Holiday Inn is about as corny as they get, but this Paramount musical conjures magic by bringing together three preeminent figures of 20th century song and dance: Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Even if this 1942 motion picture weren't so much glossy fun, it would have earned a place in pop culture history for having introduced the world to Berlin's classic "White Christmas." And if that weren't enough (and by all rights it darn well should be), the movie was the inspiration for the name to the international hotel chain.
Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire star as show biz partners Jim Hardy and Ted Hanover, two song-and-dance guys who find themselves at odds – sorta – when Ted steals away Jim's fiancé, Lila (Virginia Dale). Oh, well, Jim is an amazingly unflappable fella, and so he graciously bids the new couple good luck and shuffles off to rural Connecticut. There he buys a huge farmhouse and converts it into an inn and nightclub. But here's the twist: Jim plans to open the inn only on holidays, thereby giving him about 350 days a year to kick back and relax. Along the way, he hires – and woos – an aspiring singer-dancer, Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds).
Complications ensue when Lila jilts Ted for a Texas millionaire on New Year's Eve. Drowning his sorrows in booze, Ted flees to the now-hopping Holiday Inn to commiserate with his old buddy, Jim. Instead, the drunken Ted winds up dancing with Linda in a lively number that brings down the house.
Jim braces himself to lose another dame to Ted, but luck (and gin) intervenes. The next morning, Ted can't remember the mystery gal he hoofed it with, forcing him and his excitable manager (Walter Abel) to search for who they are certain will be Ted's next dancer partner.
Goofy? Sure, but Holiday Inn aspires to be nothing other than light and engagingly silly entertainment. And on that level, it's a smashing success. Director-producer Mark Sandrich, who also helmed the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat, transports viewers to a cinema fantasyland where no lovers' triangle is too worrisome, a place where a hammer and some nails can transform an unassuming New England farmhouse into a rustic palace. Moreover, Claude Binyon's screenplay also happens to be genuinely funny. In a winking bit of postmodernism, Holiday Inn even gets self-reflexive toward the end, when Hollywood taps Ted and Linda to star in a movie about -- wait for it -- Holiday Inn.
Irving Berlin, who had the idea for the movie, contributes some wonderful holiday numbers here. In addition to "White Christmas," standouts include "Easter Parade," "Lazy" and "Happy Holiday." Of course, it helps when the performers are musical icons. Crosby and Astaire get respective moments to shine, with the latter particularly incandescent in a firecracker-fueled Fourth of July dance aptly titled "Say It with Firecrackers."
Still, there are a few duds, the most notorious being a shockingly dated minstrel-show ode to Abraham Lincoln. As Crosby and Reynolds sing "Abraham" in blackface, Holiday Inn's African-American mammy (Louise Beavers) serenades her two small children in the kitchen: "When black folks lived in slavery / Who was it set the darkie free? / Abraham! Abraham!" The scene is a jaw-dropper, alright, but at least it's memorable.
Even less fortunate is "I Cannot Tell a Lie," a howler in which Astaire and Reynolds don powdered wigs and fake moles to warble on about how no one can fib on George Washington's birthday. Perhaps a few clunkers are inevitable when you force yourself to write songs for nothing but holidays. At least Berlin didn't feel compelled to honor Arbor Day.
Aside from a few specks and tiny flashes, the print transfer is good enough, but falls short of the masterful job that similar classics have received in recent years. Presented in black and white and its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the picture is a bit too soft and gray.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is a little tinny at times, but generally very good for a film of this age. Subtitles are available in Spanish, French and English for the hearing-impaired.
This special edition boasts an excellent audio commentary by film historian Ken Barnes, as well as archival remarks from Astaire, Crosby and Crosby's longtime music director, John Scott Trotter. Barnes gives an excellent overview of Holiday Inn, placing it in proper historical context and peppering his comments with interesting trivia.
More cumbersome, however, is Barnes' participation in the 44-minute, 31-second documentary, A Couple of Song & Dance Men: Ava Astaire McKenzie in Conversation with Ken Barnes. An exhaustive biography of Crosby and Astaire with some nifty archival footage, the only serious drawback is its clumsy execution. Barnes and McKenzie (Astaire's daughter) are supposed to be conversing, but there is almost no real interaction between the two. Barnes talks as McKenzie nods absently; then McKenzie talks. The result is akin to two awards presenters reading from a TelePrompTer.
Another featurette works better. Barnes narrates All Singing-All Dancing, which explores the intricacies involved in shooting musicals. The piece runs seven minutes and 15 seconds.
The final extra is the ever-welcome theatrical trailer.
A lightweight confection from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Holiday Inn is silly but thoroughly entertaining. With terrific tunes, Bing Crosby crooning, Fred Astaire dancing and a gaggle of laughs, the flick is still certain to charm audiences. And it finally gets the treatment it deserves with a solid commentary and informative featurettes.