Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Irving Berlin's HOLIDAY INN: Blu-ray (Paramount 1942) Universal Home Video

Everyone is fond of quoting composer, Jerome Kern’s assessment of his contemporary, Irving Berlin. When asked by a reporter to quantify Berlin’s place in American music, Kern astutely replied, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music…he is American music.” Indeed, for several generations yet to follow, Berlin’s pop tunes would continue to resonate with an unbridled sentiment and patriotism few – if any – of his ilk or generation, toiling in the mid-20th century possessed. Berlin’s innate love of America is distinctively celebrated in his vast canon of compositions; most ebulliently declared in the WWI stage extravaganza, ‘This is the Army’; later, resurrected as a WWII Technicolor movie musical in 1943. But Berlin’s success as a songwriter, producer of Broadway shows, and preeminent contributor to Hollywood’s golden age goes well beyond the myriad of musical treasures he left behind. These endure and continue to lull us into daydreams with the promise of an America that, at least for Berlin – was – arguably, for the rest of us – could be, and might become again; his triumph over impoverished beginnings inside New York’s tenement district (once described by noted author, Rudyard Kipling as more squalid than a brothel in Bombay), a lack of formal education, and no formal training as either a composer or musician, represent nothing less than the indomitable spirit of Berlin’s nationality and generation, again, inspiringly praised by Kipling for its will “to survive and thrive against all odds and flags.”
While working in a seedy saloon, Berlin began to recognize the type of songs that had vast appeal for the audience, “expressing simple sentiments.” And Berlin, a very sentimental fellow, seemed uniquely positioned and qualified to plumb this archetype for all its untapped worth.  Never learning to play in more than one key, from 1921 onward, Berlin utilized two special pianos made by the Weser Brothers to arrange all his compositions. Effectively, it was a register most anyone – from novice to professional alike – could sing and make sound competent to downright pleasing. After a few attempts at being clever, Berlin committed himself to writing ‘plain’ lyrics for the rest of his career; distinctly rhyming in the American vernacular: uncomplicated, yet direct in expressing basic human sentiments. Soon his tunes were not only hit parade favorites, but gracing big Broadway extravaganzas like The Ziegfeld Follies.  By 1930, Hollywood could no longer resist Berlin’s infectious rhythms and he came to town to write tunes expressly for the movies.  Narrowly a decade later, he would pen what has since become the most standardized and time-honored smash hit of his legendary career. The song, ‘White Christmas’ is so straightforwardly written and palpably understood at a glance, it scarcely seems to have strained Berlin’s talents. Indeed, Berlin thought less of it than another ballad, written in tandem ‘Be Careful, It’s My Heart’ – which he considered more melodious and ‘catchy’ by far.
With everything written about the immortal holiday tune, ‘White Christmas’, many forget this million copy seller by 1954 was actually composed for Holiday Inn (1942), a picture project initially proposed by Berlin, and later, directed with an immaculately light touch by Mark Sandrich. The premise for the movie is, at once, elementary yet enticing; two sometimes friendly song and dance men part company over a spoiled romance (one, has stolen the other’s girl). The jilted lover’s decision to break up the act and establish a Connecticut retreat open holidays only is met with quaint indifference. But fate intervenes in the stolen love affair; the fickle girl running off with another man, leaving the second forlorn suitor to visit his old partner’s bucolic sanctuary for a little sound advice, only to instantly fall in love with his new girlfriend instead. Berlin’s brainchild would go on to become a runaway smash; its influence inspiring a hotel franchise named in its honor. Yet, Holiday Inn’s otherwise remarkable pedigree was begun with the simplest of stories, fleshed out by screenwriter, Claude Binyon. To this scant, but very high concept, Berlin contributed one of his best loved and most memorable scores, drawing on an already well-established back-catalog stretching all the way to hits penned in the early teens and twenties. In should be noted, Irving Berlin was a master at marketing himself. Indeed, the forties represent a cornucopia of regurgitated pop tunes culled from the Berlin catalog – songs heard over and over again in movie musicals made at MGM, Fox, Warner Bros. and Paramount. But, for this movie, Berlin also agreed to contribute several new songs.
