The perennial holiday classic comes to 4K UHD, but an underwhelming HDR transfer dulls the seasonal sparkle of Holiday Inn. Upticks in clarity and contrast make this festive musical more vibrant, but excessive grain often proves distracting. Nevertheless, the magic of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire shines through and the memorable score by Irving Berlin keeps spirits high. For many of us, it just wouldn't be Christmas without Holiday Inn, and though this 4K UHD upgrade might not meet our lofty expectations, it's nice to have the film in the format. Recommended.
Though many rightfully regard it as a yuletide film - after all, it begins and ends on Christmas Eve and introduced the most popular secular Christmas song of all time, "White Christmas" - Holiday Inn is actually an all-purpose holiday movie, suitable for viewing on Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Easter, even Valentine's Day. Composer Irving Berlin cleverly salutes almost every national day of celebration in this delightfully entertaining romantic romp that's been a regular in my family's December viewing rotation as long as I can remember. The ingenious teaming of crooner Bing Crosby with terpsichorean titan Fred Astaire, a bevy of beautiful Berlin melodies, and a snappy script by Claude Binyon (adapted from an idea by Berlin) all help elevate a pedestrian tale to lofty heights. While Holiday Inn ranked as one of 1942's highest grossing films, its reputation has only increased over the ensuing decades, and it's unlikely its current stature as a pinnacle of seasonal entertainment ever will be diminished.
For more than a half century, "White Christmas" sat atop the charts as the bestselling song of all time (Elton John's special "Candle in the Wind" tribute to Princess Diana finally eclipsed it in the late 1990s), and Holiday Inn owes much of its success and longevity to this nostalgic yuletide anthem. Any artist worth his or her salt has recorded it, but no one can rival Crosby's original rendition, performed simply at the piano in front of a lit tree with a roaring fire in the background. The song comes early in Holiday Inn, with little fanfare, and though it didn't immediately catch on (America's entry into World War II spurred its popularity, as the tune became a special favorite of soldiers fighting overseas), its performance by Crosby is now considered an iconic movie moment, and its reprise by Marjorie Reynolds (dubbed by Martha Mears) late in the film wields additional emotional impact.
Most of Holiday Inn is all about fun and the clever romantic maneuvers of its dueling leads, who purport to be best friends, but spend most of the movie as double-crossing rivals. When gold-digging tap dancer Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) dumps crooner Jim Hardy (Crosby) on the eve of their wedding for Jim's partner, the slick and sly Ted Hanover (Astaire), Jim picks himself up, dusts himself off, and proceeds with his plan to quit the nightclub hurlyburly and relax on his Connecticut farm. All goes swimmingly for about a New York minute, and after a year of arduous chores and little sleep, farmer Jim (fresh from a stint in a sanitarium to calm his frazzled nerves) embarks on a new professional path better suited to his lazy personality.
Almost overnight, Jim transforms his farm into an inn - "but what an inn!" The gimmick? It's open only on holidays, so Jim only has to work about a dozen days a year (although the lavish productions Jim continually mounts would quickly bankrupt such an enterprise). Jim asks his former manager, Danny Reed (Walter Abel in a memorable frenzied portrayal), to send any talent his way, and Danny complies, referring flower shop employee Linda Mason (Reynolds) to Holiday Inn just to get her out of his hair. Jim hires the fresh-faced, bubbly Linda and quickly falls in love with her, but when Lila runs off with a Texas millionaire, leaving Ted without a dance partner (and girlfriend), Ted sets his sights on Linda to fill both roles. "Here we go again," sighs Jim, and in an effort to keep history from repeating itself, he uses all his wiles to keep Linda at the inn and out of Ted's arms.
Though the romcom plot is just a framework on which to hang more than a dozen Berlin holiday-themed songs, there's enough arch dialogue and witty repartee to fuel the clichéd story. Crosby and Astaire create incomparable chemistry, and watching them spar with and outfox each other is one of the film's most enjoyable aspects. The role of Ted Hanover is the closest Astaire would ever get to portraying a villain in his five-decade career, and though he seems to relish the character's Machiavellian traits, his patented charm always shines through, allowing him to make the crafty cad likable. Though both Reynolds and Dale never achieved much renown beyond their work here, both make strong impressions, holding their own with Astaire on the dance floor and providing a welcome dash of spunk when necessary.
