Released in 1942, Holiday Inn isn’t precisely a Christmas movie, as the star-spangled poster hints at. In fact, the film covers several major — and minor — calendar holidays, as that is the central conceit of the film. The Holiday Inn of the title (which inspired the name of the later hotel chain) is an inn which is open only on the holidays. The rest of the year, its owner relaxes and enjoys himself, or at least intends to. But though the film spans the year, it begins and ends during the month of December, around the holidays of Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
The film is notable for being the creation of Irving Berlin. Though it was directed by Mark Sandrich, the concept behind the film was Berlin’s, and Berlin wrote all the music. This includes two songs which have had a lasting run in Christmas music mixes: “Happy Holiday” and, of course, “White Christmas”, which would later inspire a film of the same title.
The “Holiday Inn” number is also catchy, but is less easily adapted to general usage.
The star of the film is Bing Crosby, who plays a vaudeville singer who has decided to take things easy. He doesn’t want the limelight, he just wants to share his music every once in a while. So when his attempt at farming turns out to be too much work, he founds Holiday Inn, the inn that’s only open for the holidays. On each holiday, he gives a performance. Joining him is a hopeful starlet (Marjorie Reynolds) who can sing and dance. The two gradually start a romance, but trouble is brewing in the form of his former partner, a tap dancer who had stolen his previous fiancee. Now jilted himself, the tap dancer — played by Fred Astaire — has his eyes set on a new partner, and thinks he’s found his match at Holiday Inn. A friendly rivalry ensues, with the singer and dancer each vying to keep her without her knowing that she’s the rope in a game of tug-of-war.
The character byplay is moderately fun, but it never seems to rise above the level of mild amusement. The housekeeper (Louise Beavers) at the inn accuses Bing’s character of lacking fire, and the same could be said of the film. The characters have an easy-come, easy-go attitude that makes them feel emotionally shallow, and the comic aspects of the film never quite reach the heights of a screwball romantic comedy.
Still, there’s some definite entertainment to be had here. The whole premise of the film is built around old song and dance routines, and in Crosby and Astaire there are two of the best the silver screen has ever had. Astaire’s dancing is fun to behold, particularly one New Year’s Eve dance where his character is thoroughly drunk. The resulting dance is inept in the most skillful way, always just off enough to make the audience think he’s about to fall flat on his face. And Crosby’s skill as a singer can be taken as a given, of course — after all, his rendition of “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all time. The other songs vary in quality, but they are nearly all entertaining — the one exception, sadly, being the opening and closing number, “I’ll Capture Your Heart Singing”, which just seems repetitive and drawn out. Also, today’s viewers will have some discomfort watching the number “Abraham” — for Lincoln’s Birthday — as the characters decide to perform in blackface. If you don’t cringe at Bing Crosby’s appearance, rest assured, you will cringe at Marjorie Reynolds’.
Taken as a whole, the film is a bit of a mixed bag. There are some good ideas in it, particularly the inn itself and the in-film idea of Hollywood making a film about the inn (thus the film goes meta-textual at one point). And the song and dance numbers, which form the bulk of the film, are generally entertaining. But for a film which is driven by the relationships of its characters, those characters are a little lifeless when they’re not performing. A little more work on their personalities and Holiday Inn might be easier to recommend on more than a historical note.