Of this new material, the composer had pinned his hopes for a smash single: 'Be Careful It's My Heart' - a melodious ballad written for the Valentine's Day sequence and meant to cement the romantic rivalry between these two old friends vying for the affections of the same girl. In fact, ‘Be Careful It’s My Heart’ is given one of the most lavish treatment in Holiday Inn, staged for maximum effect as Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds whirl about the dance floor to Bing Crosby’s lyrical serenade, overseen by cameos and cupids draped in elegant silk bunting, and, art deco hearts back lit as a quiet snowfall dreamily sifts from the heavens in the background. As fate would have it, it was Berlin’s ‘other ditty’, less punctuated by such obvious theatrics and more simply staged, that would go on to capture the public's fascination almost instantly.  Berlin had written a verse preceding the chorus of ‘White Christmas’ - firmly establishing the locale as Los Angeles - not Connecticut, and speaking to the anomaly of celebrating Christmas without the luxury of snow. Indeed, Berlin wrote this perennial treasure while lounging poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, feverishly toiling on the score so he could rejoin his family back east in New York. His longing to go home inspired Berlin to uncharacteristic poignancy. Like all of his best-loved melodies, the strength of sentiment in ‘White Christmas’ derives from an almost transparent yearning for the comforts of kith and kin; Berlin’s homesickness miraculously re-channeled into a universally experienced pang of separation between loved ones during WWII, though particularly amplified around the pending holidays. With its opening verse removed - a suggestion reportedly made to Berlin by Fred Astaire – White Christmas took on more prescient meaning in Holiday Inn; wholeheartedly embraced by G.I.’s fighting overseas, and, their mothers, wives, sweethearts and children left behind in America. And with Bing Crosby seated at the piano, periodically accompanied by Marjorie Reynolds – the pair cozily backlit by a roaring Connecticut fireplace on a frosty winter’s eve – White Christmas perfectly embodies the sort of sad, yet hopeful resolve of an America at war.
Mark Sandrich, who had cut his teeth on a series of musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at RKO made the move to Paramount expressly for Holiday Inn. A skilled technician with an eye like a camera, Sandrich understood movie musicals as a very intimate art form unlike any other. Viewing Holiday Inn today, one can see just how far the Hollywood musical had matured by 1942. The elephantiasis of 30’s musicals is gone, largely due to wartime rationing that prevented such extravagances, but also, replaced by a more centrally focused screen intimacy dedicated to individual performance, something Astaire had almost solely championed throughout the 1930’s, but was only partially successful in achieving in his RKO tenure with Ginger Rogers. In retrospect, it is not at all surprising the only time Holiday Inn opens its creative floodgates for a true spectacle is during its’ 4th of July sequence – Berlin’s favorite holiday, furnished with two ditties sung by Crosby (Let’s Say It With Firecrackers and The Song of Freedom), capped off by an electrifying dance solo for Astaire, tripping the light fantastic amid a myriad of pyrotechnic explosions triggered beneath the floor. For this flag-waving fête, the Russian-born Berlin, having adopted America for his own as one of her most ardent and sincere patriots, delivers a one/two musical knockout punch of flag-waving/star-spangled brilliance; Astaire’s solo in particular, an incredible display of footwork and special effects; Astaire, quite unable to control his exuberance at its finish as the floor around him ignites in a spectacular array of sparks and puffed smoke.
