The Musical Greatness of 1942's Holiday Inn

Have you ever avoided writing about a film because you just love it so much that you're convinced your article will be nothing but gibberish? That's how I feel about Holiday Inn. There are few movies I cherish as much as this one. Thanks to my mother's own intense love for it, Holiday Inn was not just one of my first classic films, it was one of my first films ever. When I became interested in old Hollywood over a decade ago, it was partly because I rewatched Holiday Inn and suddenly found myself in a beautiful, joyous world that I didn't want to leave called "classic cinema." I wasn't just watching Ted Hanover and Jim Hardy anymore; I was discovering Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, and I haven't looked back since. So, yeah, you could say Holiday Inn is untouchable for me. It's deeply important to me personally, but it is also one of the best movie musicals ever made, although it has been sadly overlooked as such.

When you think of "White Christmas," it is almost inevitable that you also imagine the perennial tune being adorned by the velvet tones of Bing Crosby. While "White Christmas" has become a mainstay in our culture, the film from which it originated from has had a more difficult time with sustaining the degree of popularity that "White Christmas" has. What is unfortunate about this is that Holiday Inn is a marvelous, well-crafted film that boasts the talents of not only Bing Crosby, but Fred Astaire as well. When approached with joining the film, Astaire admitted in his autobiography that "Berlin's score, including old songs as well as new ones, was an outstanding attraction of Inn." Indeed, Berlin provided thirteen superb songs to bolster the narrative, which finds Crosby and Astaire at odds with one another as they sing, dance, and fall in love with the same women. With its careful consideration of how its musical moments function and what can be gained from paying attention to said moments, Holiday Inn succeeds at being a richly fascinating classic that deserves its time in the spotlight.

"Holiday Inn was one of the biggest musical setups of those times," Astaire wrote, "and it proved a top grossing picture. (Well, natch, with the great Crosby in it.) I had a lot of numbers and several interesting dance bits with 'Cros.' He surprised me. Having heard that he didn't like to rehearse much, I was amazed when he showed up in practice clothes to rehearse our first song and dance, 'I'll Capture Her Heart.'" The film's first song reinforces the relationships that are presented to the audience in the first scene. Ted (Astaire) and Jim (Crosby) both want Lila (Virginia Dale), and they both think that she is going to choose them. "I'll Capture Your Heart" is supposed to be a performance for the nightclub where the trio works, but the viewer realizes that it also reflects their situation. Jim and Ted playfully battle it out for Lila's affections, Jim believing that his singing will win the day and Ted confident that his dancing will be better. In the end, Lila picks neither man, instead choosing someone who is off-stage, which foreshadows when Lila chooses Ted over Jim and then leaves Ted for an off-screen millionaire.

"I'll Capture Your Heart" classifies Jim and Ted as The Singer and The Dancer, a simplification of Crosby and Astaire's actual professions. The tune has the men insisting that their skill is what will win the girl, therefore necessitating that each man exhibit that skill. The music slows down for parts of Crosby’s duet, permitting Bing to elongate the lyrics to show off his smooth, rich style. Fred, meanwhile, uses his taps in place of vocals throughout the song.

Because it recognizes that the men are known for their singing and dancing, respectively, the song is able to poke fun at their images by postulating that Crosby cannot dance and Astaire cannot sing. Although Astaire certainly could sell a song, his voice was not as grand as Crosby's, as illustrated by the off-key, cracked vocals he appropriates when he attempts to imitate Crosby's signature crooning style. Crosby returns the compliment by trying to dance like Astaire, which ends with him striking a pose that is reminiscent of a move Astaire did with Ginger Rogers for "The Continental" in 1934's The Gay Divorcee. (Funnily enough, Astaire mentions "The Continental" in Ted's next song, "You’re Easy to Dance With.")








