Bing Crosby

Sentimental Journey: Wartime Nostalgia & Three Christmas Classics

Judy Garland Meet Me in St. Louis

If there’s anything Christmas movies are known for, it’s for having heartwarming, sentimental themes. Of course, there are some notable exceptions out there, but those themes can be found at the core of many of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time. Every holiday season, millions of people get hit with a wave of nostalgia that makes them crave the wholesome, heartfelt entertainment that Christmas movies typically have to offer. While that’s a trend that never truly goes away, it can become particularly apparent when times are difficult, such as during times of war.

During the 1940s, World War II had a profound impact on the life of every American, whether they were serving in the war or back on the homefront. As the holidays approached, people were understandably longing for past Christmases that were spent together with family and friends. Even the most lighthearted movies can be a reflection of the era in which they were produced and 1940s Christmas movies are no exception. In fact, it was a driving force that helped make some of our most cherished holiday movies and songs so popular.

Bing Crosby Singing White Christmas in Holiday Inn 1942

Holiday Inn (1942)

In 1940, Paramount Studios commissioned Irving Berlin to write a series of holiday-themed songs to use in a movie about an inn that only opened on holidays. While Holiday Inn was a box office success on its release, becoming one of the most successful movies of 1942, one of those Irving Berlin songs would go on to eclipse the movie’s success.

Nearly 80 years after its initial release, Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” remains the best-selling record of all time and is widely considered one of the most significant American songs ever recorded, but Crosby initially didn’t think the song was anything exceptional. In fact, it was expected that the song “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” from Holiday Inn‘s Valentine’s Day number would be the biggest hit from the movie’s soundtrack. But while the movie was being filmed, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and moviegoers were in a different place by the time the movie was released. “White Christmas” struck a nerve with people who wanted to go back to simpler, safer times.

Considering the resonance it had with people during World War II, its prominent use in White Christmas twelve years later was much more than just an excuse to get Bing Crosby to reprise his signature song and sell more copies of it. It was a natural choice for a movie about two World War II veterans who reunite with their commanding officer.

Meet Me in St. Louis Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Judy Garland Margaret O'Brien

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

During the golden age of Hollywood, each of the major studios had their thing they were known for. Universal had their horror movies, Warner Brothers had their gritty gangster movies, and MGM had musicals. Louis B. Mayer was very big on producing wholesome entertainment the whole family could enjoy and Meet Me in St. Louis is a prime example of that.

Meet Me in St. Louis follows the lives of the Smith family over the course of a year as they face an upcoming move from St. Louis to New York at the turn of the 20th century. Given the span of time the movie covers, it’s not strictly a Christmas movie, but the scene in which Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Margaret O’Brien is enough to make it a holiday classic.

With audiences longing to be reminded more innocent times, Meet Me in St. Louis was exactly what many moviegoers were looking for at the time, but “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” took that yearning to the next level. The version performed in the movie, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, blends a message of hope with a twinge of sadness. The original version of the song was decidedly less optimistic and included lines like, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,” until director Vincente Minnelli and stars Judy Garland and Tom Drake complained that the song was far too depressing for the scene. While the song still remains immensely popular over 70 years later, the lyrics were particularly poignant for World War II-era audiences who had been separated from their loved ones.

I'll Be Seeing You 1944 Ginger Rogers Joseph Cotten

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)

Unlike “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” isn’t a song specifically about Christmas, nor was it specifically written for a movie. “I’ll Be Seeing You” was originally written by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain for the play Right This Way, which closed after just fifteen performances in 1938. The play may not have been notable, but “I’ll Be Seeing You” most decidedly was. The song’s melancholy, sentimental tone helped give it a whole new life a few years later after the United States entered World War II. As the war wore on, renditions recorded by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey turned the song into an anthem for those who were missing their loved ones during the war.

