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The prolific composer Irving Berlin had written songs for three Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films: Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), and Carefree (1938). Among Berlin's successful Broadway musicals was the revue, As Thousands Cheer (1933), in which most of the songs commented on news items. It did so well that a few years later Berlin and playwright-director Moss Hart planned to do another revue, this time one inspired by American holidays. It never happened, but in 1941, Berlin ran into film director Mark Sandrich, who had directed Berlin's three Astaire-Rogers films at RKO, and was now at Paramount. Berlin suggested his holiday musical idea to Sandrich as a vehicle for Paramount star Bing Crosby. Sandrich liked it, and he and Berlin began working on a storyline about two song and dance partners.
The project seemed custom-made for Astaire, who had been freelancing since leaving RKO in 1939. However, budget-conscious Paramount resisted, saying Astaire would be too expensive. But Sandrich was adamant, and threatened to abandon the project without him, so the studio reluctantly agreed. As soon as Astaire, Berlin and Crosby signed on to Holiday Inn (1942), Sandrich told the press, "I call this picture the A B C of American musical comedy. Astaire, Berlin, Crosby. Get it?"
The plot of Holiday Inn was merely an excuse on which to hang 14 Berlin songs. Crosby, Astaire, and Virginia Dale are a musical act, which breaks up when Crosby decides to retire to a farm. But Crosby quickly grows bored and decides to turn his farm into an inn and nightclub, which will be open only on national holidays. He then teams with a new partner, played by Marjorie Reynolds. Suddenly, Astaire, jilted by Dale, pays a visit, and the two men's musical and romantic rivalry starts up again.
Originally, there had been some discussion of getting stars for the female leads. Ginger Rogers and recent Astaire partner Rita Hayworth were mentioned. But Paramount, which was already shelling out big bucks for Crosby and Astaire, balked, and two relative unknowns were selected. Virginia Dale was a nightclub dancer who had played minor roles in over a dozen films. Marjorie Reynolds had been starring in Poverty Row Westerns. When Reynolds won the female lead in Holiday Inn, the Paramount publicity department dubbed her the "Saddle Cinderella." Although neither actress became a major movie star, Reynolds would find small-screen stardom a decade later, playing the wife of William Bendix in the 1950's TV series, The Life of Riley.
Production of Holiday Inn had just gotten underway in late 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. entered World War II. Rationing of all kinds of items, from cloth to rubber, immediately went into effect. With all those production numbers in Holiday Inn, and 70 costume changes among the four leads, designer Edith Head and her wardrobe department staff were hard-pressed to come up with the material they needed. The studio's publicity department claimed that one of Reynolds' gold-beaded outfits used up the last beads in Hollywood. According to a press release, it seemed that "beads for such garments have been strung by Czecho-Slovakians [sic] for generations, and the stringing part is unknown in the United States. With importing of the beads a thing of the past, American designers have used up all there are." For the Fourth of July number, studio flacks claimed that production designers bought all the now-embargoed rubber balloons in Los Angeles.
But with talents like "ABC," Holiday Inn didn't need beads and balloons to draw big audiences and rave reviews. The musical numbers ranged from Astaire's spectacular firecracker dance, which took the perfectionist Astaire two days and 38 takes to get right, to the yearning simplicity of "White Christmas," which won the Oscar for best song, and remained the best-selling single in any music category for more than 50 years. (It was not until 1998 that Elton John's tribute to Princess Diana, the revised version of "Candle in the Wind," outsold it.) Holiday Inn also received Oscar nominations for Best Original Story and Best Music Score.
Surprisingly, though, "White Christmas" was not the hit of Holiday Inn. The Valentine song, "Be Careful, It's My Heart," was initially more popular. But the popularity of "White Christmas" grew during the war years, as homesick servicemen requested Armed Forces Radio to play it. The song would become the title tune for the remake of Holiday Inn, White Christmas (1954), starring Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.
There was one more legacy that Holiday Inn contributed to American culture: the hotel chain, Holiday Inn, was named for the movie.
Director: Mark Sandrich
Producer: Mark Sandrich
Screenplay: Claude Binyon & Elmer Rice, based on a story by Irving Berlin
Editor: Ellsworth Hoagland
Cinematography: David Abel
Costume Design: Edith Head
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Roland Anderson
Music: Irving Berlin
Principal Cast: Bing Crosby (Jim Hardy), Fred Astaire (Ted Hanover), Marjorie Reynolds (Linda Mason), Virginia Dale (Lila Dixon), Walter Abel (Danny Reid), Louise Beavers (Mamie).
BW-101m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller