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12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | Day 4: "Holiday Inn" (1942)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Mark Sandrich, Holiday Inn (1942) begins as crooner Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) prepares to leave show business to marry his partner, Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale), and retire with her to a farm in Connecticut. At the last minute, however, Lila confesses that she has fallen in love with the third member of their act, dancer Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), and wants to continue performing with him. Although heartbroken, Jim goes through with his plan and bids the act goodbye. After a year of struggling with farm work and several months of recuperation in a sanitarium, Jim decides on a less exhausting occupation and turns his old barn into a country-style entertainment venue called "Holiday Inn," which will only be open on public holidays.

On Christmas Day, Jim hires Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) to star in his shows beginning with the upcoming New Year's Eve performance. On December 31, Holiday Inn opens to a packed house and Ted arrives with the news that Lila has left him for a Texas millionaire. That night, Ted meets Linda and they perform a show-stopping dance routine despite his inebriated state. The next morning, he cannot remember much about Linda, but is determined to find her and make her his new dancing partner. On Lincoln's birthday, Ted is back at Holiday Inn, but his plans are thwarted by Jim, who has fallen in love with Linda. On Valentine's Day, Ted finally finds her and insists that they perform together for Washington's birthday. At Easter, Ted decides to stay on at the inn in an attempt to steal Linda away from Jim. On Independence Day, Jim learns that Ted has brought two film producers to interest them in making a musical based on Holiday Inn with him and Linda in the leads. At Thanksgiving, the inn is closed, as Jim is depressed over the fact that Linda has left with Ted for Hollywood. Persuaded by his housekeeper, Mamie (Louise Beavers), Ted travels to California to tell Linda how he feels. Arriving in Hollywood on Christmas Eve, Jim manages to sneak onto a soundstage to join Linda as she performs "White Christmas," the first song they ever sang together. Finally, on New Year's Eve, Jim and Linda decide to stay together at the Holiday Inn, while Ted will resume his dancing career with Lila.

Jim Hardy: [singing] 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...

In 1933, composer Irving Berlin and playwright Moss Hart collaborated on a Broadway revue called As Thousands Cheer, in which every scene was based on either a news item or a feature in a newspaper. For the first-act finale, the rotogravure section found the cast in monochromatic brown going back fifty years to an old-fashioned Fifth Avenue Easter Parade, set to the iconic Berlin ballad. That scene gave Berlin and Hart the idea for an entire show based on American holidays, but they were never able to develop it. Then, in 1941, the composer offered the concept to Mark Sandrich, who had directed Berlin's three Astaire/Rogers films at RKO and was now working at Paramount Pictures. Together they began working up an outline for a Bing Crosby vehicle, which was to concern one-half of a song-and-dance team who quits the act to run a country inn open only for the holidays. The unusual lodge and the story built around it would naturally be called Holiday Inn.

In the face of the threat of war, holidays seemed to acquire a new significance for every American citizen, as "they affirmed the values of earth, home and country." A traditionalist, Berlin felt that people would cherish holidays at a time when the nation's well-being was in jeopardy. Conceived as wartime escapism, Holiday Inn would then assume a new, important function: like Berlin's patriotic song "God Bless America," the film would serve as "a vehicle for endorsing the American way of life at a time when all hell was breaking loose in Europe." The holidays celebrating Independence Day and the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington would embody the patriotic spirit, while Christmas, New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, Easter and Thanksgiving would offer opportunities for romance, separation and reunion.

Astaire and Crosby during rehearsals
To play Crosby's former partner and romantic rival, Berlin and Sandrich wanted to cast Fred Astaire, who had been freelancing since leaving RKO in 1939. However, budget-conscious Paramount resisted, insisting that hiring Astaire would be too expensive. Determined to get the dancer, Sandrich threatened to abandon the project if he could not have Astaire, thus putting himself in danger of being suspended. In the end, Sandrich won and Astaire got the role. As soon as Astaire, Berlin and Crosby signed on to Holiday Inn, Sandrich told the press: "I call this picture the ABC of American musical comedy. Astaire, Berlin, Crosby. Get it?"

Getting to work with Crosby was a distinct pleasure for Astaire. They had been friends for several years and shared a passion for horse racing and golf, which they occasionally played together. Both "outwardly laid-back, retiring sorts," Astaire and Crosby also had the common desire to live their lives away from the "madding Hollywood crowd." Although both were at the top in their respective fields of music, there was never any kind of competition between them. Right from the beginning, Astaire was impressed by Crosby's habit of arriving early for work, just as he always did for dance rehearsals before the actual shooting began. The admiration was mutual; of Astaire, Crosby said: "As a dancer, Astaire is the greatest that ever lived. I don't see anybody to touch him. He has genius plus hard. He is indefatigable." Crosby and Astaire reunited four years later in another Berlin film, Blue Skies (1946).

Marjorie Reynolds, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire
Originally, there had been plans of casting stars Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth, who had just appeared with Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich (1941), to play the two female leads in Holiday Inn. However, the teaming of Crosby and Astaire had made a huge dent in the payroll costs and Paramount decided to hire instead two relative unknowns: Virginia Dale, a nightclub dancer who had been brought to Hollywood in the late 1930s by Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at 20th Century Fox; and Marjorie Reynolds, who had been starring in Poverty Row westerns since 1937. Although neither actress become a major film star, Reynolds would achieve success on television playing William Bendix's wife in the popular NBC series The Life of Riley (1953-1958).

