This season, I’ve been finally taking the time to watch some of the beloved, black-and-white Christmas classics that I’d neglected to see in all my years of being an obsessive movie-watcher.
I picked up 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” and loved the earnest performances and true affinity for the holiday it had, even if the whole thing was a bit sentimental for my tastes. I finally watched 1946’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and marveled at its memorable characters and the flawless work of Jimmy Stewart. And I can now count 1940’s “The Shop Around the Corner” as one of my all-time Christmas favorites after being pulled in by its hilarious dialogue and a sharp romantic plot.
But then I sat down with 1942’s “Holiday Inn” and was simply mortified.
The film, a musical that stars Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds, left me with a sick feeling in my stomach and the anger that can only come with having wasted 100 minutes of your life on an awful movie. I couldn’t understand why I’d been led to believe this should be counted as a Christmas classic, along with so many other great holiday films that can warm your heart in the coldest months.
Sure, this is the film that gave the world “White Christmas,” but that’s about all it has going for it. I’ll give you five reasons why “Holiday Inn” should be torn from our lists of Hollywood Christmas classics.
The Plot Is Paper Thin
The storyline for “Holiday Inn” is virtually nonexistent and the film only acts as an excuse to set up scenes where Crosby and Astaire get to sing and dance to Irving Berlin songs, which we will tackle in a bit. In a nutshell, it’s about a professional singer named Jim (Crosby) and a dancer named Ted (Astaire) who break up their successful act when Jim decides he wants to leave show business to live on a farm. The farm life doesn’t work out, so Jim decides to turn his Connecticut home into a gimmicky nightclub called Holiday Inn, which is only open on holidays. A young woman named Linda (Reynolds) joins the cast of performers at Holiday Inn and Jim starts to fall in love with her, but their partnership is threatened when Ted sees her in action and vows to steal her away for his own act.
So it sounds like a love triangle that could yield plenty of romantic tension and dramatic moments — but it doesn’t. The movie tries to cram 17 song-and-dance numbers into its 100-minute run time and spans more than two years of time in its characters’ lives, so there’s clearly a lot being juggled here and it comes at the expense of telling a believable and engaging story.
The whole film simply exists as an excuse to get Crosby and Astaire to perform its various songs, which are all sung on different holidays. While I can’t deny these two are as smooth as fresh ice on your concrete stairs in January, every plot moment in the movie feels rushed as it tries to get you to the next number.
The Characters Are Awful
Like I said, Crosby and Astaire are truly gifted performers and, arguably, two of the best on-screen charmers in Hollywood history. That’s why I don’t understand how they can both play such terrible characters in “Holiday Inn.”
Astaire’s Ted is simply awful. Twice in the film he actively tries — and succeeds — to steal the attention of women that Jim has fallen in love with. He even goes so far as to accept Jim’s generosity, living with him for a time at the Holiday Inn, just because he’s waiting to make his move on Linda for his own selfish reasons.
But Jim is no man to emulate, either. Crosby’s character, while certainly the soft-spoken protagonist of the picture, knowingly hinders Linda’s career, blocking her from opportunities to make it big simply so he can keep control of her professionally and personally. In one scene, rather than tell Linda a pair of Hollywood scouts are coming to check out her performance, he pays a driver to get lost with her on the way to the inn. Rather than allow Linda the agency to make her own life-changing decisions, he makes them for her in secret. And we’re supposed to root for this guy?
The Songs Suck
Iconic composer Irving Berlin composed all the original songs in “Holiday Inn” and nearly all of them are second-rate by his standards. The idea of writing a song to fit every holiday had to be an enticing challenge for a songwriter of Berlin’s stature — but you can tell he half-assed most of them. And it’s hard to blame him. If someone asked you to write a catchy song about Lincoln’s Birthday, you’d probably give them back their money and quit the project.
Aside from “White Christmas” and “Happy Holiday” there really aren’t any memorable numbers. For example, the number for Washington’s Birthday, a groaner called “I Can’t Tell a Lie,” features the uninspired lyrics, “This is Washington’s birthday, and I’ve got to say you’re beautiful, ’cause I can’t tell a lie.”
But perhaps the biggest stretch Berlin makes comes in the Easter-inspired song “Easter Parade,” in which Crosby sings, “On the avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us, and you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.”
The movie just skips over Memorial Day and Labor Day, leading me to believe Berlin couldn’t come up with anything snappier than these examples for those holidays — which is depressing.
It’s Not A Christmas Movie
Perhaps the most obvious reason that “Holiday Inn” should not be counted as a Christmas classic is that it’s not a Christmas movie. Only two scenes in the entire picture are set at Christmas, with other holidays dominating the rest of the film. In terms of run time, it could be argued that “Holiday Inn” is more of a Fourth of July film than a Christmas one.
No matter how you feel about any of the other reasons I’ve given for dragging “Holiday Inn” through reindeer droppings, this point is inarguable: It’s a racist film. It’s uncomfortable enough to see the only black characters in the film be Jim’s house servant, Mamie (Louise Beavers) and her two children, but then the Lincoln’s Birthday scene comes up and you’ll be ready to hide under your couch until the horror comes to an end.
The scene, which shows the inn packed full of white guests seated at dining tables, made my jaw drop when I realized all the waiters and the band were white people in blackface. Then I suddenly felt ill when Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds came out in full blackface makeup and performed an ode to the 16th president. It’s every bit as awful and jarring as it sounds but then it manages to get even worse when we get to Mamie’s part.
The camera cuts to Mamie, who — stuck sitting in the kitchen as the minstrel show goes on outside — with no sense of irony, sings to her children with a swell of pride, “When black folks lived in slavery, Who was it set the darkie free? Abraham, Abraham.” That single passage uses Mamie, also the only character in the film to speak in less-than-perfect English, to essentially show the approval of all black people for this song and its use of blackface. After all, if Mamie has no problem with it, why should we?
The entire Lincoln’s Birthday sequence — a lengthy one that involves the love-triangle plot maybe more than any other — is typically edited out of television airings of “Holiday Inn,” meaning it comes as a hideous surprise to many people who watch this film thinking it will be a charming, Christmas delight. I’m not in favor of censoring a disagreeable scene from an old movie to sneakily make it seem more contemporary than it actually was.
I’d rather they just stopped airing it altogether at Christmastime.