Yet when all is said and done, Holiday Inn is all about the music and the dancing, and Berlin's catchy cadre of memorable tunes makes it easy to revisit this breezy film year after year. In addition to the Oscar-winning "White Christmas" and perennial favorite "Easter Parade" (a song that would spawn its own film starring Astaire six years later), the score includes the lilting "Be Careful, It's My Heart" (exquisitely sung by Crosby and danced with ethereal grace by Astaire and Reynolds), the festive "Happy Holiday," the soulful "Abraham" (performed as a blackface minstrel number that's more than a bit uncomfortable to watch today), the rousing "Song of Freedom" (a bit of wartime propaganda featuring clips of FDR and American troops in action that was hastily inserted after the Pearl Harbor attack, which occurred during the movie's production), and the explosive "Let's Say It With Firecrackers," one of the most intricate and exciting dance numbers of Astaire's career. With astonishing precision, Astaire taps his feet off while tossing various pyrotechnics across the dance floor in perfect syncopated rhythm, resulting in an electrifying routine and defining example of how seamlessly Astaire weaves together invention, artistry, and flawless technique.
Another awe-inspiring display of Astaire's genius occurs when an inebriated Ted takes to the floor with Linda and performs a series of perfectly executed drunken moves. Reportedly, Astaire took a shot of whiskey before each take (there were seven in all) so he could appear authentically soused, and the resulting bumbling and stumbling - all meticulously choreographed, but performed to look like anything but - is one of the film's many high points. Equally humorous (and impressive), the dance to "I Can't Tell a Lie" alternates between highbrow classicism and lowbrow buck-and-wings as Jim continually changes the song's style and tempo to force Ted and Linda to alter their rehearsed routine on the fly and prevent them from locking lips.
Like the hotel chain that was named after the movie, Holiday Inn isn't particularly unique - dramatically or musically - but producer-director Mark Sandrich, who helmed five of the legendary Astaire-Rogers films, knows what's he's doing and crafts a buoyantly entertaining motion picture that continues to stand the test of time. Of course, "timeless" is the perfect adjective to describe the gifts of both Crosby and Astaire, and their easygoing partnership helps transform the modest Holiday Inn into one of the most beloved musicals of all time.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra High-Def Blu-ray
Holiday Inn arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve with a textured snowy border. A 1080p Blu-ray disc and leaflet containing the Movies Anywhere digital copy code are tucked inside the front cover. (Universal does not include the colorized version of Holiday Inn on the Blu-ray in this set, so if that version is important to you, you'll want to hang onto your 2014 Blu-ray disc.) Universal does address the blackface "Abraham" number with the following declaration that precedes the film: "This program includes racial and cultural depictions that are outdated and offensive. Although these depictions do not represent the values of NBCUniversal, they have not been removed in the interest of presenting the original content and preserving history. This program is reflective of the time when it was made and serves as a reminder of the racism and prejudice that was once considered acceptable." Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
It seems as if Universal simply upconverted the existing Blu-ray transfer of Holiday Inn to 4K UHD. Aside from the expected - but not drastic - boost in clarity and contrast, the 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with HDR looks identical to its 1080p counterpart...with one notable exception. Grain is far more noticeable on the 4K UHD disc, so much so that it often calls undue attention to itself. Solid backgrounds often look noisy and the heavy texture seems to slightly diffuse the picture's sharpness. Though this treatment faithfully honors the original film, some remastering would have greatly improved the image quality without sacrificing an organic, film-like feel. Remastering, though, requires time and money, and it seems Universal wasn't willing to make that investment on Holiday Inn. HDR punches up the vibrancy, but the Holiday Inn picture definitely lacks the wow factor that has distinguished so many 4K UHD classic releases this year.
On the plus side, details like the falling snow in the opening shot, Crosby's loud tie in the early dressing room scene, the swirling smoke from his pipe, and the flames dancing in the inn's fireplace all grab extra attention. The gowns of Reynolds and Dale exude more sparkle, close-ups appear more dimensional, and the painted spring backdrop that frames Astaire and Reynolds as he sings "Easter Parade" is more obvious than ever before, but none of the upticks are revelatory. Black levels are a tad richer, whites run a bit hot, and grays are nicely graded. Shadow delineation is fine and no print damage is evident.
Without the intense grain, this 4K UHD transfer would outclass the 2014 Blu-ray, but after comparing the two, the Blu-ray offers a more cohesive and cozy viewing experience. And isn't that what you want from a holiday movie? I won't discourage anyone from upgrading, because the 4K UHD transfer offers distinct enhancements, but the next time I watch Holiday Inn, I'll have to seriously think about which version I pop into the player. For a 4K UHD disc, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement.