Hoping to escape the pressures of being an entertainer, Jim buys a farm to quietly enjoy his retirement. His goodbyes to Ted and Lila segue into "Lazy," which is used for ironic and comedic effect. Jim thought that living on the farm was going to be wonderfully relaxing, but he soon realizes how much hard work goes into maintaining it. As Crosby languidly sings "I want to be out in the sun / with no work to be done, / under that awning / they call the sky / stretching and yawning / and let the world go drifting by," the film shows us a montage of Jim struggling to carry firewood, milk a cow, and move hay. The daily burden gives him the inspiration to open the farm as a nightclub that will only be open on the holidays, thus putting the rest of the plot into motion.

Visiting Ted and Lila at their new show, Jim watches the number "You're Easy to Dance With." Like "I'll Capture Her Heart," the dancing of Astaire is emphasized by the song, whose lyrics explain that it is simple for Ted to dance with Lila because of how much he is in love with her. The routine establishes how well the couple works together, thus justifying their reason for going on with the act without Jim.

It is also the only true duet between Lila and Ted that the film provides, which is interesting because it is not a privately romantic moment between the two of them but rather a performance created for others to see. Their relationship is rocky throughout the film and their feelings for one another never exactly prove to be genuine. They both hunger for fame and fortune, whereas Jim and his new love interest, Linda (Marjorie Reynolds), prefer a quieter, quainter kind of life that the film presents as being more rewarding.










While Ted and Lila do their "romancing out loud" on a sleek stage in their finery, Linda and Jim's first duet finds them in their dressing gowns by a fireplace in the farmhouse after falling in the snow. Linda asks for a chance to be part of the shows Jim is going to put on at the inn, so he auditions her with a song that he wrote called "White Christmas." Holiday Inn made the tune an unbelievable hit; it would win the 1943 Oscar for Best Original Song and would go on to become the most popular song ever recorded.

But perhaps because "White Christmas" was not yet popular at the time of the movie's production,
the number is charmingly filmed without much fanfare, reflecting the simplicity that Linda and Jim prize. The scene is intimate and cozy, with Jim teaching Linda the song as he accompanies her on the piano. Their dialogue leading up to the song is about Linda's father and her childhood, so the nostalgia of "White Christmas" is an extension of that ("I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know"). The entire scene functions as a moment that brings Jim and Linda closer together, which helps to legitimize their romance as the film continues.

To give the film dramatic tension, Lila abandons Ted and he drunkenly arrives at Holiday Inn during its New Year's Eve festivities. Out on the dance floor, Ted grabs Linda and performs for the amused guests, despite his inebriation. Set to an instrumental version of "You're Easy to Dance With," Ted and Linda's first dance together is not a conventional boy-meets-girl moment, mainly because the boy barely remembers the girl the next morning. To create this unforgettable dance, Astaire decided to go Method: "I had to look plenty drunk in that bit and figured there was only one good way to do it. Yes, you're right. I took two stiff hookers of bourbon before the first take and one before each succeeding take. I had to fall down on my face and be carried out for the finish. It was hot on that stage, too! All in all we did it seven times. The last one was the best."

The use of "You're Easy…" is interesting since Ted and his agent Danny (a hilarious Walter Abel) later decide Linda would be the perfect replacement for Lila, having witnessed Linda literally taking her place in the number. The absence of any vocals is appropriate because Ted is probably too drunk to sing in addition to dancing. Plus, he doesn't know Linda at all at this point in the narrative, therefore the lyrics don't seem to apply here – indeed, it is clear that alcohol is what makes it easy for him to dance with Linda, not love. (By the way, this was the only video I could find of this dance. The music is changed and the editing is slightly different, but the scene is still relatively intact.)





"Be Careful, It's My Heart" is one of the more important songs in the film because of its ties to the narrative. Gifting Linda with a song he wrote for Valentine's Day, Jim sings at the piano with the inn’s band while Linda stands behind him listening. Their positions are almost exactly how they were for "White Christmas," when they first connected with one another, but their relationship is quickly threatened when Ted walks in and realizes Linda is the woman he has been searching for. He silently whisks her into a dance behind Jim's back, giving the romantic song a touch of irony as Jim uses the song to tell Linda how he feels about her and Ted uses it to steal that same woman away from his friend.

