People at this time already had “God Bless America,” but were sadly lacking any Berlin tunes to play for Thanksgiving, Washington’s Birthday, or many other holidays.) So, though I’m comfortable calling it a Christmas movie, it is a bit of an accidental Christmas movie.
Indeed, one of the most astounding things about watching Holiday Inn is Berlin’s seemingly effortless production of timeless, classic holiday song after timeless, classic holiday song, for ALL holidays. I never would have expected a songwriter to draw such inspiration from presidential birthdays. That’s in part because he wasn’t struggling to come up with a prescribed list of songs to fit the plot–the idea for the film came from him. Or perhaps more accurately, the idea for creating a bevy of holiday songs came to him, and he later dreamed up a loose storyline to connect those songs after connecting with director Mark Sandrich.
Part of what makes Holiday Inn an odd choice for being remembered as a “Christmas movie” is that the values espoused by the characters aren’t particularly nice or warm. The movie opens with Marjorie Reynolds rejecting Crosby’s proposal at the last second to go off dancing with Astaire (an understandable choice, but not particularly kind). Lazy old Crosby decides he not only doesn’t really want to work the nightly dance circuit anymore, but doesn’t really want to work much at all, so he retreats from the limelight by opening an inn upstate that only opens for business on public holidays–he figures he’ll only have to work a few days a year that way. Then, when Reynolds ultimately ditches Astaire for a millionaire, Astaire visits the inn and tries to steal Crosby’s new partner, and new love interest, played by Virginia Dale. Crosby reacts to this by basically locking Dale away and not allowing her to make her own choices, because he’s afraid of losing her. It’s pretty dark, cynical, even bitter at times–this is not a Bass/Rankin special by any means.
But that’s part of what makes it interesting to me. A lot of Christmas movies are all about the feel-good moments and people who are good and true and kind at heart. But that’s not necessarily real from an everyday perspective. As a Christmas movie, I love Holiday Inn primarily because it’s about flawed people, and flawed people who don’t always get better just because of the date. Holiday Inn has a façade of a happy ending, but I don’t think it particularly sells the fact that things are going to stay this way, or that it’s the “right” ending for each character. And I kind of like that–a little bittersweet chocolate in your Christmas cocoa.
About halfway through filming in 1941, life outside the production took a serious turn–Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War 2. There are lots of stories about how filming was affected by new wartime rations–how Edith Head snatched up every last gold bead in Hollywood for the dresses, or how producers tracked down remaining rubber balloons for the Fourth of July number. It’s unclear exactly how many of these tales were fluff invented by studio publicity, but they were an amusing, escapist bit of gossip for a nation in flux. The most obvious WW2 influence is a short montage of newsreel footage promoting America’s values and military prowess during the Independence Day number. It’s a bit out of place, but given that Astaire’s “Firecracker Number” comes next–one of his greatest dance sequences of all time–I’m willing to overlook it.
By the way, Astaire’s workload for Holiday Inn included three months of rehearsals, two months of filming, and an additional MONTH after filming to repeat his already-complex dances for enhanced audio recording. That certainly required some amazing precision. Unsurprisingly, he reportedly worked through his career’s 600th pair of shoes during production of this film.
Paramount had initially balked at paying for both Crosby and Astaire in the same movie, but eventually relinquished–but did hold out on casting a Ginger Rogers or a Rita Hayworth for the female leads. Instead, they went with an “eleventh hour” call to relative unknowns Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale. Before Holiday Inn, Reynolds had been working steadily in penny westerns, earning her a reign as “queen of the horse operas.” The casting of these actresses alongside such major Hollywood players formed an appealing “Cinderella girl” narrative in the fan magazines, and both Reynolds and Dale enjoyed fawning profiles celebrating their good fortune.
Beyond the obvious rah-rah military numbers, Holiday Inn is also distinctly American in its choices of holidays: half of the celebrations depicted are only holidays in the United States. Sandrich noted that choosing these specific holidays for the film necessarily made it a purely American–and hence patriotic–movie, but, shrugging off any suggestion of valuing propaganda over entertainment, said his intention was only “that you come out of the theater being proud to be an American.”
And I think that’s certainly true–whether or not that was the intention when they set out to start making this movie, the resulting film is imbued with the kinetic kind of patriotism we most typically associate with this early war period. It’s not just the overt military references, but also the warm feeling of nostalgia invoked by focusing on holidays–part of the success of “White Christmas” came from soldiers requesting the song while overseas, to feel a connection to back home. This movie definitely captures that feeling, even with–or maybe because of–the rough edges.