A White Christmas: Witnessing Racial Intolerance in 1940’s America through HOLIDAY INN

15 December 2013

Mid-WWII came Mark Sandrich’s Holiday Inn (1942), a Christmas musical featuring the musical talents of Irving Berlin.  This film is the story of two entertainers, who also happen to be good friends and competitive rivals, Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire).  Jim has aspirations of stepping away from the spotlight, living a humbler life as a farmer in Connecticut.  Conversely, Ted wants to take his already successful nightclub career even further, perhaps to the pictures.  The two go their separate ways; however, Jim, feeling overwhelmed by his new life as farmer, decides to turn his Connecticut estate into the Holiday Inn, an entertainment venue which opens its doors and provides entertainment on each holiday of the calendar year.  He hires Linda (Marjorie Reynolds) as his partner, and the two quickly fall in love.  Yet, the rivalry rages on when Ted meets Linda and sees the success and potential of the Holiday Inn.  Once again, as they have done time and time before, Jim and Ted compete for the girl and preserving their respective dreams.

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One of the more controversial scenes in Holiday Inn is the “Abraham” sequence, during which Bing Crosby sings Berlin’s “Abraham” in blackface, emphasizing stereotypical dialect and gestures.  Moreover, the entire staff of Jim’s Holiday Inn, including the band, is also in blackface.  At the time, 1942, this performance may not have been a red-flag, but in the years that followed the film’s release, this sequence stood out as racially offensive.  In fact, televised broadcasts of Holiday Inn typically omit this scene, excluding TCM, a network rooted in the philosophy that films must be broadcasted without interruption and as they were originally cut.

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However, it is not just the “Abraham” number that American racial intolerance of the time emerges in. Even though this particular musical sequence is, perhaps, the most overt racial targeting in the film, the 1940’s racially prejudice mentality is amply evident elsewhere in the film, making Holiday Inn, like many of its contemporaries, less of a holiday classic and more of a historical documentation of a darker, narrow-minded time in American history.

First, as Linda prepares for the “Abraham” number Jim paints her in blackface.  After smearing her face in makeup, Linda, gruff and unnerved, huffs and comments, “For a month and a half I’ve been dreaming how pretty I was going to look tonight.  Well, here is my punishment for thinking so well of myself.”  Reading between the lines of Linda’s comments, in blackface she is not pretty; in blackface she disgusts herself, and her self-esteem takes a hit.  Evident from this scene of preparation for “Abraham,” the racial digs have already begun.

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Within the number, and in addition to every white performer being in blackface, there is a cut to Mamie (Louise Beavers), Jim’s housekeeper, and her two children.  The portion of the song they sing includes the line, “Who was is set the darkie free?”  Because she is offstage with her children, Mamie sings her portion of the song not for the audience of Jim’s Holiday Inn, but, instead, for the film’s audience.  This is another moment when racism seeps into the film.  Of course Mamie could not be in the number, even though she can sing well.  Mamie is black and blacks could not be entertainers in the all white establishment.  Blacks could be behind the scenes cooking and cleaning, as we see Mamie do; however, performing was off limits.  Cutting to Mamie and then back to the all white performers in blackface only calls more attention to the division of race and the unequal treatment between black and whites, a division the film, either consciously or not, brings into its narrative.

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Interestingly, shortly after “Abraham” comes “Freedom,” the 4th of July holiday celebration.  Obviously, the Independence Day-themed number is full of pro-Allie plugs, promoting the America ideals: liberty and, of course, freedom, to “all God’s people.”  In fact, the number is primarily Bing Crosby’s voice singing over a short WWII propaganda film. Yet, apparently “all God’s people” means white men because only white men are shown in the WWII film.  Black men were allowed to fight (and die) in the war, yet they are not immortalized or glorified in this propaganda film.  Moreover, the film emphasizes all the freedoms “God’s people” should be granted: freedom of religion (a probable reference to the Holocaust), freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press.  Considering the restriction on black during the 1940s, this must mean blacks are not “God’s people,” and that freedom of equality is intentionally missing from the list.

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Lastly, Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas” was performed live-action for the first time in the film.  While there is no way to argue the “white” in “White Christmas” has any racial motivation, it is possible, at least unconsciously.  The word “white” is a pun; it has more than one meaning, or can be defined, in this context, in more than one way.  And this pun is in a film that sees no problem with white men and women entertaining in blackface.  At best, the song feels suggestive and, like so much of Holiday Inn, the song reflects a racially troublesome time in America; a time where racial tension was pervasive and crept into everything, including Irving Berlin’s lyrics.

Films are like allegories; they reveal messages about value systems from the historical moment they are created in.  Films tap into culture, capturing everything from the fashion to the ideology of the people who make it.  Holiday Inn reflects its time, and its time was full of racial injustice.  The film does not intend to call attention to race, but it does because race is a part of 1940’s culture.  The film does not try and suggest a pro-white mentality, but it does because that was the mentality of the 1940’s culture.  At its surface, the film intended to be a holiday treat for audiences, with a little pro-Allie support sprinkled in; however, consistently situated between the taps dances and the fallings in love, is the unequal treatment between the races in America during the 1940’s.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 15/12/2013.

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