Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Holiday Inn (1942)

Bing Crosby croons Irving Berlin's "White Christmas,"
a song written for this 1942 holiday classic
Whoever though of putting Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby in the same film was a genius. The most popular dancer and the most popular singer of their generation made for the ultimate musical because they could compensate for each other's weaknesses. As if this were not good enough, however, the score by Irving Berlin features several classics including the first appearance of the song "White Christmas," which makes this holiday outing one for the ages.

The thin sliver of a plot goes something like this: Bing Crosby is a night club singer who's tired of his harried life of show business, and plans to marry and retire to a farm in the country. Even after his fiancĂ©e bales on him to be with his former partner Fred Astaire instead, Crosby remains determined to make his rural life a success. He quickly discovers he has no pleasure in farming, so he decides to turn his house into a night club that's open holidays only, appropriately to be named Holiday Inn, He quickly makes a hit of it, and falls for his new leading lady, but Fred Astaire shows up steal her away just as she and Crosby get engaged. Is history doomed to repeat itself again or will Bing's new love endure the debonair dancer?

Astarie gets three great dances to show off his twinkle-toes in this film. Perhaps the most iconic, however, is his solo number "Say It with Firecrackers," in which he taps and throws down small firecrackers to create a secondary rhythm. Not only is it a feat of musical timing, but  when Fred throws down a whole string of cracklers and lights them all at once, it becomes a stunning display of his fleetness of foot to watch him dance around them. The token romantic couple dance comes in the form of "Be Careful, It's My Heart," which is sung by Bing. Not surprisingly, the combination of Bing's velvety voice and Fred's graceful turns on the dance floor make for a breathtakingly beautiful combination. There's another wonderful number in which an inebriated Fred stumbles around the dance floor trying to dance with his partner. Fred does a spectacular job flailing about as if he were not in control of his faculties and adds just enough flourishes to make us think that even a completely sloshed Fred Astaire would still be quite a sight to behold,

As mesmerizing as Fred Astaire can be with his feet, though, the heart of this movie lies with Bing Crosby's character. Crosby was great at conveying the impression of being an average Joe just trying to get by in a hostile world. He does so well that this marks the only movie in which I do not want Fred Astaire to get the girl. Although he does not dazzle us as much as Fred does, he does get the honor of being the first person ever to sing the classic "White Christmas," and there really has never been a better rendition since then. He also gets to croon most of the other selections for the other holidays on the calender, many of which are quite memorable in their own right, and all of which are quite different from each other.

In the 1950s, someone had the bright idea to make a sequel to this film and entitle it White Christmas. Astaire and Crosby were to reprise their original roles, but when Astaire wasn't available, they replaced him with Danny Kaye. The new cast does a credible job with the script they are given, but neither the writing nor the music feels as inspired as the original. Likewise, since Fred Astaire is the apex of cinematic dancing, any film's dances when compared to his are bound to feel less graceful and elegant. Also where the situations in the first film feel scripted but earnest, there's a conscious corniness in the sequel that impedes my ability to believe the characters or suspend disbelief in the same way. It's not that White Christmas is a bad film. On the contrary I find it quite enjoyable on occasions, but it just doesn't hold a candle to the original.

I rate this film a solid 8 out of 10, purely joyous musical holiday entertainment at its finest.

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