Thursday, December 6, 2012

IRVING BERLIN'S HOLIDAY INN (Paramount 1942) Universal Home Video

With everything that’s been said and written about the immortal holiday tune ‘White Christmas’ many today forget that the song (a million copy seller by 1954) was actually written for Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn (1942), directed by Mark Sandrich. Berlin’s brainchild became a smashing success; its influence as far reaching as having a hotel franchise named in its honor. Yet the film’s otherwise remarkable pedigree began with a simple story scripted by Claude Binyon. Reportedly it was Berlin who thought up the idea of doing a movie musical centered on national holidays and set in an out of the way Connecticut lodge. To this scant, but very high concept, Berlin contributed the film's memorable score, drawing on his already well-established song catalogue that stretched all the way back to hits penned in the teens and twenties. Berlin also contributed several new songs to the film.
Of this new material, the composer had pinned his hopes for a smash from the single: 'Be Careful It's My Heart' - a melodious ballad written for the Valentine's Day sequence to forever establish the romantic rivalry between two old friends vying for the affections of the same girl. In fact, ‘Be Careful It’s My Heart’ is given a rather lavish treatment in Holiday Inn, staged for maximum effect as Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds whirl about the dance floor to Bing Crosby’s lyrical strains, a dreamy landscape of Valentine cupids, silk bunting and art deco hearts framing the couple with a quiet snowfall in the background.
But it was another ditty, less dramatic and more simply staged, yet ever so tenderly unassuming, that captured the public's fascination almost instantly.  Berlin had written a verse preceding the chorus of ‘White Christmas’ - one that firmly establishes the locale as Los Angeles, not Connecticut, and speaks to the anomaly of celebrating Christmas without the luxury of snow. Indeed, Berlin wrote this penultimate treasure while lounging poolside in LA, feverishly working on the rest of the score while his family remained back east in New York City.
Like all of the composer’s best loved melodies, the strength in his sentiment for ‘White Christmas’ derives from an almost obvious, though brilliantly understated simplicity; Berlin’s own longing to return to his family miraculously re-channeled into an innate and very universal need to be reunited  with them as the holidays approach. With its verse removed - a suggestion reported to have been made to Berlin by Fred Astaire - the song took on a more prescient meaning wholeheartedly embraced by G.I.’s fighting overseas during WWII and the mothers, wives and children they had left behind in America. 
Mark Sandrich, who had cut his teeth on a series of musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at RKO made the move to Paramount for Holiday Inn. A skilled technician with an eye like a camera, Sandrich understood that movie musicals are a very intimate art form unlike any other genre in filmmaking. And viewing Holiday Inn today, one can see just how far the Hollywood musical had matured by 1942. The elephantiasis in its musical numbers is gone, replaced by a more central focus on individual performance, something Astaire had championed in the 1930s, but was only partially successful at achieving during his RKO tenure with Ginger.
In retrospect it isn’t surprising that the only time Holiday Inn opens its creative floodgates for a true spectacle is during the 4th of July sequence; furnished with two Berlin songs sung by Crosby (Let’s Say It With Firecrackers and The Song of Freedom) and an electrifying dance solo for Astaire tripping the light fantastic amid a myriad of pyrotechnic explosions triggered beneath the floor. Berlin, who adopted America for his own and became one of its most sincere patriots, delivers a one/two musical punch with star-spangling brilliance. 
One of Holiday Inn’s true joys is undeniably its Irving Berlin score. But another is the casting of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as its pair of unapologetic hams. The two star as a pair of fair weather friends: song and dance men Jim Hardy and Ted Hanover respectively. Jim and Ted have held a cherished spot as an act inside one of Manhattan’s more fashionable nightclubs with their female partner, Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) who has recently becoming engaged to Jim. One problem: Lila really doesn’t love Jim and begins to realize it after he has already bought a farm for them to retire on after their wedding. But Ted seduces Lila in the meantime with promises of an exciting life and bigger, brighter career. Appealing to her greed Ted tells Lila that she owes the world her talent “…the two of us, dedicating our lives to making people happy with our feet.”