One of Holiday Inn’s true joys is undeniably its score. Another is its sublime casting of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as this pair of unapologetic hams. By 1942, each star was at the top of his game; Crosby, as Paramount’s undisputed big box office moneymaker and an enduring presence, well on his way to becoming a legendary personage on the radio; and Astaire, having assuaged the initial assessment made by an idiotic RKO talent scout, who suggested in 1932, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little,” to become one of the most highly regarded performers working in Hollywood musicals. Indeed, both Berlin and George Gershwin regarded Astaire as the preeminent purveyor of their song catalog. Modest to a fault, though equally a perfectionist when it came to his dancing, Astaire remained humble and, arguably, above all the sycophantism that would continue to dog his career. In Holiday Inn, Crosby and Astaire are fair-weather friends: song and dance men, Jim Hardy and Ted Hanover respectively. The team headline an act inside one of Manhattan’s more fashionable nightclubs with their female partner, Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) who has recently become engaged to Jim. One problem: Lila does not love Jim and begins to realize it after he has already bought a Connecticut farm for them to retire on after the wedding. In the meantime, Ted has seduced Jim’s girl with promises of an exciting life and bigger, brighter career. Appealing to her greed, “think of diamonds, rubies, sable coats” Ted tells Lila she owes the world her talent “…the two of us, dedicating our lives to making people happy with our feet.”
Resigned to his more simple pleasures he now realizes Lila wants absolutely no part of, Jim quits the act and moves to his farm where he fast discovers greener pasture require a lot of grueling dedication. Suffering a temporary mental breakdown after a year of trying to make a go of his ‘quiet life’, Jim rebounds with an idea, so simple it cannot miss. He will turn his rustic home into a swank out of town nightclub, open holidays only. The concept marginally appeals to Ted, whose relationship with Lila has been on the fritz in the interim. Enter Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds); a girl working nights at a flower shop, but who really wants the opportunity to sing and dance. After being given the polite brush off by Ted’s oily agent, Danny Reed (Walter Abel) Linda becomes ‘queen of Holiday Inn’ and Jim’s new romantic love interest. Unfortunately, Lila has left Ted for a Texas millionaire. Thus having consumed scotch and soda (a bottle of each) to drown his sorrows, Ted arrives at the inn on New Year’s Eve, decidedly snookered. He performs a drunken dance routine with Linda before passing out. Unable to recall what Linda looked like, Ted informs Danny he is resigned to return to the inn for each subsequent holiday - convinced his future career and romantic prospects are tied to this mystery girl. Of course, neither Ted nor Danny has any idea Linda is actually working at the inn. But Jim is determined not to let history repeat itself. Besides, he is sincerely in love with Linda. So, for Lincoln's birthday Jim forces Linda to perform their routine in blackface. The ruse is successful. But when Ted and Danny arrive early for Valentine's Day they discover Jim serenading Linda with an engagement present: 'Be Careful It's My Heart'. Ted hijacks the orchestral portion of Jim's song to do a graceful pas deux, declaring at the end of the number he has decided to work each subsequent show at the inn to remain closer to his 'old' friend.
All does not run according to plan however, as Jim - no fool and no stranger to Ted’s wily seductions, proposes to sabotage Ted and Linda’s number for Washington's Birthday, interpolating jazzy riffs with graceful waltz strains, leaving the two perplexedly frazzled on the dance floor. Afterward Linda tells Ted she is engaged to Jim. Her declaration hardly sways him from his deliberate plotting to break them apart. Thus, for the 4th of July, Jim launches into his own bit of deception and damage control to stave off the inevitable; orchestrating a surprise reunion for Ted with Lila. He also pays his hired man, Gus (Irving Bacon) to fake car failure after picking Linda up at the train station, thus preventing her from working at the inn, but also sabotaging a rare opportunity to secretly audition for a pair of eager beaver Hollywood agents Danny has smuggled in for the occasion. Too late, Linda learns of Jim's deception. Nevertheless, she also manages to sabotage Lila's arrival at the inn, using Jim’s underhanded tactics to her own advantage. The absence of both women from the planned festivities forces Ted to perform a solo dance to ‘Let’s Say It With Firecrackers’; an explosive (both literally and figuratively) routine to bring down the house.