Although “I’ll Be Seeing You” makes no mention of Christmas, it serves as a very fitting theme song for the 1944 movie by the same name, which does revolve around Christmas. In I’ll Be Seeing You, Ginger Rogers plays Mary Marshall, a prisoner who has been given leave to spend the holidays with her family. On the train, she meets Sergeant Zachary Morgan, played by Joseph Cotten, who is on leave while he tries to cope with PTSD. During the holiday, the two develop a romance as they try to keep their respective secrets hidden from each other. Unlike Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday InnI’ll Be Seeing You directly involves life during World War II so using a popular song of the era as the main theme not only feels natural, it perfectly captures the bittersweet, wistful tone of the movie.

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One Set, Two Movies: Holiday Inn (1942) and White Christmas (1954)

Holiday Inn White Christmas

The movies Holiday Inn (1942) and White Christmas (1954) have much in common. Both movies are regarded as Christmas classics, with Bing Crosby starring in each movie. And both movies feature songs by Irving Berlin, most notably the song “White Christmas.” But according to IMDB, the movies have even more in common than that. According to IMDB, the set for General Waverly’s inn in White Christmas was a remodeled version of the set used for the inn in Holiday Inn. So I took a close look at both sets to see how they compared.

When I set out to write this post, I was hoping to have a longer list of similarities to point out. But upon close inspection, it became clear the Holiday Inn set was indeed remodeled for White Christmas, and quite extensively at that. The two inns have very different layouts and several elements seen in White Christmas, such as the dining/floor show area and indoor fire pitwere not part of the original Holiday Inn set.

White Christmas Roasting Hot DogsWhite Christmas Performance Area

One thing the sets have in common is they both have entrances right by the main stairway. However, the two entry areas are so different I’m not sure how much, if any, of it was part of the original Holiday Inn set. The only thing the two entrances have in common is they both have similar windows. The floors are different, the staircases are very different, and the front desk area was added for White Christmas.

Holiday Inn Entrance 1 Holiday Inn Entrance 2 White Christmas Entrance 1 White Christmas Entrance 2

The fact that the two inns have similarly shaped windows is one of the biggest similarities between the two sets. However, even those aren’t exactly the same between the two movies.

Holiday Inn WindowsWhite Christmas Windows

Despite there being so many differences between the two sets, there is one area that is unmistakably part of the original Holiday Inn set. These three distinctive windows, which were originally seen by the piano where Bing Crosby first sang “White Christmas” in Holiday Inn, are also briefly seen in White Christmas during the party scene when Judy and Phil announce their engagement. The rest of the area had been pretty drastically changed for White Christmas. As you can see, the door was removed, as was the fireplace, and an entryway to another room was created. Those windows, however, look almost exactly as the same in White Christmas as they did in Holiday Inn. The only difference I can see is there was some moulding around them in Holiday Inn which was removed for White Christmas.

Holiday Inn Windows White Christmas Party Scene

 

What’s on TCM: May 2014

June AllysonHappy May, everyone! April was a rather unusual month for TCM, but it’s back to the usual schedule for May.  June Allyson is May’s Star of the Month and will be featured every Wednesday night.  Friday Night Spotlight returns with a look at Australian cinema hosted by Jacki Weaver. Since I haven’t seen many Australian films, I look forward to having the chance to see more. For Memorial Day weekend, TCM will be having their annual 72-hour marathon of war films.  May’s Guest Programmer is none other than Rev. Mother Dolores Hart, who will be showcasing a few of her favorite movies on May 27th.

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Holiday Inn (1942)

Holiday Inn PosterJim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), along with Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale), are a successful song-and-dance act, but Jim has had just about enough of the showbiz lifestyle.  He plans to do one last performance on Christmas Eve, then marry Lila, move to a farm in Connecticut, and enjoy a more leisurely life.  However, Lila has other plans.  She’s fallen in love with Ted and wants to keep performing with him, so Jim retires to that Connecticut farm by himself.  But Jim quickly realizes that living on a farm takes a lot more work than he anticipated and Jim winds up having to spend some time resting in a sanitarium.

