In the Thanksgiving scene in “Holiday Inn,” Bing Crosby plays a recording of himself singing “I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For” while he dejectedly plays with his food, an enormous turkey and all the trimmings. Louise Beavers, who plays his cook, Mamie, sets the feast before him, and then berates him for letting Fred Astaire steal Marjorie Reynolds away.
Wondering if he is really going to eat all that food by himself, and wondering if Mamie and her tagalong children are going to get to eat any of it, is only part of the viewer’s preoccupation with this scene. The other distracting mystery is the brief black and white animation which prefaces this scene, wherein a cartoon turkey sitting on a calendar page suddenly hoists himself up and walks over to the highlighted Thursday the week before. No sooner has he settled himself down, that the box marking the fourth Thursday in November is highlighted as Thanksgiving, and he must hoist himself up again, with no small ruffling of the feathers, to waddle down to the Thursday he had previously occupied. The turkey is repeatedly teased in this manner, and so are we, until he finally shrugs denoting his confusion.
Younger viewers may think that Thanksgiving is all about the Pilgrims and all that, but modern Thanksgiving is also about commerce, in so far as it leads into the holiday shopping season. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, still trying to jump start us out of the Depression, in one of his many grab you by the socks legislative moves, pushed Thanksgiving 1939 up a week, to the third Thursday of November. This was intended to extend the holiday shopping season. Most Americans followed the President’s lead, but interestingly, many New Englanders refused to follow suit and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday. They called the Thursday before “Franksgiving.” New Englanders, particularly those residing in Massachusetts, always took a rather proprietary view of Thanksgiving, and until roughly about the late 1940s it was a much bigger holiday in New England than Christmas ever was.
The dispute over which was the real Thanksgiving Day continued in 1940 and 1941, and afterward Congress capitulated to tradition and voted to return Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday of November. The reference to this in “Holiday Inn” is one of those small but interesting Zeitgeist moments to watch for in old Hollywood films.