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Easter Parade

April 6, 2012 12:30 PM
7 Comments
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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.

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7 Comments

  • Andrew S. | April 10, 2012 11:30 PMReply

    Certainly one of the best musicals ever. A joyous film in all apects, and among the very best for both Garland and Astaire. Astaire actually seems to have real sex appeal in this film, the only one where he does in my opinion. And his solo dance number in the toy shop!

    Charles Walters seems to me a master at directing musicals and light comedies; in his films all the actors, stars and character actors both, give perfect and perfectly delightful performances. Besides the films that have been mentioned, "Dangerous When Wet" is to me by far the best Esther Williams film (thinking about the actor's performances of the story, not water ballets). "Jumbo" is another favorite. Both contain simply staged, intimate musical scenes that have never been bettered--a deleted scene from the former, found on the DVD, between Denise Darcel and Fernando Lamas, and in "Jumbo" one sung on the back of a circus wagon by Doris Day and Martha Ray. Has there ever been a more moving and charming musical scene that Walters directed "I Remember It Well" number in "Gigi"? (Walters shot additional material for that film, when it was extensively revised after poor previews). And how about the scenes in "Lili" between Leslie Caron and the puppets expressing the hidden emotions of the character played by Mel Ferrer?

  • Lin | April 9, 2012 11:45 AMReply

    Garland and Astaire. Wow! Just wow! Watching Great Stars at work reminds us all just how captivatingly talented and special their were. These people weren't deemed 'screen legends' because some studio chief told us they were, or some PR man just happened to pin some undeserving title upon them. The audience needs only to see them 'movie-starring': singing, dancing, emoting, or simply BEING, and suddenly we GET it, we understand, and before the film is over, we've fallen in love with them (sometimes over and over again). That's some sort of witchcraft/magic stuff at work!

    Often they were called upon to step outside the arena of their natural, most familiar gifts and to perform before the camera using completely different skill sets, and (back then) they did so where it would appear enchanting and 'natural' on-screen. This film is one of many that completely dazzles us with its writing, direction, cinematography, words, music, and yes, its utter, like butta, MOVIE-STAR-ness!

  • Mishey | April 8, 2012 8:50 PMReply

    Watching the movie right now - what a rare talent Judy Garland was! How sad that she was so abused by the studio system. Astaire, as usual, is brilliant! As is Ann Miller. You don't see such unassuming talent like that nowadays! What a wonderful movie!

  • Christopher Denny | April 7, 2012 3:12 PMReply

    Thankful, as well, that Easter Parade gave us ten more years of Astaire as leading man...Also surprised to learn that Walters directed High Society and Walk Don't Run. Similarly, I didn't know Howard Hawks was the director behind such eclectic films as His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, The Big Sleep, Red River, The Thing From Another World, Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo, etc. until I watched Bringing Up Baby with Bogdanovich's highly amusing, fun & informative commentary track...Some other Easter films? I'd recommend The Lilies of the Field, Harvey, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory & The Wicker Man (the original, of course).

  • MAK | April 7, 2012 12:38 PMReply

    Two quick notes - according to Hugh Fordin in his book about the Freed unit - it was Sid Sheldon who did a rewrite on the Goodrich/Hackett script -
    And three more Walters pics to enjoy - his first GOOD NEWS doesn't sound like much, but it's tremendous fun (worth it for Peter Lawford & June Allyson in 'The French Lesson' alone) - LILI (I think his biggest hit after EASTER PARADE) - and PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES which many recall as a 'guilty pleasure,' but which you needn't feel guilty about.

    p.s. Hey, Peter - Aren't all those Jesus Christ films Easter pictures?!!

    www.maksquibs.blogspot.com

  • Christopher | April 7, 2012 1:20 AMReply

    Hard to imagine the golden age of film musicals without the second half of the Fred Astaire experience.Thank goodness for Kelly twisting his ankle.Ann Miller is particularly stunning in all her 1912 MGM technicolor finery.

  • katie | April 6, 2012 1:51 PMReply

    We totally agree with you about Judy Garland's remarkable performance in EASTER PARADE -- she's got great physical comedy, amazing dance skills, and never once gives the impression she's just been institutionalized for suicide! What a trooper! We found the film to be slyly feminist, since Garland's character of Hannah is so much more spontaneous and assertive (i.e., modern) than Ann Miller's diva character. Here's our blog entry on EASTER PARADE http://www.filmfresh.com/blog/people-watching

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