December 22, 2011

Christmas Bonus: Holiday Inn
by Stacey

Yet another Christmas bonus! Stacey watched Holiday Inn, and since I wasn’t writing it up, and she had time and was nice and sober, she wrote the Great American Novel of blog posts about it for you all. Enjoy!  —DocSmartypants

Holiday Inn (old enough to be in black-and-white) Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, some chick who can sing and dance because they could all sing and dance back then.

The other night, my mother, sister, and I all watched Holiday Inn, because my mother and sister had never seen it. They were, as everyone always is, surprised when “White Christmas” showed up in the movie. And that is, really, the entire reason why Holiday Inn gets watched at Christmastime, because other than the presence of that song, it’s not in the stereotypical vein of a Christmas movie. Christmas does happen in the movie, three times, complete with movie-perfect snow and Christmas trees with lit candles on them (Were people just more responsible in the olden days? Smarter? Possessing more common sense?). But the plot doesn’t revolve around any of the emotion of Christmas (whether happy or stressful) that most other Christmas movies focus on. It begins and ends at Christmastime but I think, if the Christmas scenes didn’t include the singing of the song “White Christmas,” no one would really think of this as a Christmas movie.

The plot of the movie: Bing Crosby plays Jim, a singer who’s part of a successful performing trio with Ted (Fred Astaire) and Lila. As the story opens, Jim and Lila are getting ready to quit the grind of show business and get married. Except that it soon becomes clear that it’s only Jim who wants to sit around doing nothing. Lila decides to run off with Ted. Jim hears this news and is like, “Huh. Okay, then. Good-bye.” And he moves to his farm in Connecticut.

Turns out farming is lots of hard work. So, after about a year (and apparently a minor nervous breakdown), he decides to turn the farm into an inn and to open it only on the 15 holidays a year (three of which occur in February, btw).

Jim shows up at Ted and Lila’s show saying that he’s looking for talent for his new Holiday Inn. His former agent sends aspiring singer/dancer Linda Mason his way. But first, before Linda shows up at the inn, there’s this kind of convoluted and unnecessary meeting between Jim and Linda at Ted and Lila’s show. I guess this is supposed to establish that they have chemistry or something?

Linda shows up at Jim’s really kind of incredibly gorgeous inn, and the pair of them sing “White Christmas” together, and therefore their destiny is sealed, because “White Christmas” is a serious, lifetime-commitment song, not a fling kind of song. Everything seems hunky-dory at Holiday Inn.

Until Ted shows up again. Because ruining a guy’s life once isn’t enough for a lifetime. (I say this on the assumption that a normal guy would be pretty devastated if his fiancée run off with one of his friends. Truthfully, Jim doesn’t seem all that affected by it. Unless he’s suppressing it and this is why he has a nervous breakdown and then goes a little bit crazy and controlling with Linda. Actually, that does make some sense.)

Anyway, I’ve digressed a bit: Lila has left Ted for a Texas millionaire (I love the Texas detail in there—those darn Texans! So rude and uncouth and not-to-be-trusted!). In reaction, Ted shows up drunk at Jim’s wildly successful Holiday Inn, and Ted and Linda dance an implausibly well-choreographed “spontaneous” routine together. Ted passes out, then wakes up in the morning with nary a memory of this magical dance, but the crowd is buzzing with it and Ted and the agent decide that the mystery girl has to be Ted’s new partner.

Jim knows, of course, that the mystery girl is his Linda, but he doesn’t want to tell Ted who she is because Jim is in love with her (because they sang “White Christmas” together, see above), and he knows that Ted will steal her from him just like Ted stole Lila. Jim tries to hide Linda from Ted (including a scene where he apparently awkwardly semi-proposes while applying blackface to her), but eventually Ted figures out who she is. Ted moves into Holiday Inn, determined to convince Linda to be his partner. Eventually, Linda does acquiesce, mainly in the face of Jim’s attempts to manipulate her and control her future so he kind of deserves it a little. Linda goes off to Hollywood with Ted, leaving Jim sad and depressed and all alone at Thanksgiving in his now-closed inn. Until his wise black cook tells him he should fight for Linda. (I actually really like that scene, because the cook has a line about “You could melt her heart like butter, if you’d only turn up the heat,” and it’s not the most brilliant line in the world but it says a lot about Ted’s character, and more on that later.)

So Jim goes to Hollywood to fight for Linda, on the eve of her wedding to Ted. Linda is getting ready to film the final scene of the movie she’s making. A final scene involving a set designed to look just like the inn, movie-perfect snow, a Christmas tree with lit candles, and the song “White Christmas.” What do you think happens?

