Friday, December 23, 2016

Holiday Inn (Paramount, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie was the 1942 musical Holiday Inn — which I screened at our friend Garry Hobbs’ request so he could see the often-cut blackface number “Abraham,” a tribute to Lincoln’s Birthday in this holiday-themed movie, which was based on an idea Irving Berlin had had for nine years: a musical show dealing entirely with holiday-themed numbers. He had got the idea in 1933, when he was working on a Broadway revue (a plotless musical) called As Thousands Cheer, in which each of the songs referred to a section of a newspaper. As part of that show he took an old song of his called “Smile and Show Your Dimple,” got rid of that silly lyric and wrote a new one, which became “Easter Parade.” The way that song related to the newspaper theme of As Thousands Cheer was through the line, “You’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure” — “rotogravure” being an expensive process of printing color photos on slick paper and inserting such a section in a newspaper at a time when ordinary printing technology could do only black-and-white photos. The song became one of Berlin’s standards and gave him the idea of writing an entire musical of songs about holidays. In 1942 he sold Paramount film director Mark Sandrich — who had made five of the nine RKO musicals featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — on the idea and wrote an original story to link the holiday songs (plus a few others, like “I’ll Capture Your Heart Singing” and “You’re Easy to Dance With,” that didn’t have holiday connections but were there to advance the plot) which Claude Binyon, Elmer Rice and four uncredited others (Ben Holmes, Bert Lawrence, Zion Myers — a man, and cousin of director Sandrich — and Francis Swann) worked into a script. Holiday Inn is generally considered one of the great musicals, and it is when Bing Crosby is singing and Fred Astaire is singing and dancing to fabulous songs by Irving Berlin — who wrote “White Christmas” for this film and saw it become literally the most popular song of all time.

The problem is the plot, which is a farrago of nasty incidents between Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), who are constantly playing dirty tricks on each other to ace each other out of the latest woman in their lives: first Ted’s dancing partner Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale), who at different times is engaged to both of them before leaving them both to marry a Texas millionaire, only to return when it turns out, as Jim explains, there was a “slight mistake there. He didn’t own millions, he owed them.” (He was probably a failed oil wildcatter.) Then they fight over the film’s female lead, Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds, cast for the part after Mary Martin got pregnant and had to give it up — at one point Sandrich wanted Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth for the two big women’s roles but Paramount executives pointed out that they were already paying Crosby and Astaire so much money they couldn’t hire a major female star or two without totally blowing the budget, so Sandrich ended up with a woman who just three years earlier had been playing a nosy reporter in Boris Karloff’s Mr. Wong movies at Monogram — though Reynolds is just fine in the film; she’s a good enough dancer to keep up with Astaire on the floor even though she doesn’t inspire him the way Rogers, Hayworth and Cyd Charisse did, and Martha Mears supplies an acceptable singing voice that, unlike a lot of voice doubles, is a good match for Reynolds’ speaking voice). The level of nastiness in the plot — something we’d already seen Crosby pull with Bob Hope in the first two Road movies and Astaire ditto in his 1936 film Follow the Fleet — makes Holiday Inn a bit of a trial between the great numbers, though as I’ve pointed out in these pages before it does make one wonder whether Astaire could have made the transition from musicals to films noir the way the other great male star of 1930’s musicals, Dick Powell, did. I remember having that thought the first time I read Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon, when it occurred to me that of all the actors in Hollywood in 1941 Astaire came closest than anyone else to Hammett’s physical description of Sam Spade, and while the 1941 Maltese Falcon remains one of the greatest movies of all time and the definitive film of a Hammett novel, I still can’t help but wish there’s a parallel universe out there in which the 1941 Maltese Falcon got made with Astaire as Spade, Barbara Stanwyck as Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Edward Arnold as Casper Gutman.

