Well, that was an interesting experience. Squirming and sighing and muttering “Oh my God” under my voice, then my wife screaming “It gets worse!” and all this from a film I enjoyed a lot. That’s right, we watched Holiday Inn (1942) for the first time on Blu-ray.
My wife and I first watched Holiday Inn two Christmasses ago on television, I believe it was Christmas Eve, and it was on in the middle of the afternoon. Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, a woman; we paid some attention and we enjoyed it; and wow, so that’s where the song White Christmas comes from!
Last year, it was on TV again. We remembered that we had quite enjoyed it. It was warm, sappy, cosy stuff, exactly what you want around Christmas, and unlike It’s a Wonderful Life it wouldn’t reduce me to a blubbering mess. So we watched it again, and once again we really enjoyed it.
This December came around and we decided that we would add it to our roster of annual Christmas films, alongside Die Hard and Bridget Jones’s Diary and the aforementioned blubber-maker. So, I decided to buy it on Blu-ray. Last night we settled down to enjoy it, we both had work the next day, so it would be a nice way to take our minds off everything at the moment.
For those of you who don’t know, Holiday Inn is about Bing Crosby’s singer and Fred Astaire’s dancer duelling it out for the affections of Marjorie Reynolds, who can both sing and dance, which seems to not to induce the inferiority complex that it should in the men. Most of the action takes place at the titular inn, which only opens on holidays for one-night shows where Bing and the gang perform themed songs and routines. There’s a Christmas song: “White Christmas” (which became a film); an Easter song: “Easter Parade” (which also became a film); a Valentines song, an Independence Day song, a Thanksgiving song, even a song for Washington’s birthday. But even before Valentine’s, there is Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th, and boy is it a doozy.
As that section started, I had a vague notion in my head that we never actually saw a Lincoln-themed song. In my memory I couldn’t picture Bing in a big stovepipe hat, so it must be glossed-over, I thought. Difficult to write a song about, I guessed. That is until Bing enters Reynolds’ dressing room with a tin of boot polish and starts blacking her up.
This choice has been made for plot reasons so that Astaire and his manager won’t recognise Reynolds’, who they are looking to steal from Bing. But what follows is a blackface routine with both Bing and Reynolds’ (and their band) blacked up, and a shocking line in which actress Louise Beavers sings the lyric “Who was it set the darky free?”. Yes. That happens.
Well, that’s that film down the drain, I thought. I’ve gone a bought a racist film without realising it. And so, the question is simple: is it possible to save Holiday Inn?
Timidly, I would argue yes. The main reason? Because the cut version is not only a better film, it actually makes more sense. You see, whilst he’s blacking her up, Bing proposes to Reynolds’ and yet later when she reveals this to Astaire, it comes across like she’s making it up. It also appears to come as a surprise to Bing when Astaire repeats it to him (the apparent surprise is even remarked upon).
And, on the evening of the Lincoln show, when Astaire and his manager (who have been running around like madmen looking for their mystery girl) are asked if they liked the show they remark that they “didn’t see much of it because we were kinda busy”. To which Bing’s reply of “the audience seemed to like the blackface routine, maybe we could try that again for Valentine’s” actually works as a bad taste joke if you hadn’t just actually watched a frigging blackface routine (especially within the context of him wanting to hide Reynolds’ from them). Not only is the film improved by not being racist, it actually makes more sense.
Of course, there are other problems. The film suffers from a stereotyped portrayal of a black maid, which already set my teeth on edge, and I can understand how that portrayal would be enough to render the film too uncomfortable for many audiences. So your mileage may vary. I’ll probably continue to watch it at Christmas, but I’ll skip past the Lincoln’s Birthday section, and I don’t think I’ll be recommending it to anyone as a family favourite.
This Christmas, if you sit down and watch Holiday Inn on television, you’ll probably have a nice time. If you watch it on DVD, Blu-ray, streaming, or TCM, just remember to keep that skip button handy.