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Quick, name all the movies that Judy Garland and Fred Astaire starred in together! As I learned watching this show, there's only one -- 1948's Easter Parade, an expensive showcase for seventeen songs by Irving Berlin.
Real aficionados divide MGM musicals by producer, which roughly boils down to the Pasternak clan and the Arthur Freed unit. Amateurs like myself find other criteria, such as splitting the films into those with a concept and the ones that are a collection of agreeable songs. Easter Parade belongs to the second kind, although Fred Astaire and Judy Garland are so watchable that the trite story becomes a small matter. It is little more than seventeen musical performances strung together, but all are good and several are "let's see it again" keepers. Truman-era audiences loved it, especially the jubilant title song.
Warners' Blu-ray upgrades a two-disc DVD set from 2005, but skips that release's major extra, an inspiring American Masters docu on Judy Garland.
The story by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett uses Vaudeville as the setting for music and romance. Dance star Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) is in love with his partner Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) but she ditches him to pursue a solo career. In retaliation Don tries to make an untried chorus girl, Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) into a carbon copy replacement, not realizing that Hannah has greater talents of her own to offer.
Easter Parade is a Technicolor bonbon of the immediate postwar years when MGM musicals bloomed. It feels more than a little boorish to discuss its shortcomings as compared to other MGM musicals that happen to be one's favorites. The dialogue is fairly clever and the acting expert and Judy Garland and Fred Astaire make it all much better than watchable. But it remains a standard, flatly shot backstage romance with a second-tier script that mixes predictable backstage business with crossed romantic signals. Ann Miller is amusing only when she's dancing, which she apparently accomplished when she was injured and in terrible pain. Peter Lawford is as uncharismatic as ever -- the deadpan bartender played by Clinton Sundberg has more personality. I have to say that Lawford's umbrella-themed song is really ... awful. It makes one wish for Oscar Levant.
Astaire's 'drum' number in the toy shop launches the picture, and then things get tepid for awhile. The light comedy between Garland and Astaire keeps the show afloat while we're waiting for the great musical numbers. When they do come along they're exceptional. Ann Miller's wonderful tap dancing dervish has little to do with her character elsewhere in the movie, but that matters not a bit -- her talent was made for this showcase. The anachronism of a blazing jazz blues tap dance in 1912 is also irrelevant. MGM musicals exist in their own fantasy bubble.
The stars' musical numbers are stand-alone delights. The most accomplished is probably Steppin' Out With my Baby. Astaire graciously allows top-billed Garland to be the center of attention in most of their scenes, but here he gets to cut loose with one of his all-out dance specialty pieces. This time the novelty concept works. Astaire dances in slow motion, matted into a real-time background chorus. Like the upside-down room of Royal Wedding, it's a fresh gimmick that captures the imagination.
This is the movie with the charming comedy song about 'walking down the avenue' with Astaire and Garland dressed as tramps. It alludes to the Easter promenade theme that opens and ends the show. Astaire buys Miller a hat for the Easter Parade but his day is a romantic flop; a year later Astaire and Garland upstage Miller on 5th Avenue, and fall in love in the bargain. It's thin, but it works.
I think the last impression of Easter Parade is what won over the mass audience. Musical comedies aren't usually associated with the post-war environment but I believe that MGM's Technicolor musicals expressed America's victory uplift, in the same way that film noir was its neurotic downside. The feeling was still around when I was a child in the 1950s -- the idea that there's a bright new future ahead with no boundaries, because the victors are back home with their families and jobs in a secure country enjoying an economic boom. God's light is shining on the whole sunny picture.
After a hundred minutes of familiar musical situations, Easter Parade suddenly seems to boil over with this sentiment. The brief final title song is different than what's come before. The confined interiors or sidewalk shots suddenly pull back to this giant view of Fifth Avenue. It's the orchestration that does it -- the heavenly choir behind the lyric puts a stamp of glory on the fade-out. Audiences in 1948 weren't looking for depth, and instead sought affirmation.
Jules Munshin has a standout bit as an unflappable waiter. The lookers Lola Albright, Joi Lansing and Benay Venuta are showgirls, each given at least one glorious Technicolor close-up. I can imagine Joi Lansing making a deal with her local theater to allow her to walk in at the 81-minute mark or whatever, just to re-experience her one shot!
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Easter Parade is a colorful, bright and clean HD encoding of what to these eyes looks like an older Eastman composite element in excellent condition. Some of the facial tones are a bit light, but overall the picture looks fine. The mono audio track is quite rich, with all the musical numbers coming on strong.
The good extras from the older DVD are here. Peter Fitzgerald's flashy making-of-docu efficiently explains the story behind the film. I was surprised to learn that Gene Kelly was originally meant to star instead of Astaire, and Cyd Charisse instead of Ann Miller. Also present are a radio production of the movie, an original trailer, a radio promo and the now familiar outtake number Mr. Monotony, along with dailies for same. The full-length commentary track features a well-researched John Fricke for the hard facts and Fred Astaire's daughter Ava Astaire for pleasant personal memories. Easter Parade is one of MGM's most successful musical ventures, and one that fans that only know The Wizard of Oz and Singin' in the Rain should surely investigate.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Easter Parade Blu-ray rates:
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