The plot of Holiday Inn was really just an excuse to showcase 14 Berlin songs; these included "Let's Start the New Year Right" for New Year's Eve; "Abraham" for Lincoln's Birthday; "Be Careful, It's My Heart" for Valentine's Day; "I Can't Tell a Lie" for Washington's Birthday; "Easter Parade" for Easter; "Song of Freedom" and "Let's Say It with Firecrackers" for the Fourth of July; "(I've Got) Plenty to Be Thankful For" for Thanksgiving; and the classic "White Christmas" for Christmas. Berlin initially struggled to write the song for Christmas. The problem, as he perceived it, was not that he came from a Jewish background; despite his heritage, he had fond memories of childhood Christmases in New York and especially of the Christmas tree belonging to his neighbors. The problem was that the Christmas song, as the high point of the film, "had to be better than good; it had to be great in the way that 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' was great or 'God Bless America' was great: simple, universal, and unforgettable." 

Astaire, Sandrich and Dale on the set
When the time came to write the Christmas song, Berlin recalled that being caught in southern California during the holiday season had made him nostalgic for the Christmases of his youth. The heat and sunshine of Los Angeles only made him yearn for the cold weather and snow of New York City. The song originally began with lyrics that contrasted images of palm trees and orange groves with the images of the desired snowy Christmas. However, Berlin quickly decided to drop this first stanza and illustrate instead that "universal longing" for a white Christmas. After a weekend of fervent songwriting, Berlin played the song for his transcriber, Helmy Kresa, introducing it by declaring that "Not only it is the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote." Accostumed to his boss's penchant for boasting, Kresa thought Berlin was being invariably conceited. As he wrote down the notes to what would become "White Christmas," however, Kresna "knew it was really the greatest song ever written. I was as thrilled as he was."

Three weeks after Holiday Inn began production in mid-November 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, forcing the United States to enter World War II. Rationing of all kinds of items, from cloth to rubber, immediately went into effect. With the large number of musical sequences in Holiday Inn and the 70 costume changes among the four leads designer Edith Head and her staff struggled to obtain the materials they needed. Paramount's publicity department even claimed that one of Reynolds' gold-beaded outfits used up the last beads in Hollywood. Also as a result of the war, the Fourth of July segment was expanded beyond Astaire's firecracker dance to include a patriotic routine highlighting the strength of the U.S. military. For this sequence, the studio asserted that production designers purchased all the now-embargoed rubber balloons in Los Angeles.

Crosby, Reynolds, Astaire and Dale
Holiday Inn was a massive critical and commercial success upon its premiere at the Paramount Theatre in New York on August 4, 1942. Variety wrote, "Loaded with a wealth of songs, it's meaty, not too kaleidoscopic and yet closely knit for a compact 100 minutes of tiptop filmusical entertainment. The idea is a natural, and Irving Berlin has fashioned some peach song to fit the hightlight holidays [...] Mark Sandrich's production and direction are more than half the success of the picture." According to The New York Times, the film "is all very easy and graceful; it never tries too hard to dazzle; even in the rousing and topical Fourth of July number it never commits a breach of taste by violently waving the flag. Instead it has skipped back over the year in an affectionate and light-hearted spirit. In a month without a holiday, Holiday Inn offers a reason for celebration not printed in red ink on the calendar. The New York Post summed it up best by calling it "the best musical drama of the year."

 At the 15th Academy Awards, Holiday Inn received nominations for Best Score and Best Original Screenplay, while "White Christmas" won the statuette for Best Song. Surprisingly enough, "White Christmas" initially performed poorly, being overshadowed by the Valentine tune "Be Careful, It's My Heart," the first of the film's songs to reach the Hit Parade. Then, as the Christmas season got under way the first Christmas since war mobilization had hit its stride the song was heard in a new light. The melancholic and comforting images of home present in "White Christmas" resonated very deeply with American troops stationed overseas. The Armed Forces Services Radio was flooded with requests for the song, which quickly became "an anthem for the homesick." The sudden popularity of "White Christmas" hastened the song's climb to the top of the Hit Parade, where it remained for nine weeks. By the last week of December 1942, Newsweek reported that the sales of both the sheet music and the recording had passed one million copies. 

During the Christmas seasons of 1943 and 1944, the song went back to the top of the charts and Bing Crosby's version eventually sold 25 million copies (400 other versions sold a further 120 million copies). By the 1980s, "White Christmas" had become the best-selling recorded song of all time. The tune became so identified with Christmas that when Paramount decided to remake Holiday Inn they named the new film White Christmas (1954). This, too, struck a chord with audiences at the time, as White Christmas became the highest-grossing film of 1954.

As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin by Laurence Bergreen (1996) | Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema by Mark Connelly (2000) | Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999) | Puttin' on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache by Peter J. Levinson (2009) | TCMDb (Articles) | Variety review | The New York Times review


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