And although the Hollywood agents are mildly impressed by Ted’s solo, they have unexpectedly fallen madly in love with the concept of doing a movie based on 'Holiday Inn'. Jim reluctantly sells the idea to the studio, with Ted and Linda as part of its package deal. The couple is promptly whisked away to the magical mecca of filmdom where they embark on a whirlwind career and romance closely followed in the movie mags by Jim who remains back in Connecticut. During this brief interlude, Ted and Linda become engaged and Jim - having completed the final song for his score – sulks at the inn on Thanksgiving. Jim is tended by his devoted housekeeper, Mamie (Louise Beavers) who encourages him to stand up for himself and re-claim Linda's heart. Arriving in Hollywood on the eve Ted and Linda are bound for their quickie nuptials in Yuma, Jim sneaks onto the set - an exact replica of his inn - to quietly observe as a very unhappy Linda reprises 'White Christmas' for the camera; her feelings for Jim rekindled. Jim begins to accompany her in the song, thus ruining the take. But Linda suddenly realizes what a mistake it would be to marry Ted. She really does love Jim. We return to the ‘real’ inn for New Year’s Eve; Ted, reunited with Lila, whom he devilishly refers to as “Miss Hit and Run”.
A lot of Holiday Inn’s enduring appeal must go to Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier’s alluring set design. The inn is so rustically cozy it easily becomes a major character in the picture - almost by accident - or as Jim puts it "A simple little layout where we could do the best with the work we know without having any delusions of grandeur." From the moment we arrive at this fabled Connecticut oasis, actually constructed inside one of Paramount’s cavernous sound stages, it immediately fulfills virtually every expectation as a fantasy destination for pure musical escapism; a place most anyone would want to either own or at least visit for a weekend respite from the cares of the world; the infectiousness of its faux reality, perfectly realized and embraced by the audience. Thus, even when the film’s plot exposes the inn as nothing more than a three dimensional plywood cutout, built on a sound stage with artificial gypsum particles cascading from the cleverly engineered ‘snow machines’; its fakery seems inconceivable.
As a matter of record, Holiday Inn contains two interesting anomalies; the first, regrettably not having weathered with changing times and tastes. ‘Blackface’ has become a bone of contention in more recent times. Viewed from our current cultural vantage, ‘blackface’ is widely regarded as racist; the homage to President Lincoln in Holiday Inn marred by the sight of Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds doused in greasepaint and delivering decidedly overblown non-Caucasian caricatures. Yet, it is important to place the concept of 'blackface' into its proper context; considered a legitimate art form from roughly 1830 to 1945, though perpetuating the stereotype of the simple-minded, happy-go-lucky 'darky’. ‘Blackface’ remained a main staple of travelling minstrel shows and the Vaudeville circuit well into the 1920’s. As a natural extension of its popularity on stage, movie musicals from the early to mid-1930s embraced ‘blackface’ routines as part of their repertoire, with Holiday Inn being one of the last examples documented on film. Aside: as an interesting footnote: Joan Crawford would do a brown-face routine in blazing Technicolor for her MGM comeback, Torch Song (1953); a movie musical well beyond the ‘acceptable’ period and one in which Crawford’s makeup is more garish and frightful than entertaining or even mildly amusing.  At the time of Holiday Inn’s premiere, no one thought any better or worse of its ‘Abraham’ number. But if Holiday Inn does have a flaw, it remains this moment. If not acceptable - then at least, it remains illustrative of a well-documented period in musical theater and film history; also, just how far race relations in the United States have evolved since.