Resigned to the more simple pleasures he now realizes Lila wants absolutely no part of, Jim quits the act and moves to the farm where he quickly discovers that greener pasture require a lot of grueling hard work. Suffering a temporary mental breakdown after a year of trying to make a go of his ‘quiet life’, Jim rebounds with an idea so simple it can’t miss. He’ll turn his rustic home into a swank out of town nightclub that’s open holidays only. The idea marginally appeals to Ted, whose relationship with Lila has not been going smoothly.

Enter Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds); a girl working nights at a flower shop but who really wants the opportunity to sing and dance. After being given the polite brush off by Ted’s agent, Danny Reed (Walter Abel) Linda becomes ‘queen of Holiday Inn’ and Jim’s new romantic love interest. Unfortunately, Lila has left Ted for a Texas millionaire. Having consumed a bottle of scotch, Ted arrives at the inn on New Year’s Eve decidedly snookered, where he performs a drunken dance routine with Linda before passing out.
Unable to recall what Linda looked like, Ted informs Danny that he has resigned himself to returning to the inn for each subsequent holiday - convinced that his future career and romantic prospects are tied up in this mystery girl. Of course neither Ted nor Danny have any way of knowing that Linda is actually working at the inn. But Jim is determined not to let history repeat itself. Besides, he’s sincerely in love with Linda. So, for Lincoln's birthday Jim forces Linda to perform their routine in blackface. The ruse is successful. But when Ted and Danny arrive early for Valentine's Day they discover Jim serenading Linda with an engagement present: 'Be Careful It's My Heart'. Ted hijacks the orchestral portion of Jim's song to do a graceful pas deux with Linda, declaring at the end of the number that he has decided to work each subsequent show at the inn to remain closer to his 'old' friend.
All does not run smoothly, however. For Washington's Birthday, Jim sabotages Ted and Linda's performance, interpolating jazzy riffs with strains of a waltz that leave the two frazzled on the dance floor. Afterward Linda tells Ted that she is engaged to Jim, a declaration that hardly sways him from deliberate plotting to break them apart. For the 4th of July, Jim attempts to out deceive his deceivers by orchestrating a surprise reunion for Ted with Lila. He has also paid his hired man Gus (Irving Bacon) to fake a car accident so that Linda will not be able to reach the inn on time where Danny has secretly engaged a pair of Hollywood agents to take in the show.
Too late Linda learns of Jim's plan but manages to sabotage Lila's arrival at the inn as well. Ted performs a solo number and, although the Hollywood agents are mildly impressed by his act, they have fallen madly over the concept of doing a movie based on 'Holiday Inn'. Jim reluctantly sells the idea to the studio, with Ted and Linda as part of the package deal. The couple is promptly whisked away to that magical mecca of filmdom where they promptly begin shooting their movie. During this brief interlude Ted and Linda become engaged and Jim - having completed the final song to his score for the project – sulks back at the inn as Thanksgiving approaches. Jim is tended to by his devoted housekeeper, Mamie (Louise Beavers) who encourages him to stand up for himself once and for all and reclaim Linda's heart.
Arriving in Hollywood on the eve that Ted and Linda are bound for a quickie wedding in Yuma, Jim sneaks onto the set - an exact replica of his inn - and quietly observes as a very unhappy Linda sings 'White Christmas' for the camera; her feelings for Jim rekindled. Jim takes over singing the song, thus ruining her take. But Linda suddenly realizes what a mistake it would be to marry Ted. She really does love Jim. We return to the inn for New Year’s Eve. Ted is reunited with Lila, whom he devilishly refers to as “Miss Hit and Run”.

A major portion of Holiday Inn’s enduring appeal must go to Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier alluring set design. The inn is so cozy and rustically charming it becomes a major character in the film almost by accident, or as Jim puts it "A simple little layout where we could do the best with the work we know without having any delusions of grandeur." From the moment we arrive at the inn, actually a set constructed inside one of Paramount’s cavernous sound stages, it immediately fulfills our ultimate fantasy destination for pure musical escapism; a place that most anyone would want to either own or at least visit for a very relaxed vacation. The infectiousness of this faux reality is so perfectly realized and embraced by the audience that even when the story itself exposes the inn to be nothing more than a two dimensional set we still find it difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate this reality when pitted against the fantasy. 

