There’s not much room at the Holiday Inn.
Holiday Inn is a bit of a curate’s egg; parts of it are excellent. Fred’s dances with his two female costars, “You’re Easy to Dance With” (Virginia Dale) and “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” (Marjorie Reynolds), are both elegant exercises in Astaire chic, while Fred’s solo turn in “Say It with Firecrackers” stands as one of his greatest performances. As for the rest of the film, well, that’s where things start to get a little runny, not to mention stale.
Fred must have had mixed emotions when he agreed to star in this Irving Berlin extravaganza. His previous two pictures, Second Chorus and You’ll Never Get Rich, were not exactly low rent, but Holiday Inn was seriously deluxe, reuniting Fred with Mark Sandrich, who directed Fred & Ginger in most of their great pictures at RKO, as well as Irving Berlin.
But there was a down side. For the first time since Roberta, Fred wasn’t top billed, ceding that honor to Bing Crosby. And, for the first time ever, Fred lost the girl! (To Bing, of course)
Irving Berlin had been kicking around the idea of a stage revue built around holidays for almost a decade before Holiday Inn took shape. The film has over a dozen songs, including Berlin stalwarts like “White Christmas,” “Happy Holiday,” and “Easter Parade,” enjoyable offbeat numbers like “You’re Easy to Dance With” and “Lazy,” and not a few disasters, like “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” “Abraham,” and “I Cannot Tell a Lie.”1
In terms of plot, Holiday Inn never rises above the level of a bald and unconvincing narrative. Fred and Bing are supposed to be pals, a song-and-dance act that can’t stay together and can’t stay apart, mostly thanks to disputes over girls. In fact, the two appear to have virtually nothing in common.2 Nobody seems to have any real affection for anyone else, and the girls (Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale) shuffle back and forth between the two men more or less at random.3
The film begins with “I’ll Capture Her Heart Singing,” which shows Bing and Fred in competition for Dale’s affections on stage. Bing sings and Fred dances, and then Fred sings and Bing dances. However, watching someone who can’t dance demonstrate that he can’t dance has limited charm. If Crosby could dance as well as Fred could sing, the number would have been better.
Once the number is over, the act breaks up. Bing’s retiring to the country, taking Virginia with him, or so he thinks. Virginia informs him that she’s not marrying him after all, but staying in the act with Fred. Bing scarcely seems to notice the collapse of his marriage plans, and heads off to the easy life in the country with a light heart, where he sings “Lazy” over a montage of rural catastrophes. “Lazy” is quite a clever song, with lines like “I want to peep into the deep, tangled wild wood, fall asleep counting sheep just like a child would,” but Crosby, as he so often does, ignores the particular virtues of the song and converts it into a standard Crosby ballad.4
Despite the indignities to which he’s subjected, Bing somehow manages to restore singlehandedly a rustic retreat that’s approximately the size of Grand Central Station.5 But kicking around the place with no company but a mammy and her two loveable children gets a bit lonely, and so he concocts the idea of an inn that would only be open on holidays, and he journeys to the big city to pitch the idea to Fred and Virginia.
We’re certainly glad for the trip, which takes us to a night club almost equal to the art deco concoctions of Fred & Ginger’s glory days.6 Fred’s in white tie for the occasion, and his performance in “You’re Easy To Dance With” appears to be a conscious effort to reproduce the effortless style of the RKO era.7
Bing’s joined at his table by showbiz wannabe Marjorie Reynolds, who claims to know Fred. In fact, she doesn’t, and she splits when he stops by Bing’s table to say hello. Fred passes on the opportunity to play the woods, but Marjorie doesn’t, journeying out in search of employment, not knowing, of course, that she’s already met the proprietor of Holiday Inn. She and Bing meet cute, falling into a snow bank, and once they get out of those wet clothes he sings “White Christmas” for her.
Bing and Marjorie get things properly rolling at the inn with a big bash on New Year’s Eve. Fred, however, is down in the dumps because Virginia has ditched him for a Texas millionaire.8 He gets drunk and heads out to Holiday Inn, where he performs a “drunk dance” with Marjorie, which some people find fascinating, though I’ve never cared for it.
