In 1942, Paramount brought together stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire for the first time with Holiday Inn, based on a story and musical numbers written by famed songwriter Irving Berlin. Mark Sandrich’s film manages to make both an absurd premise and its questionable star pairing work, crafting one of the most delightful musicals of the forties.
Crosby and Astaire play Jim Hardy and Ted Hanover, two-thirds of a New York musical act. Both are in love with the last third (Virginia Dale), but when Astaire lands the girl, Jim breaks away and disappears off to his farm in Connecticut. He decides to convert the property into an inn where he can perform and showcase other acts; mostly out of laziness, he chooses to open it only on holidays, thus dubbing it the Holiday Inn. He hires an unknown performer named Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) to sing alongside him, and their opening on New Year’s Eve is a smashing success. Just as Jim and Linda begin to fall for each other, however, a newly-dumped Ted shows up to the inn—threatening the burgeoning relationship and musical partnership just as before.
Despite Crosby’s seemingly inescapable blandness, the machinations of Claude Binyon’s screenplay put the audience squarely on his side (Astaire’s ability to play a selfish prick also helps). Their masculine feuding aids in objectifying Reynolds as little more than a prize (save a brief speech she gives that Crosby instantly tears apart), but their competitiveness still remains tremendously engaging. More problematic is the seemingly inevitable blackface number (present also in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Babes on Broadway, and countless other musicals), preceded by an even more egregious scene wherein Crosby and Reynolds have a romantic moment while applying the makeup. There is, at least, a typically delightful performance from Louise Beavers, but she is still stuck in a generic servant role like most black actors at the time.
Still, the film is consistently fun and inventive, all the way up to the meta–third act that takes the narrative to Hollywood. The success of the film and its soundtrack led to a semi-remake over a decade later, White Christmas, also starring Crosby. Today, that film is better known and viewed by many as a holiday classic, but the follow-up is vastly inferior to Holiday Inn, which still remains completely charming and captivating.