The Magic of Memory and ‘Holiday Inn’

Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn (1942) is a fascinating piece of Americana. The dialogue, especially between the film’s two main characters, Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), moves swiftly, while the dancing and singing sequences are elevating, funny, and of course, superb. After eight decades, it remains one of the most popular holiday films. It’s certainly a favorite in our family, so when I saw our town’s historic theater would feature the film this Christmas season, I immediately made plans to bring along my young son. He was thrilled, not only because Holiday Inn is one of his favorite films, but because this would be his first time going to an actual cinema.

The theater’s history only added to the luxuriousness of our experience. Dating back to 1925, the first film featured there was Madame Sans-Gêne with the queen of the silent cinema, Gloria Swanson (sadly, this film is lost, and all that survives are a few short clips). Luckily, Holiday Inn has not suffered quite the same fate . . . at least not yet.

It was an exciting adventure for both my son and me, but I was slightly cautious. Almost everything in our society has been submerged in the cesspool of ideology, and anything that’s beautiful is also, somehow, rendered offensive. According to the judgment imposed by the woke “ministry of truth,” works of art deemed offensive to our modern sensibilities should be purged or manipulated in one form or another. Would this showing of Holiday Inn be yet another example? Would there be a disclaimer about the minstrel show number? Is the film not sufficiently feminist? Does the very fact that it was made in 1942 now make the film irrelevant?

I quickly realized on this occasion that I had no reason to cling to this atmosphere of  anxiety our leftist culture has induced in anyone trying to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. To my delight, the theater simply showed the movie in its entirety. No announcements, no disclaimers, just theater management and patrons enjoying Fred Astaire’s dancing and Bing Crosby’s singing. Everyone clapped when the final credits rolled, and few couples hugged and kissed each other.

Had I walked into some magical theater where people are kind to one another and know how to recognize beauty? It all seemed unreal given the pervasive cynicism and ugliness that runs the clunky machine of our society, yet clearly this simple beauty allowed people to relate to one another in their shared love of film and the holiday season, while transcending any lingering ideological stridency or anxiety. My son and I were elevated by the experience, not only because I could share my love of movies with him, but because ugliness was not welcomed into this space.

Holiday Inn awakens that very human appreciation of beauty as the story evokes a strong longing for order, family, and friendship. A sense of order prevails even through mishaps and strained friendship between club and stage performers Jim and Ted. They are joined by Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale). Jim wants to leave the dancing and singing business for good. He’s tired of never having a day off and would like to get a farm and live a “simple life.” Lila is supposed to join him, however, unbeknownst to Jim, Ted and Lila are planning to let Jim wander off into the sunset and start their own act without him. They think they’re in love, though whether it is with each other or with life in the limelight is unclear.

The truth about Ted and Lila’s plan is revealed to Jim unwittingly by their agent, Danny Reed. Jim is naturally disappointed and leaves to try that farm life he has been dreaming about.

Farm life is not what he expected to be, and he soon lands in a sanatorium. Jim ponders what his next step may be and comes up with a novel idea: an inn that features shows and dining, but only on holidays. That way, he has plenty of time during the rest of the year to relax and enjoy the simple things but he can also indulge his talent and his need for adulation.

When Jim tells Ted and Danny about his plan and asks them to send any talent they can muster to “Connektikut” they appear to find the idea preposterous, but in Danny ends up giving Jim’s contact to a flower shop girl, Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) who is pestering him for a break (she is, of course, an aspiring singer/actress/dancer).

In the meantime, Lila has left Ted for the “most wonderful millionaire,” and Ted is despondent. Jim’s idea of a “Holiday Inn” turns out to be a success and Linda becomes one of the stars. Ted, however, is trying to snatch her so that she can become part of his act, as are several Hollywood producers.

Between all the different musical numbers signifying different holidays, Jim becomes suspicious of Ted’s plans and allows his jealousy to become a self-fulling prophecy, pushing Linda away. Linda then begins a “whirlwind romance” with Ted and becomes a great Hollywood star. Eating Thanksgiving dinner all by himself, he mopes and sulks, until Mamie (Louise Beavers), the housekeeper wakes him up from his self-pitying slumber and instructs him to haul himself to Hollywood and fight for his girl!

Halfway through the filming of Holiday Inn, the United States fleet was attacked at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, beginning U.S. involvement in World War II. During Fred Astaire’s July 4th number, the producers added footage of American workers building weapons, as well as the images of FDR speaking. This populist imagery adds extra layer of camaraderie to the film, as Americans were joined together by the idea that they needed to overcome their own petty differences and disagreements so they might fight for freedom together.

There is a great sense of authenticity and sincerity in this as Crosby sings about freedom and the audience is directed to imagery of such things as our Bill of Rights. What does it all mean to us today, I thought? Can today’s Americans find the same sense of pride in these images that were certainly evoked in Americans of that time? We live in a different America, perhaps, but I believe those things can still ignite a shared American strength if appealed to in the right way.

Whatever the answer to that question may be, I was happy to be sitting in the theater, sharing these moments with my son. Once all my thoughts and analysis were digested, the only thing I could feel was gratitude—gratitude for the fact that Holiday Inn was preserved, for the country I now call my own, and most of all, for my son. One thing we face right now is historical amnesia, be it in the collective sense or even just as individuals. We all desperately need some connection to the past. We must take on the responsibility of becoming custodians of art, so that films like Holiday Inn can be sent through that projector onto the big screen, time and time again.

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