Easter Parade (1948)

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Detail from "Easter Parade" movie poster

Easter Parade (1948). 103 minutes.  Directed by Charles Walters.  Starring Judy Garland (as Hannah Brown), Fred Astaire (as Don Hewes), Ann Miller (as Nadine Hale), and Peter Lawford (as Jonathan Harrow III).  Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.

Easter Parade contains some of stars Fred Astaire’s and Judy Garland’s most beloved routines, including the title song (sung at the film’s conclusion), “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and “We’re a Couple of Swells,” the latter of which became an important part of Garland’s concert repertoire.  The film takes place over the course of a year in New York, from the Easter of 1912 to the Easter of 1913.  Singer and dancer Don Hewes (played by Astaire) has been abandoned by his accomplished partner, Nadine Hale (played by Ann Miller), and stumbling into a cabaret at night, Hewes tells his friend Jonathan Harrow (played by Peter Lawford) that he can make any of the girls performing in that venue into a world-class dancer.  Almost at random, Hewes settles on Hannah Brown (played by Garland) and begins to work on her transformation from a small-time beer hall performer into the exotic and elegant “Juanita Brown.”

The problem is that Hannah does not turn into Juanita very easily or gracefully.  She cannot tell her left leg from her right, and the billowing ostrich-feather gown Hewes has her wear at their first performance together disastrously impedes their routine.  (Brown’s dress in this scene is a comic allusion to a similar dress that Ginger Rogers wore in a dance with Astaire in 1935’s Top Hat.  Rogers’s dress in that film caused Astaire unscripted trouble, although in his demure performance, he did not let on that he was annoyed.)  It is only when Hewes hears former partner Nadine criticize Brown that he realizes Brown’s strength is comedy and reconfigures the act, ushering in a string of mirthful song-and-dance routines.

Judy Garland was to play another lowly performer turned into a glorious swan of sorts in the tragic movie A Star Is Born (1954) with James Mason.  That film would give her the opportunity to show that she could play a character immersed in considerable sorrow.  The Judy Garland of Easter Parade is some distance away from the Judy Garland of A Star Is Born.  In Easter Parade, she plays the eternally girlish Garland character of the early MGM musicals.  Her Hannah Brown is frequently bewildered, deeply in love, and often frustrated with the object of her affection (Hewes).  In one delicious scene, she informs him in passionate tones that he returns her affection so insufficiently, she doesn’t even “feel like a girl” when he’s around sometimes.  This is one of the meanest things that her character can say—which is, in other words, not very mean at all, but then who wants to be told that they make the diminutive and feminine Garland not feel her usual self?  It rightly seems like a crime, and Hewes reforms.

All of the film’s music was written by Irving Berlin in roughly the period that the film depicts, which is to say that the film revisits Berlin’s early days of songwriting and the heyday of vaudeville.  Perhaps for that reason, Easter Parade might remind you of another movie that fondly looks back to the singing and dancing of earlier times: the 1952 Singin’ in the Rain, starring Gene Kelly (who was originally supposed to star in Easter Parade), which reflects on the transition from film’s silent period to its first talkies.  Compared to Singin’ in the Rain, however, Easter Parade’s plot is, shall we say, less remarkable: Hewes transforms Brown into a comic singer and dancer, and then there is a lot of back and forth about whether and how they are going to get together romantically, given the menacing presence of Nadine Hale. Presumably the film was largely built around the clever stringing together of Berlin’s early songs, as this was a very reliable way of creating a musical in the glory days of MGM.  Garland and Astaire are so wonderful to watch, and the musical numbers are so colorful and full of life, that it is safe to say that much of the film’s success rests on their performances and the staging, rather than the plot.

In some regards, however, I prefer Easter Parade to the 1952 Singin’ in the Rain.  Much as I love Gene Kelly, Astaire has an aura, a mystique, and a likability that just cannot be beat to my mind, and in particular, this film allows him to be quite funny.  If you watch the first dance sequence, “Drum Crazy,” you will perhaps see what I mean.  In that number, Hewes dances around a toy shop in an attempt to convince a young boy that the boy does not really want a toy rabbit (which Hewes has his eye on for then-dancing partner Nadine).  Hewes slyly argues that the drum is a superior toy, and handily, it is also something which the toy shop has in steady supply.  Astaire could play crafty characters very well, and part of the charm of this performance rests in the character’s duplicity at this moment: Astaire’s effortless twirling, kicking, and thumping is doubly amusing when we realize that all of that elegance is being put to work as part of a ruse to secure a paltry bunny.

Astaire’s dancing is magical, something that director Charles Walters understood: witness the “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” number that he performs later in the film as part of his big debut with Brown.  Halfway through this sequence, Astaire, performing in front of a group of other dancers, is slowed down as they move behind him in real time.  We understand that our experience of the slow-motion Astaire is not the experience of the audience in the theater watching Hewes dance live.  This is a special opportunity for us to observe Astaire’s technique in a moment that exists outside of the real time of the film.  He tosses his cane, turns, jumps, and kicks, and we can see that his position in each step is perfect, his poise ideal.  It is as if Astaire has ceased to be Hewes and is instead being shared with us as something of a marvel, a monumental performer who escapes from the time and space of his own movie.

Another reason to love this movie is that, as I mentioned, it uses Easter as a framing device: the film begins on the day before Easter, and it ends on Easter the following year.  At the famous Easter Parade that takes place on Fifth Avenue in the early and concluding parts of the film, our attention is directed to the often outrageous hats that the parading women wear, but the fashion spread throughout the film is remarkable, and some of the springtime color is very intense; I’m thinking of Nadine’s bright yellow dress at her Ziegfeld performance, or Hannah’s pink gloves on Easter Sunday or her green velvet dress on the night of her premiere.  I can think of few Hollywood movies that display so many of the secular charms of the holiday as this one (there is even a fluffy white bunny), and yet as Leonard Maltin once said, it would be a shame to watch Easter Parade only once a year.  It is one of Astaire and Garland’s best.

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