There are two moments in 1942's Holiday Inn which always sucker-punch me right in the old feel-good bone. The first involves firecrackers; the second, a pipe.
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I'll get to the pipe later, but for now let's talk about those firecrackers exploding all around Fred Astaire's feet as he dances at buddy Bing Crosby's country inn dinner theater.
Broadway hoofer Ted Hanover (Astaire) has just been sent on stage to cover for a no-show performer. He has no idea what he'll do to entertain the restless guests, but then he sees a box of firecrackers. He fills his pockets with pyrotechnics, then goes out to trip the light fantastic. It starts as a typical nonchalant Astaire dance: hands in pockets, a bemused grin on his face, shoulders relaxed as if to say, "Can you believe they pay me to have this much fun?" Meanwhile, his feet are blazing away with the infectious tapTAPtappitytapTAP.
Then, he pulls a firecracker out of his pocket, looks at it, shrugs, and throws it down. Pop! And another. Pop! Pop! Soon, he's got sparks flying everywhere, his feet are tappity-tapping, he's twirling and sliding and grinning and, boy oh boy, it's the trickiest, lightest bit of choreography you've ever seen. Man, it's like he's having an orgasm with his clothes on.
It took Astaire two days to film that five-minute bit of cinematic joy, but even on the crispest DVD version of Holiday Inn, you won't see any beads of sweat on the guyjust further proof that Astaire was a dancing phenomenon. He's got a way of entering a room that has all the skipping grace of a deer bounding through the forest. The Nicholas Brothers had giddy gymnastics, Gene Kelly had joy and muscle, but Fred Astaire had an effortless feathery presence. The only way you could be certain his feet ever touched the ground was by the punctuating TAP! of his shoes.
[Speaking of Gene Kelly, here's tonight's Holiday Inn Trivia Tidbit #1: According to Hollywood legend, watching the firecracker dance from the wings was a young dancer who'd just arrived in Tinseltown by way of Broadway. He took in all of Astaire's fancy footwork with typical ingénue awe. Then, just like in a Hollywood fairy tale, Astaire noticed him. Astaire asked him if he could dance. "Yeah, I guess I can dance alright," replied the star-struck young man. The two struck up a conversation and eventually became good friends. The young kid? Gene Kelly, of course.]
Holiday Inn is a movie that's as light on its feet as its leading man (it's also light on the brain, too; but in typical Golden-Oldie Hollywood style, it's fun to indulge in shallow entertainment every now and then). It's a pure musical confection, spun sugar from the imaginations of composer Irving Berlin and director-producer Mark Sandrich, a couple of guys who were sitting around one day brainstorming clever studio pictures. "Hey, Irv! I've got an idea! Let's make a movie that has a musical number for every holiday!" Berlin high-fives Sandrich. "Cool! Let's put on a show!"
Maybe it didn't go quite like that
but you get the idea.
And "idea" is what Holiday Inn is all about. As the movie opens, Jim Hardy (Crosby) is just about to break up the successful singing-and-dance team which also includes Ted Hanover and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale). Hardy is tired of the Broadway grind and wants to move to a charming little farm he's bought in Connecticut. So, he's calling it quits on the groupbut not before one last musical number in which he and Ted compete for Lila's affection. We're less than five minutes into Holiday Inn and already Berlin is blasting away with "I'll Capture Your Heart." But it's great fun watching Astaire's tappity-tap and Der Bingle's buh-buh-bum crooning.
There's a complicated love triangle going on in those first few minutes, but it's really inconsequential because Lila soon drops out of the picture (literally) and we're down on the farm with Bing. The calendar pages flip past (literally) and, a year later, Jim is finding he's not as hardy as his name. He's still got Broadway in his blood and, one restless Thanksgiving, he decides he'll turn his farmhouse into a dinner theater. The catch is, it will only be open on holidays.
He tries to convince Ted to join him"At 15 holidays per year, that gives us 350 other days to goof off"but Ted won't have any part of the cockamamied scheme. So, Jim goes in search of another partner. One soon falls into his lap (literally): a young starlet wannabe named Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) who's working in a flower shop and is just eager enough to jump at any old cockamamied scheme that comes down the pike.
Soon, she and Jim are opening up Holiday Inn on New Year's Eve and blaring away with another Berlin crowd-pleaser, "Happy Holiday." Ted shows up that night, drunk as a skunk (but a dapper skunk, mind you). He's in despair because Lila's left him for a Texas millionaire. But don't worry, Ted, Linda's there in the crowd and soon you'll be dancing with her in a swoony pas de deux, a champagne-fueled waltz that's a masterpiece of comic timing and dazzling dancing. She's everything you'd want in a woman (with apologies to Miss Ginger Rogers). Only trouble is, you won't remember her name in the morning. Too bad, because she could have been such a great new partner for you.