I actually think I kind of love Bing Crosby, especially in this movie. First, he’s very good-looking. Second, he has a great voice. And third, he plays the sort of character here that I really love. He’s the somewhat aloof and droll one, the one who stands a bit to the side commenting, because he’s the straight man, the sane one, the responsible one, the smart one. While he seems to be a romantic, he’s also strongly pragmatic. He isn’t going to be the one with the burning passionate speeches, because he’s going to be the steady one who’s going to be there at the end of it all patiently reminding you of what the point was in the first place. Yes, he has his zany moments, but he’s really the character you’re supposed to be identifying with, and I do. I like that he wants to spend as much time as possible sitting around and doing nothing, okay? And I like the fact that he’s probably reached that point because he’s exhausted from dealing with Ted for however many years they had an act together. I am familiar with Jim’s predicament, and I feel for him and love him for it. In fact, Jim should call me and we should get married, because I’d never be tempted to leave him for Ted. Ted is kind of a jerk through most of this movie, and I think we’re supposed to think he’s some kind of charming, rakish rascal, but no, he’s just rude and mean. Can you imagine just announcing you’re moving in with the person whose fiancée you’d stolen, with the purpose of stealing his new fiancée? Like, who does that? I don’t get why Jim isn’t just like, “No, you’re not staying here, get out.” And I wonder if some of this is some kind of changing social value at work or something. Like, was Ted considered more charming originally? Were women like, “Oh, that Jim, he can be a bit of a stick in the mud because he can’t dance”? I’m not sure. It’s interesting to think about, though, especially as you watch Ted steal Jim’s girl. Again. And Jim looks so sad and bereft and you’re like, “Awww, poor Jim, call me on your ancient telephone; I’ll sing ‘White Christmas’ with you.”

Sort of on the same subject of changing social values, it’s amazing to me how much old movies are kind of just collections of symbols to us now. Like, they’ve entered our lexicon so strongly that they read as clichés. I took a course in college called Narrative Theory, and it was all about the shortcuts writers (and film-makers) use to telegraph things to their audience. The class was, in a way, about how clichés aren’t always bad, they’re useful if employed properly to get your audience where you need them to be. In fact, you need clichés, you’d never get anywhere without them. They’ve gotten a bad reputation, but try to set a movie in New York without an establishing shot to telegraph to your viewer This is New York. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’d be a lot worse to have your character say, “HERE WE ARE IN NEW YORK CITY” than to just show the Statue of Liberty and have your viewer immediately grasp it.

Anyway, today we make movies with incredibly complex storylines and characters, we strive for realism in everything. And it’s made movies, quite frankly, work to go see. Now maybe old movies were work at first, for audiences not used to the medium being used to communicate, but now we are so well-versed in the language of film that Holiday Inn and other older movies feel like going back and reading See Spot Run. Let’s face it, there is nothing realistic about Holiday Inn. (See Jim’s continuing tolerance of Ted above.) It’s a series of set pieces that are just meant to telegraph to the audience. “Here is the scene where Jim and Linda have a conversation so you can see they are going to be interesting to each other.” “Here is the scene where they sing and fall in love.” “Here is the scene where Ted dances with Linda and falls in love.” “Here is the scene where Linda gets angry at Jim and leaves.” You never really feel that Jim loves Linda or vice versa, but that doesn’t harm the movie because you know you’re supposed to believe that it’s true. You accept it because it was telegraphed to you, right there: “This is what you, the viewer, knows now. Don’t question it, we’re going to throw in a dance number now to distract you.” If someone made a movie like this today, we would be like, “But they didn’t have chemistry! They had three conversations and were suddenly engaged! The motivations don’t line up!” I am that kind of viewer with a modern movie, but an old movie frees me from that, because I understand that the world it’s engaged in is different.

Which is why (talk about changing social values…) it has a blackface number. It was made in a very different time, and the number is cringe-inducing and appalling to modern viewers. The broadcast I saw actually cut the number out of the show. I admit I’m torn about this. I actually think it can be important to preserve the casual racism of our past, because those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But keeping the number in makes the movie about that, in a way, and kind of robs the movie of its own terms, forcing it to be judged by a different standard. So, I can see an argument for both versions of the movie, but be forewarned going in.

In conclusion, Holiday Inn is an enjoyable little movie. There’s nothing groundbreaking about it, really, except for the awesomeness of the song “White Christmas,” which really does endure in its magic and never gets old for me. It isn’t the best written movie, nor is it the most brilliantly acted, but the actors all exude that charm that actors were expected to have more frequently in those days than in our days, I think.

posted under Media
3 Comments to

“Christmas Bonus: Holiday Inn”

  1. On December 22nd, 2011 at 10:07 am Stacey Says:

    Huh. That *is* a long blog post…

  2. On December 22nd, 2011 at 11:28 am docsmartypants Says:

    Well yes, it is long, but that’s because you talk about “changing social values” and “narrative theory” and such! I feel like we’ve all learned something here today.

  3. On December 23rd, 2011 at 11:28 pm Stacey Says:

    Yes. We’ve all learned I think too hard about things.

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