Anyway, back to Holiday Inn: there are plenty of interesting bits of trivia about this movie, including the fact that neither Mark Sandrich nor Irving Berlin expected “White Christmas” to “hit” the way it did. The great song is virtually thrown away in the movie — Bing Crosby sings it privately to Marjorie Reynolds in the living room of his farmhouse in Connecticut, and she (or Martha Mears) sings it later in a reprise that supposedly represents a film being made of the Holiday Inn concept (a nightclub out in rural Connecticut — apparently none of the writers had ever heard of zoning laws — that’s open only on holidays, and features specially themed shows for each holiday on which it’s open) in which she and Astaire have starred and appear altar-bound until Crosby leaves his pipe on the piano on the Holiday Inn set and she suddenly realizes he’s there and goes back to him at the end (while Virginia Dale reappears to provide Astaire a sort of romantic consolation prize). The song they were expecting to be the hit was the Valentine’s Day number, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” — we even see the sheet music for it as Crosby has allegedly just finished writing it and is presenting it as a love gift to Marjorie Reynolds — which gets a big production in which Crosby sings it and Astaire and Reynolds do a spectacular Astaire-and-Rogersish dance that ends with them bursting through a large paper backdrop of a heart at the back of the Holiday Inn stage. “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” did make it into the standards repertory — Carmen McRae recorded it on her 1958 album Book of Ballads, and there are also recordings by Eydie Gormé and a Latin-themed one from Machito (it was part of a concept album he did of Latin-styled arrangements of Berlin songs, including — inevitably — “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A”) — but it was hardly a success on the level of “White Christmas.”

Holiday Inn started filming in late 1941, before the U.S. entered World War II, though the film got extensively remodeled afterwards — particularly the Fourth of July number, which is actually two songs mashed together called “Song of Freedom” and “Let’s Say It with Firecrackers.” Bing sings “Song of Freedom” (with its lyrical allusions to Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — “Free to speak and free to hear/Free from want and free from fear” — an index of how much the Zeitgeist has changed now that the country is run by Libertarian Republicans who think ensuring that people are “free from want and free from fear” is no damned business of the government) and Sandrich supplies a spectacular montage sequence of war newsreels, ending in giant screen-filling close-ups of General Douglas MacArthur (who inexplicably became a war hero even though, in the only major battle he’d led to that time, he got his ass kicked by the Japanese in the Philippines) and President Roosevelt. Then, forced at the last minute to do a solo number because Crosby’s machinations have led to Reynolds not being there at the big performance where two talent scouts from Hollywood are there to look at the Inn’s entertainers, Astaire improvises (at least that’s what the script tells us: of course, the number was not only painstakingly worked out in advance but, true to form, Astaire demanded 38 takes of it before he was satisfied — Astaire’s passionate perfectionism and grueling rehearsal schedules explain why Ginger Rogers, interviewed by a reporter during a break from filming Follow the Fleet, said, “After this I’d like to take a vacation — digging mines!”) a number with a bunch of firecrackers that were apparently so explosive for real that the crew members filming it had to wear goggles. (Both Crosby’s and Astaire’s Fourth of July sequences were major elements in the original trailer — actually a reissue one — included on the DVD as a bonus item.)

Another unusually creative part of the movie is the way Berlin’s song “Lazy” is staged — Crosby originally bought the Connecticut farmhouse to retire from show business and lead a laid-back lifestyle, but the film uses a montage as an ironic contrast between what he was expecting rural life to be (“With a great big valise full of books to read/While I’m spending time being la-a-a-azy!”) and the hard work actually involved in running a farm. But for the most part it’s just two superficially charming guys playing nasty tricks not only on each other but also on the women they supposedly “love.” The sexism of Holiday Inn gets to me more than its alleged racism, even though for years the blackface “Abraham” number was cut from this film because it was considered offensive to Blacks (and it’s apparently still missing from the version of this film shown on American Movie Classics). The women in this film are portrayed as almost totally inert love (or lust) objects for the male lead. Indeed, somewhat making up for the problematic racial politics of the blackface “Abraham” (I’m not one of these “politically correct” types who gets into a tizzy over blackface numbers and their roots in the minstrel show — I love the “Going to Heaven on a Mule” number that ends Al Jolson’s 1934 Wonder Bar even though it’s a good deal more racially stereotyped than “Abraham” here — but just listen to the soul Jolson puts into the song! Oddly, Jolson was a better singer in blackface than he was in whiteface — his vibrato was slower, he sang from the chest instead of the head, and he approached the eloquence of the best African-American performers of the day — whereas most movie stars who did blackface, including Crosby here, sang in exactly the same way they did in whiteface), the one female in Holiday Inn who actually shows any agency and independence of spirit is Louise Beavers as Crosby’s typical “mammy” Black maid!