Directed by: Mark Sandrich
Music: Irving BerlinStarring: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, Walter Abel
Christmas wasn't all that pleasurable this year, since we were, en masse, battling illness, lovingly given to us in lieu of presents by our younger son. It also meant that I lost a complete week of work, and deadlines loomed over me like the portend of doom. It didn't help either that I had the most goddawful document to edit. Having struggled with it for the last three days, and managed to make it read like English which it purported to be (but wasn't!), I am, rebelliously, taking a break from having to now make it readable. There is only so much the human soul can take of the wilful murder of the English tongue.
And therefore, to soothe the savage beast (I'm feeling both murderous and suicidal), I decided to watch an old film, a musical, one from the era when Hollywood made old-fashioned musicals. (As a public service announcement, if you have ever read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables and enjoyed it, please avoid watching the new film based on the book. The novel does not translate well into a musical (at all!), and in fact, having all dialogue in the form of song takes away from the pathos that underlines the tale. But Hugh Jackman is to die for, so there's that.)
Fortunately, Holiday Inn fits the bill both as a film that soothes my heightened blood pressure, and as Holiday fare. It is not the usual Christmas tale, though I have another film tucked away for just that purpose. But time for that, later.
Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) have a successful music act going. It's Christmas eve and Jim is planning his last performance. He has the ring, the license, and plans to marry Lila and retire to a small farm in Connecticut. Lila, however, is having second thoughts, though Jim is oblivious to her hesitation.
What he doesn't know is that she has changed her mind, is actually in love with Ted (though she also loves Jim) and wants to continue dancing. After (ironically) a musical number where they are both vying for her hand, while she ponders over whom to choose, Jim is sorry he and Lila are walking out on Ted. But he cannot take the grind anymore, he says. It is then he is told the unpalatable truth - Lila loves Ted; or rather, she loves showbiz more. Heartbroken, Jim leaves.
However, farming is not all that it is made out to be, and Jim discovers that fast enough. Being lazy and being a farmer do not go together. And so, one year passes and it's Christmas Eve again. Jim's had a nervous breakdown and has now abandoned all plans of farming. He meets up with his old partner, and Ted advises him to come back to town. After all, if Jim gets the agricultural urge again, he could always raise a geranium. Jim grins. He has had a fantastic idea. He's going to turn the farm into an inn, one that is open only on holidays. Ted and Danny (Walter Abel), Ted's agent, are openly sceptical. This is just another of Jim's cockamamie ideas. But they wish him luck nevertheless.
As Danny is leaving, Ted asks him about flowers for Lila. Danny's forgotten, and Jim warns him that he'd better make amends, and fast - the girl expects presents on Father's Day, he says sardonically. Bombarded by exploding home-made peach preserves (Jim's presents to Ted, Lila and Danny) Jim leaves, even as Danny is making a last ditch effort at the airport to order some orchids for Lila.
The girl at the shop recognises Danny as a talent agent, and pretends she is doing him a favour by delivering the flowers personally. In return, she asks him for a break. Danny, well attuned to all sorts of exhortations from everyone he meets once they know who he is, offers her a pass to that evening's show. And then, just to show he is not hardhearted, he gives her Jim's card.
That night, Linda is seated at the same table as Jim. In conversation, Linda lets slip that she is there at Danny's invitation. She also pretends to know Ted. Jim, when asked how he knows Ted, pretends he is a club owner wondering if he should hire Ted and Lila for his place.
They are caught out in their fibs the very next day when Linda, following Danny's referral, shows up at Jim's farm. But they understand each other, and while Jim is not sure he can pay her, she is willing to take the chance.
Jim, who has written songs for each one of the 15 holidays (that he plans to open the inn) sings his new song for her - White Christmas. When the inn opens on New Year's Eve, it opens to a crowd, many of whom have come along just to see how the freakish idea of an inn that only opens for holidays will work out.
Meanwhile, Danny returns to find that Lila has left Ted, with just a telegram informing him that she is moving to Texas to marry a millionaire. Broken-hearted and drunk, Ted is on his way to Connecticut. And Jim. He arrives at midnight, and stumbling through the crowd on the dance floor, runs into Linda. Recognising her as the girl who ran away from the club the other night, he begins dancing with her; drunk though he is, he can still dance up a storm though he ends up collapsing on the floor. The crowd is appreciative, and Danny, arriving soon after is happy that Ted has a new partner. Jim is not.
