Every Christmas season I make it a point to revisit certain movies and TV shows I consider essential parts of the Christmas experience: A Christmas Carol (Alastair Sim version), Elf, Christmas With the Letterman’s and a few others.
But, none of these gives me more enjoyment than the 1942 classic, Holiday Inn, which I first saw as a boy.
The plot of Holiday Inn was merely an excuse on which to hang 14 Berlin songs. Crosby, Astaire, and Virginia Dale are a musical act, which breaks up when Crosby decides to retire to a farm. But Crosby quickly grows bored and decides to turn his farm into an inn and nightclub, which will be open only on national holidays. He then teams with a new partner, played by Marjorie Reynolds. Suddenly, Astaire, jilted by Dale, pays a visit, and the two men’s musical and romantic rivalry starts up again.
Why do I love Holiday Inn? It has Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire at their singing and dancing best, along with songs by Irving Berlin. Each song is related to an American holiday including Happy Holidays, Easter Parade and, most importantly, White Christmas.
As holiday entertainment it’s nearly perfect.
There is this one song about Abraham Lincoln’s birthday…
That’s why we celebrate
This blessed February date
When black folks lived in slavery
Who was it set the darkie free?
If the lyrics weren’t bad enough (and they are), Abraham is performed by Crosby and co-star Marjorie Reynolds in blackface.
Whites in blackface was a tradition of “Minstrel Shows,” a popular form of 19th century entertainment still considered acceptable as nostalgia well into the 20th century.
There is plenty available online about the history of minstrelsy. I’ve read a lot on the subject and thought about it. Despite that, I just can’t answer, “Why?”
I don’t get it. I don’t get why blackface was, a not-so-long time ago, so popular.
It boggles the mind.
One can only agree with this assessment:
In short, early minstrel music and dance was not true black culture; it was a white reaction to it. This was the first large-scale appropriation and commercial exploitation of black culture by American whites.
By the mid-1950s, blackface was no longer considered acceptable by mainstream American audiences (though it remained a staple of British TV into the 1970s), but Irving Berlin was more popular than ever. So, Hollywood decided to remake Holiday Inn in 1954, in color and without blackface. The result was the much more famous and popular White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.
While I realize White Christmas is many people’s favorite vehicle for the Berlin songs, I think the story is inferior and I know Danny Kaye is no Fred Astaire.
What to do?
You can see White Christmas on the big screen, at noon on Saturday, December 16, at the Catlow Theater in Barrington.
If you want to stick with the original version, use the fast forward button on your DVR or DVD player to skip over Abraham. Should you decide to watch the entire film with the family, use the opportunity (during or after) to discuss why this scene is in the film and why it is racist and demeaning to African Americans. Here’s a thought-provoking essay on blackface. And another.
Should Holiday Inn, as a whole, be trashed? I don’t think so.
Abraham is an embarrassment, but Holiday Inn is an excellent 1940s musical with great songs and terrific work from Astaire. Skipping Abraham will not diminish your enjoyment of this film. It certainly hasn’t diminished mine.
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- Spike Lee’s angry satire Bamboozled makes an irrefutable case that the repeated use of racist/demeaning images, especially blackface, corrupts public attitudes toward minorities. The film was was underrated when it was released. Look for it.
- Bamboozled concludes with a montage of racial stereotypes/blackface in American films, including a clip from Holiday Inn. Those who think racist images aren’t hurtful and damaging should watch this montage carefully and with an open mind.
- Article on the censoring of Holiday Inn