On Christmas Eve, Hanna and I watched Holiday Inn, a 1942 Bing Crosby/Fred Astair/Irving Berlin vehicle that I’ve heard was a precursor to the enduring classic White Christmas (also starring Crosby, though the 1954 film replaced Astair with Danny Kaye). I thought, vaguely, that I had seen Holiday Inn before.
I was wrong. So wrong.
To give you a taste, here’s the original trailer.
For those of you familiar with White Christmas, this earlier film shares relatively little with its “remake” aside from Bing Crosby, the song “White Christmas,” and the concept of rescuing a failing tourist hotel through the musical revue. There is much to cirtique in White Christmas if you’re in the mood — from the postwar nostalgia for the heroism of the war to the portrayal of gender dynamics and relationship expectations. I went into Holiday Inn expecting more or less the same, perhaps even a bit less based on my previous experience of late 1930s/early 1940s films — often, they are slightly less gender essentialist than after the end of the war.
In this case … not so much. And in addition, Holiday Inn suffers from the additional problem of having been visited by the racist fairy and the weak plot fairy (yes, you really can have a film with less of a plot than White Christmas).
First, the gender issues. As in White Christmas, there are two women and two men. But instead of sisters, are introduced sequentially to two female entertainers, both of whom are expected to decide which of the two male leads (Crosby or Astair, the crooner or the dance man) she wishes to marry. The first woman, Lila (Virginia Dale) is the third member of Crosby and Astair’s act when the show opens, performing on stage the role she has clearly slid into in real life as well: a “who will she pick?” flirt. She is engaged to Crosby, who has plans to marry her and retire to the countryside and run a farm; on the side, she and Astair have made plans to marry instead — eloping at the last minute and heading off to a life of penthouses and entertainment glory. The second woman, Linda (Marjorie Reynolds) is the ingénue who, in effect, takes Lila’s place when Lila runs off to marry a Texas tycoon … though Lila returns at the end so that both men have someone to marry and make the story a “happily ever after” tale.
There are some brief proto-feminist moments, such as when Linda tells Crosby off for trying to manipulate her into marrying him instead of just asking for gods’ sake. But on the whole, the women come across as accessories to the friendship of Crosby/Astair, rather than individuals in their own right — something Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen are able to combat much more successfully in the later film, despite a similar trajectory of plot (i.e. that all healthy men of a certain age must be in want of a wife and that all “good” women are desperate to marry well).
After Crosby’s venture at the simple life fails, he decides to turn his faltering farm into an inn … an inn only open on holidays (thus giving him over three hundred days per year to rest and relax). The two extremely unfortunate bits of the film are located at the Holiday Inn.
One is the 4th of July musical number, which devolves into mainlining propaganda for the war effort. We’re talking documentary footage of air raids and everything. Ouch.
The second, much more winceingly present problem is the racism. First noticeable in the fact that the only black people in the cast is Crosby’s cook, Mamie, and her two unnamed children whom she continually orders to stay in the kitchen.
Since watching Holiday Inn, Hanna and I re-watched White Christmas and realized anew how entirely white the cast is. And I mean no one with even a deep suntan. So on the one hand, I suppose you could argue that having an African-American woman in the cast — even as the housekeeper (a role played by a white woman in White Christmas) — is better than nothing?
But then there’s the blackface. Which was the bit where we just kinda lost it. Why blackface, you say? Well, mostly because they needed a plot device to keep Astair from finding Marjorie Reynolds too early in the film (’cause then the plot would be totally shot) so Crosby puts her in blackface as a disguise. And then dresses himself up in blackface too, just for good measure.
To sing about Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
It’s just … not. okay. Not even a little bit okay. And after that, the whole film starts to take on this patina of wrong that it just cannot shake. ‘Cause everything trails around it this after-image of Crosby and Reynolds in blackface. And how wrong it all was.
So that’s kinda the upshot of my review folks: looking for a Christmas movie? Avoid Holiday Inn. And if you really want to hear White Christmas as sung by Crosby, rent the redux version. Really. You’ll thank me.