As a matter of record, Holiday Inn contains two interesting anomalies. The first is its showcasing of the time honored tradition of black face. Viewed from our current cultural vantage, black face is widely regarded as racist; the homage to President Lincoln freeing the slaves marred by the sight of Crosby and Reynolds in dark makeup delivering decidedly overblown caricatures. Yet it is important to place the concept of 'black face' into its proper context. Considered an art form from roughly 1830 to 1940, black face often perpetuated a stereotype of the simple-minded, happy-go-lucky 'darky’. It was a main staple of travelling minstrel shows and the Vaudeville circuit.
As a natural extension of its popularity on stage, movie musicals from the early to mid-1930s contained blackface routines as part of their repertoire, with Holiday Inn's being one of the last documented on film. At the time of Holiday Inns premiere no one thought any better or worse of the sequence. But if Holiday Inn does have a flaw when viewed today, it remains this ‘Abraham’ number - if not acceptable - then at least, illustrative of just how far race relations in the United States have evolved since its time.
The second anomaly in the film has to do with then President Franklin Roosevelt's desire to expand the Christmas shopping season by declaring that the Thanksgiving holiday be pushed back by a week. As each segment in Holiday Inn begins with a stylized calendar of the holiday from that month clearly marked, the Thanksgiving calendar features a very confused turkey frustratingly wandering back and forth between the two dates proposed for the 'new' Thanksgiving. In the end, Roosevelt lost his bid and Thanksgiving's permanent date was established by law as Nov. 26th.
Holiday Inn was an enormous critical and financial success when it premiered. Today, it remains a cherished and celebrated Christmas classic perennially resurrected on TV over a hot cup of cocoa and as lovingly embraced as an open hearth. Astaire and Crosby are so perfect together – so in sync and comfortable with each other’s clever hamming – that one can easily buy their act as fair-weather friends feuding over the same two girls.  The women in the film are less definable, particularly Virginia Dale who all but vanishes from the story after contributing two mediocre duets with Astaire on the dance floor. Marjorie Reynolds is a fresh and very pretty face, to be sure, and she is in fine voice. But she’s no match for the eloquent Astaire who moves with an incomparable finesse throughout the movie.  Regardless, Holiday Inn is a sheer joy and a pleasure to revisit each holiday season. It ranks among the greatest treasures of the Christmas season and hopefully will remain so for many good years to come.
Universal Home Video has previously made Holiday Inn available as part of a single-sided double feature disc with Leo McCarey’s Going My Way (1944). The transfer of both films on that disc was severely flawed with edge enhancement and excessive shimmering of fine details.
But Universal’s reissue of Holiday Inn: The Special Edition as a ‘standalone’ disc with extras is a marked improvement indeed. For the most part, the aforementioned shortcomings have all but disappeared, although the window panes at the inn occasionally show slight shimmering. Film grain is more naturally realized this time out and age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. Contrast levels are fairly accurate. Whites look generally clean. Blacks are, for the most part, deep. The audio is mono but extremely well represented.

As for the extras, they include an audio commentary by Ken Burnes with pre-recorded excerpts from Crosby and Astaire reminiscing about their participation on the film. We also get two fairly dull featurettes: ‘A Couple of Song and Dance Men’ and ‘All Singing, All Dancing Before and After’. The first is a poorly edited and contrived bit of scripted nonsense in which Ava Astaire (Fred’s daughter) and Burnes wax about information readily expressed in the audio commentary.The second makes short shrift of the history of the Hollywood musical with still images and bootlegged clips from several films that Universal does not own the rights to (most noticeably ‘Top Hat’). It would have meant so much more if Universal had actually taken the time to give us a ‘making of’ documentary with archival footage.
As a matter of record, there is also a 'three disc' incarnation of Holiday Inn currently available from Universal Home Video. Why it hasn't found its way to Blu-ray just yet is, frankly, beyond me! The first disc in that 3 disc offering is identical to the materials reviewed herein. The second disc in that set contains a notoriously bad colorized version of the film - painful to watch under any circumstance. The third disc is a CD advertised as 'original soundtrack recordings'. However, none of the tracks on that CD are of those originally recorded for the film, rather re-recordings and extended cuts made at the studio with alternative orchestrations.
Even so, this reviewer cannot deny that Berlin’s infectious score and Astaire and Crosby’s professionalism is perfection itself. Holiday Inn: The Special Edition comes highly recommended. It captured my heart…singing.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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