If you want to see an Easter-related picture, you don’t have much choice: The monopoly is held by the 1948 Fred Astaire-Judy Garland-Irving Berlin charmer, EASTER PARADE (available on DVD). The movie was conceived, written and prepared by MGM’s Arthur Freed musical unit to star Gene Kelly, but shortly before shooting was to begin, Kelly badly twisted his ankle. Two years earlier, Astaire—after a string of box-office disappointments, and with Kelly clearly in ascendance—had announced his retirement. Now, though, MGM asked Fred to come back and replace Gene. He did, the picture was a smash, and Astaire had another decade of starring roles.
Both the part itself and the gist of the numbers have more of a Kelly feel but Astaire pulls everything off with his usual aplomb—-indeed, maybe this difference in basic approach helped to give Astaire his new lease on picture life. Certainly the best of his post-retirement movies, Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953), is very much a Gene Kelly kind of musical. But Easter Parade is not really in the modern Kelly league of On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), or Singin’ in the Rain (1952); it’s essentially an old-fashioned piece, accounting perhaps for some of its attractiveness as the square era’s finale.
The plot (fashioned first by Sidney Sheldon, of all people, then restructured by veterans Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) starts out during Easter 1911 as Fred’s dancing partner—Ann Miller at her most exaggeratedly diva-like—quits to strike out on her own, taking some huge Broadway offer, and leaving Astaire romantically in the lurch, too. So Fred is forced to find a new partner, reluctantly picks Garland and then, of course, trains her to such star power that by Easter 1912—now exactly a hundred years ago--the new team of Astaire and Garland far outshines selfish Ann. In between there are about seventeen Irving Berlin tunes—seven new at the time, ten from his voluminous catalog—the centerpiece, of course, being the title Easter anthem where, “You’ll find that you’re/In the rotogravure...” (The picture easily won the Oscar for best musical score.)
If you had to come up with a single succinct word for Easter Parade, it’s the same one that could sum up most of the films directed by Charles Walters, of which this was only the second: likeable. Having begun as an actor-dancer and choreographer (most significantly on Minnelli’s 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis), Walters went on to make, among many others, the only Astaire-Ginger Rogers color film, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), the last Garland-Kelly, Summer Stock (1950), the appealing Frank Sinatra-Debbie Reynolds romantic comedy The Tender Trap (1955), the Sinatra-Bing Crosby-Grace Kelly-Cole Porter High Society (1956), and Cary Grant’s final picture—and Walters’ last, too—Walk Don’t Run, released in 1966. He never had the panache or wit of Minnelli or Stanley Donen, but for unpretentious affability, Walters was dependably consistent.
To see Judy Garland in Easter Parade, however, taking a not very rewarding part and managing to present herself as mature yet innocent, savvy yet vulnerable—and superbly bringing off the difficult dancing—becomes all the more poignant when you realize she only did two other starring roles before being kicked out of MGM, which led to her first suicide attempt. So the failed, though glorious, 1954 comeback of A Star is Born was only two pictures (plus a cameo) after Easter Parade: a bracing hint of how tough the grind of picture stardom in the old studio system must have been for some players, especially women. This awareness also gives the greater valiant edge to the magnificent Astaire-Garland highlight here, in which they dress as Chaplinesque bums and sing and dance the utterly delightful Berlin novelty number, “A Couple of Swells.” They certainly were.