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Crosby and Astaire shine bright in ‘Holiday Inn’

Cassie Belek | Thursday, November 2, 2006

The magic and on-screen chemistry between crooner Bing Crosby and dancer Fred Astaire establishes 1942’s “Holiday Inn” as one of the great holiday films of classic Hollywood and more magnificent even than Crosby’s 1954 holiday classic “White Christmas.” Although the black-and-white “Holiday Inn” is sometimes not as well known as the latter movie – especially among younger audiences – it features the first on-screen performance of Irving Berlin’s pop sensation “White Christmas,” and it dazzles with one of the greatest dance performances of Astaire’s career.

“White Christmas,” often characterized as a Christmas movie, happens to feature all the holidays of the year. When famous singer Jim Hardy (Crosby) tires of endlessly performing, he leaves his act partner Ted Hanover (Astaire) – who also steals his fiancée – and opens an inn in Connecticut. Instead of only getting holidays off like in his entertainment career, Jim decides that his inn will only be open on holidays and each holiday will bring a spectacular, themed floor show. Jim hires flower shop girl Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) to headline the shows and, after falling in love with her, struggles to keep Ted from whisking away yet another girl in order to secure a stable dancing partner.

The romance of Jim and Linda remains secondary in the film as the real couple emerges as Crosby and Astaire. In addition to their skills in song and dance, the two have undeniable comedic talent. Even though Astaire portrays a scoundrel who continues to steal loves away from best friend Jim, it is impossible to hate any character he may portray. The two effortlessly interact with each other as perfect comedic and professional foils.

Astaire’s highlight occurs on the evening of the Independence Day show. After Linda becomes “sidetracked” and he is left without a dancing partner, Ted improvises a tap performance using an array of firecrackers and explosives. The result is a rapid-fire, rhythmically perfect dance that comes from the genius of Astaire’s mind and took 38 takes to perfect.

The musical climax of the film actually arrives in the first half. Just before New Year’s, Jim and Linda sit at the piano, warmed by a crackling fire in the dark, when Jim decides to sing a new Christmas song he has been writing. The song that melodiously floats through Crosby’s sonorous voice is none other than Berlin’s “White Christmas” – a song that has become one of the best-selling singles of all time and one that offered particular comfort to the men and women in uniform during World War II.

Not even Berlin, who composed all the music for the classic movie, expected the song to gain the popularity that it did. He believed that the most popular song of the movie would be “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” While that song did sell a great number of records, the wartime environment skyrocketed “White Christmas” to its fame.

This bit of trivia and more can be found in the newly remastered “Holiday Inn” DVD. Ken Barnes, film historian and friend of Crosby and Astaire, provides the commentary that is paired with archive audio comments from the talented duo. Barnes thoroughly explains the black-face number and its surrounding controversy and reveals that in order to look believably drunk in one dance scene, Astaire actually did become drunk. Even when intoxicated, however, he never misses a beat.

Other special features on the DVD include a featurette, “A Couple of Song and Dance Men,” which features a conversation between Astaire’s daughter and Barnes interspersed with clips from Astaire’s and Crosby’s movies. Also included is a behind-the-scenes look at the song and dance numbers from the movie.

“Holiday Inn” can be enjoyed year round, but because of the song “White Christmas,” it is especially touching during the winter holiday season. Crosby and Astaire reunited on screen only once more in 1946’s “Blue Skies,” but this initial pairing is the most memorable. Crosby sings from the soul and Astaire dances like a dream. Apart, they are Hollywood legends, but together they are iconic.