Going to a sanitarium wasn’t all bad, though.  Being there gave Jim time to think and he came up with the idea of turning his farm into an inn that is only open on holidays.  Ted and Danny (Walter Abel), Jim’s manager, aren’t too keen on the idea, but when Danny runs into aspiring dancer Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), he tells her to get in touch with Jim.  When she arrives at Jim’s farm on Christmas day, she and Jim have an instant rapport and he hires her to perform at the inn’s opening night on New Year’s Eve.

Opening night is a big success, but just before the stroke of midnight, an unexpected guest arrives — Ted.  Lila had just left Ted and now Ted’s very drunk and looking to talk to Jim.  But before he can find Jim, he winds up dancing with Linda and the two of them are the hit of the night.  The next morning, Jim can’t remember who he danced with, but he knows that she’s his dream dance partner and sets out on a mission to find her again.  Not wanting Linda to run off with Ted the way Lila had, Jim proposes to Linda and tries anything to stop Ted from finding her.  But Ted finally figures out the truth on Valentine’s Day and wants to start performing with her at the inn.

Ted continues trying to woo Linda, but Linda stays faithful to Jim.  But when Jim finds out that some Hollywood agents will be coming to the inn to see Jim and Linda perform, Jim fixes it so that she misses the performance and Ted has to perform alone.  After Linda finally does make it to the inn, she finds out what Jim has done and is hurt that Jim doesn’t trust her.  She heads off to Hollywood with Ted to star in a movie based on the story of the Holiday Inn while Jim stays in Connecticut, following their romance through movie fan magazines.  Ted is completely lost without Linda, and with some encouragement from his housekeeper Mamie (Louise Beavers), flies to Hollywood on Christmas Eve to make one last attempt to win Linda back.

Holiday Inn is definitely one of my essential Christmastime movies.  I love Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby together and all those wonderful Irving Berlin songs are the icing on the cake.  Even though I think the character of Ted is a bit of a jerk, leave it to Fred Astaire to play him with enough charm to still be likeable.  Of course, Holiday Inn is best remembered for introducing the song “White Christmas,” which went on to become one of the most successful singles of all time.  As memorable as Bing’s songs are, I absolutely adore some of Fred’s dance numbers such as the firecracker dance and the drunken New Years Eve dance.

Even though Holiday Inn is generally thought of as being a Christmas movie, it covers so many different holidays that you could probably watch it any time of year and not feel completely out of season.  It’s an absolutely delightful movie.  The only thing stopping me from saying, “What’s not to like?” about it is that unfortunate “Abraham” musical number featuring Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds in blackface.

Paramount in the 1950’s

Paramount in the 50’s just wouldn’t have been the same without Billy Wilder.  He made two of his most, in my opinion, under-appreciated movies at Paramount: 1953’s Stalag 17 and 1951’s Ace in the Hole.  But in 1950, he released a movie that defined not only his career, but the entire film industry — Sunset Boulevard.

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Movies That Could Have Been: The March of Time (1930)

Recently, I had the pleasure of revisiting the That’s Entertainment! trilogy.  As much as I love the first That’s Entertainment!, I love how much rare footage is featured in part three.  One of the movies discussed in part three is an abandoned project from 1930 called The March of Time.  The March of Time was intended to be a follow-up to The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and was set to be shot in two-color Technicolor and feature stars like Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Ramon Novarro, and Marie Dressler.  Only unlike The Hollywood Revue of 1929, The March of Time seemed to have more of a central concept — the past, present, and future of entertainment.  A number of musical scenes were shot for the film, but then the project was scrapped and never completed.

I’m sure that if The March of Time had been completed, it’d be thought of as a historical curiosity today, but I kind of wish that it had been completed.  As awkward and creaky as they are, I sort of love early musical efforts.  They’re just so earnest that I can’t help but find them endearing.  Especially in cases like this where lots of top stars of the era were put together in one movie just because it’s interesting to see all those stars together.  I’d also be quite interested in seeing what they thought the future of entertainment would be.