In the morning, however, it is clear that Ted has no idea where he is or how he got there, and he doesn't remember Linda at all.
Danny is frustrated; how are they going to find a girl whom Ted doesn't even remember? But Ted, now that his head has cleared a bit, is sure he will find her. On the next holiday, right here at Holiday Inn. And so, when President Lincoln's birthday rolls around in February, Danny and Ted are back. Jim is ready for them.
As he prepares Linda, she rues the fact that she has to work an ordinary job the other days of the years. Jim suggests that when they do better, she could stay on perhaps?
Jim's ruse works and Ted and Danny are foiled. But he's not out of trouble yet. Valentine's Day is just a couple of days away, and Ted and Danny vow not to rest until they find the mystery girl. Come Valentine's Day, Jim offers Linda a valentine - a new song that he composed, called Be Careful, It's My Heart. As they rehearse, Ted walks in, and sure that Linda is the girl he had danced with before, breaks into an impromptu dance number.
And he has another idea - why doesn't Jim write them a new number? They will topline it at his inn, of course.
Left with no option, Jim agrees, and on Washington's birthday, Ted opens the night with I Can't Tell A Lie - a romantic, period costume act. Morose and jealous, Jim sabotages the act, changing the tune from a minuet to Jazz every time Ted tries to kiss Linda.
At the end of the night, not one whit abashed, Ted asks Linda to be his dance partner; she refuses, since Jim and she are to be married.
Ted is not going to give up though. His next ploy is to show up at the inn on Easter, claiming that he would also like to find the true happiness that Jim and Linda seem to have found. Also on her way to the inn is Lila, who has left her millionaire behind.
What does Lila want at the inn? What does Linda make of Lily's arrival? Will Ted succeed in luring Linda away from Jim? Danny has big plans that do not include Lily or Jim. What is going to happen to Holiday Inn? After all, there is still Independence Day and Thanksgiving and Christmas left of the holidays.
Based on a story idea by Irving Berlin who also wrote and composed the original score for the film, Holiday Inn won him the Academy Award for the best original song (White Christmas), as well as picking up nominations for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical, and Original Story.
The plot is wafer-thin, and strung out between the many holidays and the musical numbers that accompany each, but Fred Astaire can dance, and Marjorie Reynolds keeps pace - in heels. Astaire's star act was in the I Can't Tell A Lie number and the wonderful tap-dance accompanied by exploding firecrackers, sung on Independence Day (a double-act with Crosby's Song of Freedom). Reynolds took over a role that was intended for Mary Martin, and is adequate, even charming. What keeps the movie going though is the wit and banter between the leading men, the sparkling dances, and the songs. Crosby emerged a winner with White Christmas, and would soon become well-known for other Christmas songs. While Crosby sang all his songs, Reynolds had her voice dubbed by Martha Mears.
Holiday Inn has come to be viewed as staple Christmas fare. Unlike the other 'Christmas' movies like It's A Wonderful Life, or Scrooge, or The Man Who Came To Dinner, it is not really full of the spirit of Christmas; however, the movie begins and ends on Christmas Eve and despite it having nothing to do with Christmas really, can never be seen as anything but a Christmas movie.
The movie ran into controversy with the 'Abraham' number, picturised as it was on (supposedly) black minstrels. (It was justified by the plot.) In fact, most showings of the film cut that number out. Since Turner Classic Movies have a principle of showing all films in their entirety, the number was retained on showings on TCM. Present day viewers will cringe when they see the stereotypical depiction - I know I did. But there was an African-American reviewer on IMDB who put it into perspective (for me): "Rather than try and obliterate scenes such as this from our film history I think they should be viewed as stepping stones to where African Americans are in film today... So while some of the film history regarding African Americans portrays them in a negative manner it is because those actors and actresses were able to work in those roles and under those conditions that the modern day African American actors and actresses are able be seen in a more positive light. Ignoring the past roles ignores the actors and actresses that struggled through those times."
Keep aside logic, forget the vapid plot, view the political incorrectness in context, suspend disbelief and watch Holiday Inn just for Crosby, Astaire and the songs and dances. Also for the sly potshots - the calendar shows a (animated) turkey running confusedly between the third and fourth Thursday in November, a poke at Franklin D. Roosevelt who tried to expand the Christmas shopping season by proclaiming the third Thursday in November as Thanksgiving.