"Be Careful, It's My Heart" is the movie’s most overtly romantic duet, but it is a complicated one. Since Linda does not join Jim in singing, the duet belongs to her and Ted. They are not a couple and will not be until briefly towards the end of the movie, but their performance here fits into the dance of seduction that Astaire frequently did in his films to win over the leading lady (see: The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Carefree, You Were Never Lovelier, etc.). The dance does indeed dazzle Linda, who realizes how well she works with Ted, leading her to support him when he asks Jim if he can join the inn's shows as Linda's partner.












"Be Careful..." is somewhat of a list song, as Jim gently reminds Linda that he is giving her "the heart with which so willingly I part." He goes on to sing that his heart is not a watch she is holding, nor is it "the note I sent you that you quickly burned. / It’s not the book I lent you that you never returned." The lyrics have a trace of melancholy as they convey that the singer's lover does not completely reciprocate the singer's love. This makes sense because Jim is not sure how Linda feels about him, making the song his tentative way of gauging her feelings. Before he can find out, Ted arrives, prolonging their coupledom.


The rest of the songs function as numbers for the holiday shows the inn puts on. "Happy Holiday," "Let’s Start the New Year Right," "Song of Freedom," and "Let's Say It with Firecrackers" add color to the film, not only because they demonstrate what the titular inn does, but also because they are entertaining examples of the movie’s musical talent. ("Easter Parade" does this too, although it is not a show performance.) Out of all these, "Firecrackers" is the most incredible and emerges as one of Astaire's best solos.

As he would recall in Steps in Time, "I had a solo dance that paid off for me. The firecracker number...took an awful lot of planning and rehearsing. I also had the stage wired to set off what looked like strings of firecrackers with visible flashes as I stepped in certain spots. It was a great satisfaction, that dance, being able to explode things expressing emphasis on beats here and there. Sometimes you want to bang your feet down so hard in a tap dance that you get shine-bucked or stone-bruised. In this one I had a completely satisfactory outlet with those dynamite noises." Ever the perfectionist, Astaire did the number for two days and thirty-eight takes until he thought it was right.












One number that we can't ignore is "Abraham," thanks to its use of blackface. While in retrospect it is highly offensive and racist, it makes sense in the context of the film (although that doesn't excuse it at all). Celebrating Abraham Lincoln's birthday, the song focuses on how great the former president was, with a verse dedicated to his decision to end slavery. The primary reason for the blackface, though, comes from Ted and Danny's search of Linda. Wanting to avoid a repeat of what happened with Lila, Jim conceals Linda by putting her in blackface and giving her an outrageous hairstyle, rendering her unrecognizable (and extremely insulting). Oddly enough, the film appears to understand that using blackface for anything else would be wrong, if only in terms of the plot. When Jim asks Ted and Danny if they think he could get by with doing blackface for the upcoming Valentine's Day show, thus delaying their discovery of Linda, they look at him in confusion to illustrate that the idea doesn't make sense.

Having found Linda during "Be Careful…" Ted pushes his way into the inn's next show in order to perfect their new partnership. Desiring an elegant and romantic number for George Washington's birthday, Ted and Linda are bedecked in powdered wigs and period costumes for their performance of "I Can't Tell a Lie." The dancing is somewhat stiff and the music feels almost classical in its usage of the harpsichord; meanwhile, the lyrics are colloquial and create a fun contrast with phrases such as "I could say that you're homely / Just as homely as pie / But this is Washington's birthday / And I've got to say you're beautiful / 'Cause I can't tell a lie." The lyrics continually set up an insult, only to absolve it two lines later with the explanation that the singer cannot lie due to the specific holiday.