Even though The March of Time was abandoned, some of the filmed scenes eventually ended up being included in other things.  You can find some of these scenes on YouTube, but I want to specifically highlight one scene called The Lock Step featuring The Dodge Twins:

What I want to know is if this number was supposed to be representing the present or the future of entertainment.  Because if this was supposed to be the future, then they were surprisingly accurate in predicting Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock number.

Going Hollywood (1933)

Basically, Going Hollywood is an ode to the stalker fan.  It all starts when Sylvia Bruce (Marion Davies) realizes she just wasn’t meant to be a French teacher at Briarcroft School.  With the uptight principal running things, there’s just no life in the place and Sylvia can’t stand it anymore.  That all changes one night when Sylvia breaks the rules and turns on the radio and hears Bill Williams (Bing Crosby) singing.  She is so enthralled by hearing him sing that she decides to pack up and head out in search of a more exciting life.  But first, she wants to thank him for inspiring her to change her life.  She manages to find him at his hotel, but she doesn’t get the chance to see him long enough to say what she wants.  Bill is too busy getting ready to head to the train station so he can go to Hollywood and star in a movie.

Not willing to give up so easily, Sylvia follows Bill to the station and gets on his train.  This time she succeeds in telling Bill how he feels, but considering he’s currently seeing the actress Lili Yvonne (Fifi D’Orsay), he lets her down nicely.  But Sylvia doesn’t know that Bill is seeing Lili, and when she faces being thrown off the train because she doesn’t have enough money, she applies to be Lili’s maid so she can stay on longer.  When she does find out Lili and Bill are a couple, she can’t resist slapping her boss and is fired.  After the train arrives in Hollywood, Sylvia resumes stalking Bill and even though they won’t let her see him at the studio, at least she ends up making friends with Jill, an aspiring actress, who agrees to let her live with her and split the rent.

Even though Sylvia was shut out of the studio the first time, she’s even more determined to get in the next day and manages to sneak onto the set by putting on blackface and disguising herself as a maid (I’m not making this up).  Bill tries to let her down nicely again, but Lili isn’t as subtle and demands that Sylvia be thrown off the set.  In a last-ditch attempt to get close to Bill, Sylvia talks to Ernest, the film’s financier, and gets him to give her and Jill jobs as extras on the movie.  Of course, having Sylvia and Lili working together can’t end well and after Sylvia starts making fun of Lili when she starts with her over-the-top diva behavior, the two of them get into a fight.  Sylvia manages to give Lili a black eye and rather than fire Sylvia for injuring the film’s star, Ernest gives Sylvia Lili’s part instead.  In true movie fashion, Sylvia ends up being a big hit in the movie and she finally begins to have a romantic relationship with Bill.  But when Sylvia thinks Bill is seeing Lili again, she distances herself from him, which leads to Bill using alcohol and Lili to console himself.  After some time apart, Sylvia tries to convince Bill to come to Hollywood with her so they can finish their next movie together.  Bill is torn between Lili and Sylvia, but in the end, of course he is happily reunited with Sylvia.

I think it’s safe to say that Going Hollywood is a movie that simply did not age well.  This may have been charming in 1933, but in 2011, it’s just stalker-riffic.  In addition to that, there’s the fact that it’s a pretty early musical so its rather awkward in a lot of spots.  I usually love Marion Davies, but I don’t think she was really used to her full potential here.  She was a brilliant comedienne and except for the scene where Sylvia is making fun of Lili, I didn’t think she got enough opportunities to show off her comedic skills here.  I much prefer Marion’s silents.  On the plus side though, at least the movie gives you plenty of chances to hear Bing Crosby sing, which is something I’m sure not going to complain about.  Overall, unless you’re a big Bing Crosby fan, I can’t highly recommend Going Hollywood.  Why it is currently ranked above Footlight Parade and Meet Me in St. Louis on IMDB’s list of top musicals is beyond me.