As part of my general research on musicals, I wanted a complete look at a couple of films of what I’d only seen bits and pieces. Both were released in 1942. Both were packed with star power, and are considered minor classics. That means for most of those folks who like older movies that they are worth a visit, but no rushing is involved.
First was Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and featuring a score by Irving Berlin, and introducing us to the Oscar-winning “White Christmas.” (No, the 1954 film by that name was the third film to use the song, the second being 1946’s Blue Skies). It also features “Happy Holidays,” which is ubiquitous around Christmas, and the song the filmmakers thought would be the big hit, the mostly forgotten “Be Careful, That’s My Heart.” We also hear some of “’Easter Parade,” which would get its own film a few years later.
(Factoid: Yes, the hotel chain was named after the hotel in the film.)
Except for “White Christmas” and Astaire’s incredible solo “Let’s Say it with Firecrackers,” this is neither Crosby’s or Astaire’s best effort. No Ginger Rogers, of course, so that ineffable connection between Astaire and his greatest partner is missing, as his paired dances here attest. Perhaps the only dance duet of interest is the one where Astaire is supposed to be drunk (which was reflected in reality to the degree that the continual shots he took between takes took effect).
The various romantic connections in the film tend to leave a slightly bad taste in the mouth. Women don’t come off well (is it really that easy to change your romantic attachments that quickly?), and the men deceive, lie and connive. It’s hard to root for any person’s plan or any specific coupling. And then there is “Abraham,” a number you might not see, depending on where you watch this. It’s in blackface, which is anathema to some, but historically interesting to others. (I fall in the latter category.) The only guarantee to seeing the whole film is to rent it or see it on TCM.
For Me and My Gal
The other “old” film I finally saw was Gene Kelly’s first, which paired him with his ideal partner, Judy Garland, who was so instrumental in making sure he played this role. Kelly had become a Broadway star in 1940’s Pal Joey, and it wasn’t a surprise to see him land a lead role right away.
It’s a fascinating film for several reasons. First is the pairing of one of the two great film male dancers ever to dance before a camera, and the greatest musical performer cinema has ever seen. His strong and brilliant dancing was accompanied by a softer tenor voice that was just a bit better than serviceable. Her singing voice was nonpareil, and her dancing was better than most people tend to notice. Together, they both sounded and looked great. Just take a close look and listen to their first number together, the title tune, and see how perfectly the voices match and how connected they already were as dance partners. Though there were efforts to pair them more often, her health and his broken ankle prevented more than two other films done together.
This is also a Busby Berkeley film, but if you didn’t know that going in, you might not guess it while watching. Dramatic scenes are sensitive, and the camera movements are smooth and elegant. No overhead shots of dancers in kaleidoscopic patterns; no big This is clearly not the Warner Brothers Berkeley of the early ‘30s. One scene in particular stands out. World War I has begun, and American has just entered the fray. Kelly’s character is drafted at what he considers the worst moment for his career. He does something to keep him out temporarily. The scene is beautifully shot, and could have been done by Hitchcock in its balance of what we see, what we don’t, and the tense build-up to the final action.
While the singer/dancer relationship between the two leads is impeccable, their romantic connections don’t quite work, especially in the context of America’s recent entrance into World War II. Future California Senator George Murphy plays Garland’s character’s first dance and romantic partner, and he’s such a great guy who so clearly loves her selflessly that we find ourselves rooting for them to get together. But the film tells us that it’s Kelly that she loves and who ultimately should be with her. But he’s a cad, and a seeming unpatriotic one at that, necessitating some significant reshooting to help regain the audience’s sympathy so we can more easily accept the relationship that the film tells us is the one that “should be.”
Watching Garland at this point in her career is catching her at a transitional moment. Just 19, she is not playing a teenager here, as she was two years later in Meet Me in St. Louis. Her character is older, and she pulls it off. She is clearly a performing professional who’s been at it for a long time, which works completely. She is also a rousing singer when she needs to be, and a sensitive torch singer at other times. She’s not quite the dramatic actress she’d become later, but it’s fun to watch her rise to each challenge the film presents her.
Historically, most people remember this as Kelly’s first film. It should also be remembered as an “of its time” war film (that ended with a call to buy war bonds), and especially, as the first of the greatest singer/dancer duo in film history.