HOLIDAY INN, the 8th-most popular cinema escape valve from the gloomy war news of 1942, gave us the song “White Christmas” and unloads some typically terrific footwork from Fred Astaire. Irving Berlin’s sentiment-summoning tune won the Oscar for Best Song, and nominations went up for the Music Score ((Robert Emmet Dolan) and for the Story, which was conceived by Berlin, who wrote a dozen numbers for Bing Crosby to warble and Fred to dance to. The obvious-as-Pearl Harbor screenplay by Claude Binyon (This Is The Army, Pepe) is pretty lame, and enjoying the nostalgia today is compromised by the unfortunate inclusion of a “blackface” number that is hard to stomach.
‘Jim’ (Crosby), ‘Ted’ (Astaire) and ‘Lila’ (Virginia Dale) are a song & dance trio that break up when Ted & Lila skip out, leaving Jim broken-hearted because he was wild about Lila, too. Later, after Jim has opened a country inn in a refurbished farm dwelling, Ted returns, having broken up with Lila. Now Jim has a new gal, ‘Linda’ (Marjorie Reynolds) who can sing like a bird and is sweet on Jim. Will that rascal Ted try to birddog Jim’s new girl? Will the Inn be a success? Will everyone get together for the finale? Will we win the war?
That last wasn’t yet for certain when this came out, but once our guys took a gander at the costume Miss Reynolds was poured into they had more than apple pie to fight for. She’s a peach, even though her singing was dubbed (by Martha Mears), and she dances gracefully with Astaire, as does Miss Dale. Apparently Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth were considered for the parts, but the $3,200,000 budget already front-loaded with the expense of Crosby, Astaire and Berlin, Paramount put the two relative unknowns, both 24, in as substitutes. They’re smooth and adept, paired up against the country’s #1 crooner and the greatest dancer in, like, ever?
Fred’s dynamism and grace is displayed in a half-dozen numbers, including “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers”, arranged for a 4th of July and here-comes-our-armed-might tie-in. Making it look easy on that one took Astaire 38 takes to be satisfied with his delivery. Fred makes putting up with Bing easier for those not overly enamored of Der Bingle’s style. Crosby sings a dozen times, solo or in harmony, and of course, “White Christmas” is the obvious winner. “Song of Freedom” would be the worst, were it not for the horrible “Abraham” (as in Lincoln) a blackface travesty, insulting and/or embarrassing enough to rule out the movie for many. ***
Almost stealing the otherwise breezy picture out from under the assured stars and game-to-please girls is veteran supporting actor Walter Abel, zooming about with peripatetic energy that gets a share of chuckles.
Produced & directed by Mark Sandrich, the public reception handily put the studio’s investment to rest by grossing $10,900,000. With Louise Beavers, Irving Bacon and Leon Belasco. Bing’s younger brother Bob leads the orchestra. 101 minutes. **
* Martha Mears (1910-1986) dubbed vocals for, among others, Loretta Young, Hedy Lamarr, Sonja Henie, Lucille Ball, Veronica Lake, Eva Gabor, Claudette Colbert and Maria Montez.
** Prior to this, Mark Sandrich guided four Astaire hits: The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Follow The Fleet, and Shall We Dance. In 1946, directing Fred for the sixth time, with Bing again, in Blue Skies, Sandrich died of a heart attack at the age of 44.
Though this movie introduced “White Christmas”, the lasting popularity of the touchstone holiday classic really owes more to the 1954 rework with Crosby and Danny Kaye, a huge #1 smash that went on to perennial Xmas showings on TV. Crosby’s recordings of the song sold 50,000,000 copies, making it far & away the best-selling song of all time. Not enough, yet another 100,000,000 sales of the sentimental lullaby were nocked by other artists.
*** Crosby’s occasional dramatic performances (Going My Way and The Bells Of St. Mary’s, The Country Girl, the remake of Stagecoach) are excellent, but most of his trademark laid-back stuff doesn’t age nearly as well.