[Holiday Inn Trivia Tidbit #2: Astaire really was schnockered for that dance number. Always the Method Dancer, he soused himself up before the camera started rolling so he wouldn't be too perfect in his footwork.]
And that's the setup for the rest of Holiday Inn: Bing tries to keep his new girlfriend out of Fred's clutches while running a 15-show-per-year dinner theater. The plot is thin as Astaire's lithe frame, but the real fun of the movie comes in the chemistry between all the players (Marjorie Reynolds, in her breakthrough role, adequately holds her own with the two male legendsshe's no Ginger Rogers, but she'll do in a pinch).
And, of course, the musical numbers-they're the heart and soul of Holiday Inn. Sure, they're 100-percent contrivances, but nearly all of them work (with the possible exception of the blackface "Abraham" on Lincoln's Birthday, a number that feels a bit unsettling today-though I'm sure Berlin and Sandrich had the best of intentions 60 years ago). There's "I Can't Tell a Lie" for Washington's Birthday, "Be Careful, It's My Heart" for Valentine's Day, "Song of Freedom" for the Fourth of July, and-well, you get the idea.
Berlin wrote an astounding 13 songs for the movie (a record for one film). Not all the holidays are covered, thoughthere's no tribute to Halloween, Columbus Day or National Dairy Products Week.
But the song that everyone remembers, the song that sealed Holiday Inn in pop culture history, the song that's the reason we all gather around the glowing TV every Yuletide season, that song-you know the one I'm talking about
"White Christmas"-gets played twice during the movie. The first time, Bing is sitting at a piano in front of a crackling fire and a Christmas tree; Linda is by his side and she's trying to learn the words (they're simple, really; just follow the bouncing ball
dreaming of a
white Christmas. Just like the ones
I used to know
"). This is the moment where Bing gets that solemn look in his eyes and thousands of viewers all across the nation get all blurry-visioned because they start thinking about all those Yuletides "they used to know." Then, for added effect, Bing picks up his pipe and taps the bell-like Christmas ornaments on the tree. (That's a "pipe moment," but not the one that always gets to me. Just wait, it's coming.)
Cheesy? Sure. Holiday fruitcake? You betcha
but serve me up a slice, Aunt Ethel, because I happen to like this kind of Hollywood sentiment. I know Im not alone. The song is one of the coziest duets in film history. You can practically smell the sugar cookies in the kitchen and hear the sleigh bells in the snow. "White Christmas" sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and was recognized as the best-selling single in any music category for more than 50 years until 1998 when Elton John's tribute to Princess Diana, "Candle in the Wind," overtook it in a matter of months.
[Holiday Inn Trivia Tidbit #3: "White Christmas" was not an immediate hit with moviegoers-they preferred the relatively tepid Valentine "Be Careful, It's My Heart;" but requests by homesick servicemen to Armed Forces Radio built the song's popularity during the war years and cemented it for decades to come.]
There are many reasons I like Holiday Inn (and, yes, it was the inspiration for the hotel chain): the goofy calendar structure, the banter between Bing and Fred, the large-but-cozy set. At times, it's a bit overstuffed with musical numbers
but that's why we've got the fast-forward button on our remotes, I suppose.
Okay, we've reached the final "pipe moment."
It comes near the end of the movie when Linda has forsaken Bing and his simple country ways, leaving him for the lure of Hollywood. In a neat, movie-within-a-movie trick, she's making a movie about his holiday inn, with a farmhouse thats been reproduced down to the last snowflake. Bing realizes that if he's going to win her back, he's got to go out there and grab her back from the evil clutches of Hollywood (and Ted Hanover). He shows up on the set just before Linda is supposed to film the big "White Christmas" finale. Bing hides in the wings as the cameras film Linda walking through the set and crooning "where the treetops glisten and children listen." But it's her eyes that are glistening because deep down in her heart all she wants is Bing and his simple country ways. She sits at the piano, tears streaking down her cheeks and sings her heart out for the cameras. She picks up the pipe and taps the ornaments and
Wait a minute! A pipe? Is it? Could it be?
Then we hear Bing whistling in the wings. A look of tearful joy washes over Linda's face and Bing starts in with buh-buh-bum.
-Cut to Grouch reaching for the Kleenex.
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