The same DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that appears on the 2014 Blu-ray has been transferred to this 4K UHD release. Here's what I thought of it eight years ago:
"The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track pumps out clear sound that's free of any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackle. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without a hint of distortion, and though the orchestrations lack the lushness and depth musicals demand, the songs still sound bright and lively, and Bing's dulcet baritone possesses plenty of warmth and resonance. Accents, such as Astaire's tapping, the firecrackers in the Fourth of July number, and the popping of the peach preserve jars, are appropriately bold, but subtleties are more difficult to discern. Dialogue and song lyrics are always clear and easy to comprehend, and no noticeable defects creep into the mix."
In addition to all the supplements from the 2014 Blu-ray (with the exception of the "Coloring a Classic" featurette, because neither the 4K UHD nor Blu-ray disc in this set includes a colorized version of Holiday Inn), Universal adds a brief but essential featurette that addresses the controversial "Abraham" number.
NEW Featurette: "Reassessing 'Abraham'" (HD, 4 minutes) - A quartet of film and dramatic scholars talk about the devastating and insulting racial stereotypes that resulted from and were perpetuated by minstrel shows in the early part of the 20th century, and how the number "Abraham" is a particularly offensive example. While everyone seems to agree that films containing blackface numbers should be left intact, they believe "some sort of historical comment" should be included to put the minstrel sequences in their proper context.
Audio Commentary - Though his remarks often sound scripted, author, record producer, and historian Ken Barnes delivers a commentary that's both informative and enthusiastic. Barnes, who worked with both Crosby and Astaire many years ago and shares his personal recollections of the two men, calls Holiday Inn the "definitive musical of the 1940s," and talks about the movie's genesis, how Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth were originally envisioned for the roles eventually played by Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale, and how the song "White Christmas" didn't initially wow the public. He also chronicles Crosby's early life as a drunken, skirt-chasing ne'er-do-well, analyzes the film's politically incorrect minstrel sequence from its proper cultural perspective, and compares Holiday Inn to its Irving Berlin sister film White Christmas. Enhancing his discussion of Holiday Inn is a selection of archival audio clips of Astaire, Crosby, and Crosby's long-time music director John Scott Trotter, which shed additional light on the Astaire-Crosby relationship, their tenure as USO entertainers during World War II, and their perception of Holiday Inn.
Documentary: "A Couple of Song and Dance Men" (SD, 45 minutes) - Barnes joins Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, for this unsatisfying dual examination of the Holiday Inn stars. With the exception of Astaire's electrifying "Puttin' on the Ritz" dance from Blue Skies and a snippet of Crosby singing "White Christmas" from the same film, all the included clips come from trailers and the information provided isn't very enlightening, unless you're a total Astaire-Crosby neophyte. McKenzie reads from a couple of letters Astaire wrote to his wife during World War II, and we learn 38 takes were required for Astaire's explosive "Let's Say It With Firecrackers" number (the dancer also got himself quite tipsy for a drunken routine with Reynolds), but otherwise this is a fairly pedestrian piece that sheds little light on the two men. Once again, the patter between Barnes and McKenzie feels scripted, which lends this 2002 featurette an uncomfortable air of artificiality.
Featurette: "All-Singing All-Dancing: Before and After" (SD, 7 minutes) - Also from 2002, this featurette examines the evolution of musical production and how pre-recordings and dance looping helped streamline the process and expand the art form. One number from Holiday Inn is broken down to provide an example of how actors lip-synced to pre-recorded tracks and taps were often added in post-production.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - This re-issue preview hits all the high points of the Irving Berlin score.
Holiday Inn remains a beloved holiday movie, but Universal's 4K UHD upgrade with HDR doesn't inspire much wide-eyed wonder. Excessive grain prevents this disc from rivaling other classics released on 4K UHD this year, but mild upticks in vibrancy and clarity make it worth checking out if you're an über fan. This set contains both a 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray disc, so you can choose which version you prefer. If you haven't yet picked up this festive musical, now is the time, but if you already own the 2014 Blu-ray an upgrade is not essential. I'm labeling this release Recommended because of the quality of the movie and it's faithful, but not dazzling, 4K UHD transfer. On its own, the transfer would merely be worth a look.