Next up after New Year’s is Valentine’s Day. Bing’s decided that he’s in love with Marjorie, though you’d scarcely know it, and he writes a song for her, the strikingly clumsy “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.”9 Fortunately, while Bing loses himself in the lyrics, Fred slips in and takes Marjorie for a turn around the dance floor, giving us a few more echoes of the RKO era.
After the 14th, there are some very grim times at the inn, including “Abraham” (Lincoln’s birthday), featuring some singularly gruesome blackface from Bing and Marjorie, and “I Cannot Tell A Lie” (Washington’s birthday), with Fred and Marjorie dressed up in Louis XIV duds and doing a painfully unfunny minuet.
Somehow, we stagger forward to the Fourth of July, for Fred’s brilliant salute to gunpowder, “Say It with Firecrackers.” Fred gays it up a little, in honor of the Fourth, wearing both an ascot and a sash, in patriotic red, white, and blue.10 He accentuates his taps with an occasional torpedo, little explosive pellets that detonate on contact, which were a lot of fun before life got so safe and sane. Once he’s shot off about a dozen he switches to firecrackers, first lighting one to give us the idea and then setting off a string of fifty. When they’re done popping, the explosions come on their own to match Fred’s hard-cracking taps. Fred finishes with three of his favorite, nothing-but-class “attitude” turns, done with one leg bent at the knee, the toe pointing back and the bent leg parallel to the floor.11
There’s a lot more plot (Fred and Marjorie go to Hollywood to make a film about Holiday Inn! Bing comes to claim her! Virginia shows up to claim Fred!), but it’s difficult to care. Thanks to the wonder of DVD, we can skip all of this and jump to the finale, a reprise of “I’ll Capture Her Heart Singing,” which has some decent dancing, though not a lot, from Fred and Virginia.
Holiday Inn joins the recently released Broadway Melody of 1940 as the only two “Golden Era” Astaire films available on quality DVD. Both films look terrific, though one wonders if an extra five hundred grand wouldn’t have made them even better.
Holiday Inn is being sold as part of a Bing Crosby twofer, along with the ineffable Going My Way. Now over fifty years old, this monument to kitsch can still hold its own with such modern juggernauts of manipulation as The Sound of Music and ET. “A man would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing,” chuckled Oscar Wilde, making fun of a widely derided scene from Dickens.12 Well, if Oscar ever saw Going My Way, he’d flat-out die. So don’t say you haven’t been warned.
- Berlin’s idea, of course, was to create half a dozen seasonal classics that would serve as a retirement fund. The gigantic success of “White Christmas” alone more than did the trick. [↩]
- Fred was quite convincing in an earlier “buddy” film, when paired with Burgess Meredith in Second Chorus, but here both he and Bing come across as what one assumes they were in real life, very successful men entirely intent on having things their own way. It’s easy to imagine them feuding over a tee time or the “best table,” but not anything as inconsequential as a girl. [↩]
- . It appears that once Irving, Mark, Bing, and Fred were all on board, the money had run out. Neither Reynolds nor Dale was a star either before or after Holiday Inn. [↩]
- More than a decade later, Marilyn Monroe would show Bing how the song should be done in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1955), ably assisted by Donald O’Connor and Mitzi Gaynor. [↩]
- The interior of Holiday Inn strongly suggests the Medwick Country Club, the scene of Fred & Ginger’s penultimate RKO film, Carefree, directed by Sandrich. [↩]
- Although filmed in the darkest days of World War II, nobody seems to be suffering in Holiday Inn. Everyone drives a Cadillac and everyone has plenty of cash and plenty of gas. In fact, Detroit shut down domestic car production during the war and gas was rationed. An inn such as Crosby’s, particularly one only open a week at a time, would have been a serious nonstarter. [↩]
- Fred’s two previous pictures, Second Chorus and You’ll Never Get Rich, were just a shade on the plebian side, although Fred did wear white tie for at least one number in both films. [↩]
- Having the leading lady marry, or threaten to marry, a Texas millionaire was very standard Broadway musical plotting. [↩]
- Sample lyrics: “That’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart.” Well, duh. I can tell the difference. [↩]
- His socks match too. Astaire hated belts, for some obscure reason, and often wore sashes instead, but this is one of the few times that it’s obvious. [↩]
- Why are they called attitude turns? Dunno. [↩]
- I think Little Nell buys the farm in The Old Curiosity Shop, but I’m not sure. [↩]