Holiday Inn - Mark Sandrich - Bing Crosby - Fred Astaire - Jim Hardy - Ted Hanover

Holiday Inn
1942, directed by Mark Sandrich

There is only one fleeting reference to World War II in Holiday Inn, a brief montage of military images behind Bing Crosby during his “Freedom Man” song on the Fourth of July. With all the movie’s singing and dancing, its comic tone, and its celebration of the holidays, few people would think to classify it as an important contribution to the war effort. It looks rather like a light piece of entertainment, a distraction from the horrors and deprivation of wartime – but this apparent frivolity is what allows the movie to spread wartime values more effectively than most of its contemporaries. In short, Holiday Inn gives us a practical and urgently needed definition of courage.

In the opening scene Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) arrives at the venue where he and his partners will perform that night. The sidewalk poster advertising their act is covered with snow, a trio of boys is dancing clumsily, and a Salvation Army Santa Claus is lazily ringing his bell. Instead of ignoring the scene or grumbling about the poor impression it could make on his own audience, Hanover enlivens the children’s act with a few dance steps, he cheerfully shows the Santa how to put joy into his bell ringing, and he wipes off the snow with the graceful flourish anyone would expect of Fred Astaire. It would not occur to most people that the fresh spirit he brings is a kind of courage. We tend to define courage within a context of adversity – on the battlefield it’s a selfless trait that overrides fear – but there’s a continuum between the spiritedness we see in Astaire and what we expect of a good soldier. In either case it’s a kind of generous and overflowing vitality.

Holiday Inn - Mark Sandrich - Bing Crosby - Virginia Dale - Fred Astaire - Jim Hardy - Lila Dixon - Ted Hanover - I'll Capture Your Heart - singing - dancing

Ted Hanover may be capable of modeling a force of life that’s akin to courage, but we’ll soon realize he’s not exactly a character to emulate. The plot of Holiday Inn is built around his rivalry with Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby), and Hanover will prove the less noble of the two. Their contest however is not between good and evil like so many Hollywood films or most war propaganda. The terms are defined, rather, in the first musical number (“I’ll Capture Your Heart”) where Lila tells the two men that neither is good enough for her to take home. Jim may be a first-rate singer, but if only he could learn to dance… and Ted may be a fantastic dancer, but that’s not enough… he ought to be able to sing as well.

Considering the phenomenal degree of talent Lila’s rejecting so offhandedly – Bing Crosby was as good as any singer in Hollywood, and Fred Astaire was surely among the best dancers alive – the lyrics sound like a joke about the high standards of choosy women. But there’s also an important insight here. A competition between a singer and a dancer sounds like an apples-to-oranges comparison that could never be settled, but what if singing and dancing stand for something larger? On a basic level, a singer expresses feeling whereas a dancer is a person of action. Feeling and action are two essential components of courage. One without the other is hopelessly incomplete, and in this sense Lila’s demands are reasonable.

Holiday Inn - Mark Sandrich - Bing Crosby - Marjorie Reynolds - Jim Hardy - Linda Mason - White Christmas - piano - fireplace

The contest in that first song is, of course, a template for the whole plot of Holiday Inn. Jim and Ted will spend their holidays competing for the affections of Linda Mason. Jim loves her, but Ted, like the dancer he is, is a man of bold action, seizing every opportunity while Jim can only hold onto her with weak trickery – hiding her behind blackface, speeding up and slowing down the music, and sending her on an ill-fated “shortcut” in Gus’s station wagon. In contrast to his sincere feelings, his actions are the opposite of courage. Ted may be bold, but he lacks Jim’s seriousness, skipping easily from one woman to another and stealing partners from his best friend. Borrowing the metaphor from the song, Ted never “learns to sing” – he never develops Jim’s strength of feeling – whereas Jim wins in the end because he finally “learns to dance” when Mamie persuades him to get off his duff and win Linda back.

Without ever calling attention to its own importance, or even to the presence of any embedded message, Holiday Inn must have helped to ready the nation for the long fight ahead by showing the fundamentals of courage – not the rare kind of courage that arises in extreme circumstances, but the everyday robustness of spirit that leads to courage when it’s called for. The lesson is timeless, but in 1942 more than ever the armed forces needed men who could combine action (initiative and prowess) with feeling (passion and motivation).