This idea of contrasting pervades the number the longer it goes on, thanks to Jim's conducting of the band. In order to keep Linda and Ted from kissing throughout the routine like they are supposed to, Jim instructs the band to burst into a jazz variation of the song every time it looks as though the couple is about to embrace. The tempo will suddenly become faster and it varies from being bluesy to conga-inspired, which necessitates numerous changes to the dance so as to accompany the music. The result is disastrous for Ted and Linda, but hilarious for Jim and us.









Another song that exploits contrasts, and the final tune to be discussed, is "I've Got Plenty to be Thankful For." Ted and Linda have departed for Hollywood to make a movie about the inn while Jim stays in Connecticut and sends them the songs for their film whenever he completes them. On Thanksgiving Day, having closed the inn, Jim plays his recording of his final song as he sits down to his meal. While the record has him crooning about how grateful he is, Jim provides a cynical commentary alongside the song that shows how unhappy he is – the line "I've got plenty to be thankful for," for example, is met with "Like what?" Although the song is evidence of Crosby's beautiful voice, it also
allows him to show his comedic timing through his remarks.

To this day, Holiday Inn seems to have become rather obscure. Is it because of the film's introduction of "White Christmas" that the movie is still somewhat remembered? On the other hand, you could also argue that it is the song's popularity that helped to bury the movie. After all, the tune's continual success inspired Paramount to do a very loose remake of Holiday Inn twelve years later, with its name changed to – what else? – White Christmas. While both movies are great pieces of entertainment, White Christmas is infinitely more well-known than its predecessor, which makes it important to consider where it all started. With Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, two of the twentieth century's most influential entertainers, and the delightful music of Irving Berlin, Holiday Inn gives audiences plenty to be thankful for.

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This is my second and final entry to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Blogathon, a celebration being held by myself and Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Check out the whole list of fabulous entries here!

Comments

  1. I loved your look at Holiday Inn maybe because I love Holiday Inn. It is like an old friend. White Christmas always brings a happy tear. Walter Abel cracks me up. Bing's mugging during the Washington's Birthday bit - hilarious!

    I am pleased to hear of your mother's success in sharing the movie with you. When I showed it to my daughter at a young age it was her introduction to Fred Astaire. It took her ages to get over the fact that he was "a bad guy trying to steal Bing's girl". She's better now.

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    1. It took me years to get over Fred's villainy, too! When I was little, it just broke my heart to see poor Bing continually lose the girl. My first year in college, I was taking a class about musicals and I learned from a fellow student that her first Astaire film was Holiday Inn too, and she also didn't like him at first because of Ted's machinations. Looking at the film now, it is a bit surprising that Astaire agreed to play such an unlikable role, but I actually really love him as Ted.

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    2. Fred never considered the impact on generations of little girls!

      One night my youngest sister and I were out and enjoying a bit too much wine when we suddenly looked at each other and did that inebriated lady dancing with Jim Hardy on New Year's Eve: "I don't want Ted Hanover. I want you kid." (wink). We started laughing hysterically. The looks we got.

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    3. That's hilarious! I love that lady. Most women would clamor to dance with the great Astaire, but not her!

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  2. Wow! You surely love this film! I should see it LOL. Thanks for this great and detailed review Michaela!

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    1. Thanks for reading, Virginie! Holiday Inn is such an underrated film. I think you'd enjoy it a lot!

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  3. What a wonderful post this is Michaela. You perfectly expressed how much you adore this film, and I agree with you. Thanks for covering it for our blogathon.

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    1. Thanks, Crystal! I could write multiple posts about this film, I love it that much.

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  4. Holiday Inn is a favorite of mine, too, and it was great to read Fred's thoughts about the film. The fourth of July sequence never fails to amaze me, but all the others are equally wonderful. You did a beautiful post about it!

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    1. Thank you! This film is precious to me, so it's lovely to hear that you love it, too.

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