Monday, December 10, 2018

Christmas Watch: "Holiday Inn" (1942)

Watched:  12/07/2018
Format:  streaming on Prime, I think
Viewing:  7th or so
Decade: 1940s

Holiday Inn (1942) is a terrific movie, except for the deeply problematic blackface sequence.

There's no real reason to avoid the topic, so might as well get that card on the table, because I'm not telling anyone to watch the movie without a little fore-knowledge of what's going to surprise them about half-way through.   Mostly these days they cut out that part of the movie on broadcast TV, and you kind of don't notice in the editing (but heads up - because those waiters are also dudes in blackface), but non-broadcast copies include the "Lincoln's Birthday" sequence, and it's... a reminder that the nostalgic version of America folks seem to want to return to was kind of a nightmare for a whole lot of our fellow citizens.

That said...  *otherwise*, I quite like Holiday Inn.*  Bing Crosby charms his way laconically through the film, Fred Astaire plays a bit of a cad with a certain charm of his own, and it's low-stakes romantic comedy as an excuse to showcase Irving Berlin's musical stylings and two of America's premier entertainers of the era.

The film sees a showbiz team split up as Bing thinks he's about to retire from the stage and into domestic bliss with the third part of their trio, Virginia Dale.  The plan is to "relax" on a farm in Connecticut.  However, Dale and Astaire decide they're in love, and take to the road while, for a year, Crosby nurtures an ailing heart and realizes farm work is very hard indeed.  Then it strikes him to turn the cottage into an Inn where he'll just be open for holidays with a unique show for each holiday.

Enter singer/ dancer Marjorie Reynolds as the love interest for Crosby, and a jilted Astaire looking to recruit a new partner, and you've got your plot.

Berlin wrote 12 new songs for the movie, threw in the pre-existing tune "Easter Parade", and out of the movie we got the number one selling single that stood for generations in Big Crosby's "White Christmas", which sort of frames the movie.  Frankly, I prefer the version of the song here in the film to the one on the popular record, but the record is supposedly the best selling record of all time, at 50 million copies sold (good luck finding one in the wild, though...).

The music really is pretty terrific, minus the Lincoln's Birthday cringe-maker, and it doesn't hurt that you have Astaire tapping his way through the film.  Really, his Fourth of July solo number is a terrific amount of fun.

The movie sits in a weird spot as it was in production when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and would finish shooting over a month later (likely taking a break for Christmas).  There are only a few vague allusions to the war packed in using some nice editing during the Fourth of July segment, and I have to assume that was a late-addition and post-production work.  Like a lot of movies greenlit in 41, they just weren't able to really pivot, but I imagine a big slice of non-threatening hokum was probably very welcome when they movie finally hit theaters the following November.

For today's audiences, I'm sure it's the sort of thing that would have twitter up in arms, but in context and minus the offending sequence, it's a good addition to the Holiday canon.  But with that sequence, you know, it's almost more of a time capsule of how much has changed in living memory, and why so many people have turned their confusion into anger.

Holiday Inn has some great character bits and one-liners, but is a good break from the "we're going to try to make you cry" cathartic moments in a few other holiday classics.  But, it works.  Is it a Christmas movie?  Well, it begins and ends on Christmas and doesn't come in with the red velvet covered hammer over the noggin that you get in the Post-War film White Christmas.

*Look, this country we live in had slavery about 150 years ago, so half-that-time ago, things were not as they are now (which is in flux, at best, but much different from how it was even when I was a kid).  As a white dude, I recognize - this is much easier for me to compartmentalize than for other people.  But I do find watching older movies provides tremendous insight into the prevailing attitudes of the time in which the movie was released, and that's a lesson in itself (and may explain a ton about Grandma and Grandpa).  It's not that you shouldn't judge what was going on, but you do have to understand these are Ghosts of Christmas Past taking us on a tour of what was.  All we can do is watch and learn. or not!  No one is making anyone do anything.  Just know - it wasn't, like, a trick that someone snuck in to be racist in just this one movie.

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