The second anomaly in Holiday Inn offers no offense, though it remains no less of an oddity; having to do with then President Franklin Roosevelt's desire to expand the Christmas shopping season by petitioning Congress to bump the Thanksgiving holiday back by a week. Each segment of Holiday Inn begins with a stylized calendar and the holiday about to be celebrated clearly marked.  The Thanksgiving calendar features a very confused turkey, frustratingly wandering back and forth between two dates proposed for the 'new' Thanksgiving. Today, it is often the audience more than the turkey that is perplexed by this reference. In the end, Roosevelt lost his bid and American Thanksgiving's permanent date stayed Nov. 26th. Holiday Inn was an enormous critical and financial success when it premiered. Today, it endures as a cherished Christmas classic, perennially resurrected on TV over a hot cup of cocoa and as lovingly embraced family time around an open hearth. Astaire and Crosby are so perfect together – so in sync and comfortable with each other’s clever hamming – one can easily buy their act as fair-weather friends feuding over the same women. And both stars have the added cache of being legends in their own time; easily recognizable at a glance. The iconography of Astaire and Crosby’s star power is arguably what sold the show then and continues to keep its’ spirit bright today; neither playing to character, per say, but rather doing variations on themselves or, at the very least, the ensconced public persona hand-crafted for each of them by clever studio PR.
The women in Holiday Inn are less definable, particularly Virginia Dale’s greedy gold digger, who all but vanishes into the woodwork after contributing two mediocre duets with Astaire on the dance floor. Marjorie Reynolds is more well-defined; a very pretty face, her vocals dubbed, her cherub-cheeked discipline genuine. She is no match for the eloquent Ginger, Astaire’s most fondly recalled dance partner, though she nevertheless moves with a terpsichorean finesse complimentary to Astaire’s relaxed grace.  In retrospect, Holiday Inn is not so much an Astaire musical, or a Crosby one, as it remains thoroughly a Berlin show. Indeed, due to a clause in his contract, the film’s full title is ‘Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn; creating no confusion as to the real star of our show. And despite only ever appearing before the cameras once (warbling with frail affectation ‘Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning’ in Warner Bros. This is The Army) Berlin had both a name and a following then, arguably, as big as either Astaire or Crosby. Regardless, the picture is a sheer joy to revisit over and over again. Because it runs the gamut of holidays, it is even possible to enjoy Holiday Inn as a mid-summer programmer, though undeniably, most will resurrect it as a perennial musical treasure to highlight the Christmas season and likely to remain so for many a good year yet to come.
Universal Home Video’s restoration of Holiday Inn on Blu-ray has arguably, been well worth the wait. This new ‘special edition’ exhibits a cleaned-up print. We get both the original B&W and colorized editions of the movie. For the purposes of this review, only the B&W will be critiqued. As a film purist, I maintain the opinion colorization has NO place in the marketing of classic movies. Like the misguided attempt to ‘pan and scan’ movies shot in widescreen, colorization is an abomination of the film maker’s original intent – period! Ah, but there is very good news for fans of this perennial classic. The B&W visuals tighten up considerably. Contrast is solid and the image is remarkably free of age-related damage. Better still, film grain at last looks indigenous to its source. Bottom line: a great effort worthy of the film. Interesting, the B&W image looks just a tad horizontally stretched compared to the colorized version; faces appearing ever so slightly plumper in B&W than in color. It’s a negligible distinction, but worth noting. The audio remains in DTS mono.
Universal has merely ported over all the extras from their previously issued ‘Collector’s Edition’ DVD. These include an audio commentary by Ken Burnes with pre-recorded excerpts from Crosby and Astaire reminiscing about their participation on the film. We also get two fairly dull featurettes: ‘A Couple of Song and Dance Men’ and ‘All Singing, All Dancing Before and After’. The first is a poorly edited and contrived bit of scripted nonsense featuring Ava Astaire (Fred’s daughter) and Burnes waxing about information readily expressed in the audio commentary. The second makes short shrift of the history of the Hollywood musical with still images and bootlegged clips from several films Universal does not own the rights to (most notably, ‘Top Hat’). It would have meant so much more if Universal had actually taken the time to give us a ‘making of’ documentary with archival footage. Bottom line: it is impossible to deny Berlin his infectious score or Astaire and Crosby’s professionalism as perfection itself. Holiday Inn on Blu-ray comes very highly recommended. It captured my heart…singing.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

2.5

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