If you’re like me, one of the things you appreciate the most about the holiday season is incessantly watching Christmas movies. From the moment the dishes are cleared on Thanksgiving night through Christmas Eve, it’s All Christmas Everything up in here, as far as I’m concerned. From the old school, stop-motion classics such as “Jack Frost” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to more modern favorites like “Elf” and “Polar Express,” – and let’s not forget about the incredibly sappy but so, so great Hallmark Christmas specials! – holiday movies absolutely make the season merry and bright.
But upon further review, some of these films have the most questionable of underlying messages. So far, we’ve thrown all the shade at “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas” as well as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Home Alone.” Next up, we reflect on a Christmas classic starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire that has not aged well.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without classic Hollywood films like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas,” and one of my personal favorites, “Holiday Inn.” That’s right, y’all – before it was a national hotel chain, “Holiday Inn” was a 1942 musical featuring the fancy footwork of Fred Astaire and the sultry ballads of Bing Crosby. The film has been fully restored and colorized these days, but to me, you have to enjoy it for the first time in its full, black and white glory.
The plot follows Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby), Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale), a trio that has a popular musical act in New York City. Jim and Lila are preparing to retire from performing, get married and live out the rest of their years on a farm in Connecticut. But Lila backs out of retiring and – PLOT TWIST –says she’s fallen in love with Ted. This all takes place on Christmas Eve, of all days. The disrespect! Anyway, a heartbroken Jim goes through with his plans and moves to Connecticut. One year later on Christmas Eve, Jim returns to New York and explains that farming was harder than he thought. His new plan is to open a holiday-themed hotel, which is only open to guests on public holidays. He runs into his old pal Ted, who thinks the whole idea is absurd.
Later, Ted ends up at the Holiday Inn after Lila dumps him for a Texas millionaire, and though completely tanked, he dazzles everyone at the hotel with his skills on the dance floor.
Jim decides to keep Dan on as entertainment for the show, and lots heartwarming song and dance numbers are to follow.
Up until this point, “Holiday Inn” is a super feel good movie. And then, the hotel celebrates President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (which you youngins may not know was its own holiday before it and George Washington’s birthday were combined into President’s Day) and things take a TURN.
Just watch for yourself.
Y’all. They for real for real had a whole minstrel show going on in this film. Live look-in at me the first time I watched:
Things just went from 0 to 100 real quick, and in an instant, “Holiday Inn” is the MOST dated. And hard to process, really, that as recently as 1942 performing minstrel shows and donning Blackface – painting oneself black and drawing on caricature like facial features to mock African Americans – was just completely fine and social acceptable. And, as depicted in the film, something people paid to see.
Suddenly, “Holiday Inn” isn’t so wholesome and feel-good. It’s not a timeless Christmas classic, if only because incorporating a minstrel show into a film speaks to a very specific point in American society. Furthermore, the lyrics to the song they perform in the scene, “Abraham,” reinforces exactly how dated the film is:
“When black folks lived in slavery/ who was it set darkie free?/ Abraham, Abraham.”
Again, live look in at me the first time I heard this song, in what is otherwise a beautiful and wonderful Christmas musical:
Our society has come a long way from performing minstrel shows and Blackface as entertainment. Today, wearing Blackface is strongly and widely condemned for the most part. In spite of that, it maddeningly remains a regular occurrence, even still today. But it’s wild to think that in a time when our grandparents were growing up, that was…normal.
The film goes on to highlight Valentine’s Day, Easter and the 4th of July, among others and – wouldn’t you know it? – along the way, there are lots of laugh and even a classic Hollywood love story. (I won’t spoil the ending, so you’re welcome!)
But that “Abraham” scene really takes you out of the merriment for a hot second.
Today, this movie doesn’t really get any airtime on network TV, for obvious reasons, but every now and then a cable channel will play it during the holidays. To me, it’s important to keep stock of scenes like this in movies to remember how far we’ve come, and to not lose sight of how far we still have to go as a culture. It’s important to watch movies like “Holiday Inn,” if only to further contextualize race relations in America.
Nuance is often lost in our society these days; either you’re all in on something or you’re not. Either something is the best thing since sliced bread or it’s complete trash. But as we know, reality more the infinite shades of grey than it is black and white. And that’s how I feel about “Holiday Inn.” It’s so incredibly endearing, except when it’s not. It puts a smile on your face and puts you in the Christmas spirit, except when it doesn’t. It harkens back to a simple time, except for when you remember that simpler time was also absolutely wicked for black people.
“Holiday Inn” is a reminder that it’s possible to enjoy and love something in spite of itself, especially if you are willing to recognize what makes said thing problematic.