The First Day of Christmas: Holiday Inn
Holiday Inn (Mark Sandrich, 1942) is the granddaddy of Christmas movies. It came before Meet Me in St Louis (Vincente Minelli, 1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), or Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947). Indeed, John Mundy goes as far as to say that “It was Holiday Inn (1942) which did most to establish the Christmas film”.[i] It is interesting, then, that Sandrich’s film is more about American holidays throughout the year rather than solely Christmas, and only focuses on it at the start and end, anchoring the movie around the greatest celebration of all. It is perhaps this promotion of Christmas above all other festivals, a place when conflicts first emerge and are eventually resolved, that helps it to embody the myth of Christmas so strongly in cinematic history. Because of this, it is undoubtedly amongst the most traditional and pantheonic of all Christmas movies, and yet, as I will lay out in the coming paragraphs, it simply is not a very good film.
Holiday Inn is structured in the mould of the traditional Hollywood musical. We follow Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), two stage performers through the ups and downs in their careers and love-lives over two years of American holidays including the birthdays of presidents Lincoln and Washington, Valentine’s Day, and, of course, the Christmas and New Year’s season. We enjoy the talents of both men, Crosby’s singing and Astaire’s dancing through numerous set-pieces scattered throughout the film, designed to show-case the spectacles they are each capable of. And that is about the long and the short of it, the film offers this and little else. To be fair to Holiday Inn, it does make this fact pretty clear in its opening number, but that is scant consolation for the lack of any real narrative drive or entertaining plotting. I struggle to get along with the Classical Hollywood non-integrated musical format at the best of times, with their clear separation of narrative and spectacle so that we must pause the story in order to watch, in this case, Crosby or Astaire perform for minutes on end. And this is far from the best example in the genre. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the spectacle in Holiday Inn largely failed to entertain me at all, and the set-pieces descend into boring interludes that I could really do without, although, of course, without them, there would be no movie at all. There are highlights of a sort, of course. One sequence features Hanover dancing whilst heavily inebriated, Astaire performing in a way that is both funny and makes you marvel at his ability to add the layer of drunkenness to his nimble feet. And, perhaps most famously of all, this is the film from which Crosby’s “White Christmas” originates, the best-selling single of all time, though it is notable that this is the only decent song to come out of the movie. In its main thrust, then, Holiday Inn is a work of cinema with a plethora of unattractive attractions; an unspectacular spectacle once the novelty of seeing Crosby and Astaire on the silver screen has worn off.
You might think that that is the worst way one can condemn a movie, but Holiday Inn warrants a harsher grilling still in its forefronting of now long outdated attitudes. I am a great believer in the maxim that we should take films as they come, and not judge them too brutally for being products of a bygone era where different behaviours and attitudes were commonplace. With some films you can almost excuse them their little antediluvian-isms because they thrill you enough to value them anyway. Nevertheless, Final Shot is a blog that purports to review films with 21st century eyes, and besides, Holiday Inn is not a good enough movie to be given the grace of missteps, and its racial blunders are far from little. Indeed, it is almost as though Sandrich was ticking boxes to be as offensive as possible. The Mammy stereotype and egregious blackface are on blatant show here, and, just to make sure no one feels left out, there is even a quick interlude to mock European accents. It really is hard to watch, and, as much as anything, makes you wonder why anybody ever thought performing in blackface was funny in the first place. Meanwhile, though less offensive, the attitudes the film expounds towards women are equally obsolete. It is not that the female characters are treated especially badly in Holiday Inn, it is more that the film’s whole relationship with women, romance, and relationships is wildly different from my own, and so the cinematic experience of the film is more akin to watching a quaint slice of history, rather than the emotionally-affecting, relatable tale that the film is obviously aiming for.
Though Holiday Inn lacks much, it does truly live up to its Christmas movie billing. It has singing, dancing and comedy. Aesthetically, it has snow, Christmas trees and log-fireplaces. And, most importantly of all, it has a conflict-resolving happy ending, where all of the characters’ troubles are solved by the magic of Christmas. It’s just a shame this magic can’t quite extend to solving the troubles inherent to the movie.
At time of writing, Holiday Inn is available to watch on Now TV/Sky Cinema.
[i] John Mundy, “Christmas and the Movies: Frames of Mind” in Sheila Whiteley edited collection of essays Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (2008), page 167.