Holiday Inn - Mark Sandrich - Hollywood - montage - Fred Astaire - Marjorie Reynolds

Like The Wizard of Oz, which also modeled essential traits that join to form a complete person (mind, heart, and courage), Holiday Inn is also rooted in traditional American values that were forged anew during the Great Depression. The Wizard of Oz upholds the values of home, family, and ordinary life (“There’s no place like home”) over escapism and fantasy (“Over the Rainbow”). Similarly, Holiday Inn opposes the vanity of Hollywood with the modesty of a simple life on a farm. The contrast runs all the way through the movie – Linda’s memory of her father, the way she and Jim deflate each other’s proud airs in the snowbank, the way Mamie tells Jim what Linda really wants, and the light mockery of Hollywood in the movie studio (especially the director’s instruction “your Hollywood success has been empty” which pokes fun at Katherine Hepburn’s bathetic last line in Morning Glory). The two big montages reinforce the contrast – the “Lazy” song that spans Jim’s first year on the farm, and the Hollywood montage between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. The “Lazy” montage is ironic not only because of Jim’s thwarted expectations of farm life, but also because the long melodic line requires a singer who’s anything but lazy.

Holiday Inn is infamous today for the blackface in the “Abraham” song on Lincoln’s birthday. Even if the movie pokes fun at the ridiculousness of blackface, and even if the scene is not gratuitous (it’s motivated by the need to hide Linda from Ted), still its unchallenged inclusion is a sign of a culture that views Black persons as less than Whites. The point of studying Holiday Inn is not to excuse its flaws but to ask what we can learn from the movie, even while acknowledging the racism in it. Its attitudes toward race, like those of so many individuals, are complex. Mamie proves to be the wisest character, and the “Abraham” song celebrates the victory of abolitionism. Ironically that song, however badly conceived its staging is, is part of a wider program to unite the country during the war across its major fault lines.

Holiday Inn - Mark Sandrich - Louise Beavers - Bing Crosby - Mamie - Jim Hardy - Thanksgiving

While defining courage in the everyday context of American life, framing it in ordinary American values and traditional American holidays, Holiday Inn also aims to bridge the major divisions that test the nation’s unity – black and white, urban and rural, north and south, east and west, signalling in each case that all parts belong within the greater whole. Jim, Ted, and Linda are urban entertainers who seek out and cherish a rural way of life, melding the best ideals of both worlds: the sophisticated gentility of the city and the sociable hospitality of the countryside. The action spans both coasts (from New York and Connecticut to California), and the names of Linda Mason and Lila Dixon refer to the famous Mason-Dixon Line dividing North from South, while the firecracker song pays respects to the unity of northern and southern cultures.

Holiday Inn - Mark Sandrich - Walter Abel - Bing Crosby - Fred Astaire - Danny Reed - Jim Hardy - Ted Hanover

It’s remarkable that in the latter half of 1942, within a span of four months, two different Hollywood studios (Paramount and Warner Brothers) produced movies that assisted the fight against fascism by encouraging audiences to get involved in world affairs – while simultaneously offering, in each movie, a timeless and important insight on life. Both Holiday Inn and Casablanca are written, plotted, and produced with the highest skill of Hollywood’s most fertile period, but the most notable overlap between the two films is their fully considered approach to time itself. It’s a bit more obvious in Casablanca, whose most famous song is overtly about time, and whose dialogue is packed with allusions to time. Its setting in wartime Morocco is a kind of limbo where time passes tediously for waiting refugees, but the movie contrasts that heavy vision of time with the life-sustaining vision of eternity expressed in its most famous line, “We’ll always have Paris.” Holiday Inn is superior to Casablanca in the subtlety of its political message, compared to the latter’s rather obvious allegory about emerging from isolationism, and its contrast between the two forms of lived time is only a notch below Casablanca‘s. The various holidays play a role similar to Paris – they represent the substance of life, a kind of time that does not count down the seconds, and which would be difficult to realize every day of the year, but which gives us a reason for living. By focusing on the most precious days of the year, the movie reinforces for a wartime audience an awareness of what the country is fighting for.


The Wizard of Oz – Combination of qualities to form a complete person; upholds traditional American values over Hollywood

Casablanca – Expression of American values early in World War II; insight into sense of time

I Walked with a Zombie – Wartime movie whose contribution to the war effort is not obvious

The Big Sleep – Definition of courage made during the war vs. celebration of intellect made at end of war

The Counselor – Insight into courage, with a historically timely call to summon the audience’s courage