Signalling the rebirth of his film career after a string of box-office failures and Blue Skies (1946), the success of which provided the high note on which Fred Astaire announced his retirement, Easter Parade is a glorious musical-comedy entertainment. The film was prepped by Vincente Minnelli for wife Judy Garland but ultimately directed, in a Minnelli fashion, by Charles Walters. Astaire, who had already appeared in Minnelli’s Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946), and would pair with Minnelli most memorably for the great Band Wagon (1953), came to the project literally by accident. The lead role opposite Garland had been intended for Gene Kelly, who during rehearsals, however, broke his ankle. Enter Astaire. Since during the making of Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948), opposite Kelly, a fragile Garland suffered a nervous breakdown, her psychiatrist insisted on Minnelli’s replacement—prelude to the end of a marriage a few years hence. Enter Walters. One more last-minute replacement weighed in. During the slippery rehearsals that downed Kelly, Cyd Charisse, slated to be the second female lead, broke her leg. Enter Ann Miller. Everything seems to have turned out perfectly with Garland’s almost perpetual producer at the helm: Arthur Freed.
Easter Parade began with two more aces in the hole. One was an exceptionally witty show-biz script by the spousal team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who had written The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934) and After the Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1936), and who in a somber frame of mind would later write both the play and the 1959 George Stevens film The Diary of Anne Frank. Freed felt the script could be even funnier. Enter Sidney Sheldon, who though later identified with potboiler novels was on the verge of being Oscared for the hilarious script of the Cary Grant-Myrna Loy-Shirley Temple-Rudy Vallee comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (Irving Reis, 1947). The other ace in the hole was Irving Berlin, whose roster of 17 songs needed no tinkering. This included several marvelous brand-new songs, including “Steppin’ Out with My Baby,” “Drum Crazy,” “It Only Happens When I Dance with You,” “Better Luck Next Time” and “A Couple of Swells.” The score also tapped some vintage Berlin, including “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’” and the 1933 title tune.
Perhaps no other film musical is so inundated with songs that nonetheless perfectly relax into the fabric of the story and the delightful visuals. Easter Parade is quite simply Garland’s best film save Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and, post-Rogers, also Astaire’s best, save, of course, The Band Wagon (1953). Moreover, the two make an inspired team despite the years—a near quarter-century—dividing them. Astaire and Garland both give here terrific performances, and they conjure a genuine, urgent sense of romance. In truth, smarmy, oddly effeminate Gene Kelly never once managed that with any of his female co-stars. Kelly paired best with Jerry the Mouse (Anchors Aweigh, George Sidney, 1945).
I am taking up this piece for four reasons. One, it’s always a pleasure to find occasion to praise the incomparable talents of Garland and Astaire; Easter Parade provides the one joint occasion of theirs to do so. (The film’s immense financial success led to their planned reteaming for Freed-Walters’ The Barkleys of Broadway, 1949, but Garland had another breakdown in tandem with a suicide attempt. Re-enter Ginger Rogers.) Two, I have just revisited the film, as I do every Easter Sunday. Three, the film is sufficiently magical to bear, if not beg, comparison with the height of musical-comedy film achieved in France by René Clair in the early 1930s. In short, while everybody loves Easter Parade, it has escaped the notice of many just how good a film it is. It is more than decorative; it is more than diversionary. These are three of my four motives for writing about the film now.
The last point leads to the principal motive for my writing about Easter Parade. Recently I completed one of the major entries in this series of film pieces of mine. Its topic was another American film released the same year, 1948, Max Ophüls’s haunting, tragic Letter from an Unknown Woman. In the piece I propose that the emotional weight carried by the film’s romance is justified by the two concerns with which Ophüls, a German Jew, invested it: his sorrow over recent Jewish deaths, including the six million exacted by the Holocaust, and his lament for the loss of the pre-world wars Europe that he endeavored to recreate visually in defiance of time’s toll and in the sanctified service of memory. Set in New York City in the early 1910s, Easter Parade, while neither as momentous nor as deeply personal as Ophüls’s film, calls upon a similar nostalgia for the world before the twentieth century’s two staggering wars. It’s a film that imagines a charming, colorful, somehow protected place in order to provide a measure of healing from wounds inflicted on the national psyche by America’s partial experience of these two wars. It is the image of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue during the 1912 Easter parade—a reconstructed event on a set—that attempts to bring the film’s aura of pre-war peace to a present, in 1948, when people in their best finery still pass the sacred landmark in the traditional parade, only now with a greater consciousness of tradition, and selfconsciousness, in defiance of all the changes in American life brought about by the two wars. In 1912, the camera rises to take in the cathedral, providing a God’s-eye view of humanity’s passing parade because God already knows about the upcoming wars and the tolls they will take. And our elastic sorrow expands to contain God’s because we experience this 1912 from the vantage of at least 1948 or later. How else does one explain that such a seemingly breezy romantic musical-comedy springs such a depth of feeling in its closing upward camera movement and long-shot of a festively populated street? In an eyeful we glimpse our own and everyone else’s mortality. (That eighty years hence New York City would once again provide this mortal glimpse, only this time in reality, newly compounds and enrichens the text of this film.)
The story in the film is too often synopsized without thought given to its thematic unity. Mistaking business for love, vaudevillian Don Hewes is surprised one Easter when his dance partner, Nadine Hale, perfectly reciprocates by dumping him for a solo career, on the legitimate stage, in a Ziegfeld-produced show. Piqued, Don is determined to replace her in his act with “any girl,” whom he is convinced he can turn into a “star” just as he had done with Nadine—a measure, abetted by his vast seniority, of his failure to comprehend that the act wasn’t all him, that Nadine also brought something essential to the team of Hewes & Hale. (This is one of several in-jokes that refer to two former partnerships of Astaire’s: with his sister, Adele, wherein his contribution was often slighted, and with Ginger Rogers, who not only was similarly slighted vis-à-vis Astaire but also had memories of the retired Adele with which to contend.) The new girl he thus plucks from obscurity is Hannah Brown, whom he spots singing that very night in a tiny club. With Hannah, his Svengali-complex and arrogance once again kick in; Hewes will transform Hannah, a country girl as endearingly plain as her name, into an exotic—a stage sophisticate along the lines of Nadine. The act, an hilarious disaster, is billed as Hewes & Juanita. (During one dance, the feathers of Hannah’s ostentatious gown shed into Don’s face à la Rogers and Astaire during the filming of Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935).) After a confrontation with a humiliated and enraged Nadine, Don realizes his mistake and works to develop the character of the team so that Hannah can retain the natural appeal of her personality. The act eventually comes together and proves a success. However, in the process Hannah has fallen in love with Don, who, ferociously guarding his heart post-Nadine, remains all business. Eventually the two pair romantically as well as professionally. (Don asks Hannah, “Why didn’t you tell me I love you?”) Misunderstandings, though, ensue as Hannah jealously worries that, perhaps still business after all, Don is courting her only to establish their stage partnership in order to make Nadine jealous and win her back both romantically and professionally. Meanwhile, the Nadine-jilted Don finds an echo in his young best friend, Johnny, whom Nadine loves but who loves Hannah. Eventually, unable to have his heart’s desire, Johnny resigns himself to loving Nadine. In both cases, the men “fall in love” in response to the feelings of the women who have first fallen in love with them. (Goodrich and Hackett are very good at this sort of plot-subplot unity. In After the Thin Man, the frustrated human romance that provides the key for our solving the murder is an episode involving Asta’s—Nick and Nora Charles’s dog’s—ardent though rebuffed pursuit of a neighborhood bitch.)
The last leg of Easter Parade is particularly memorable. After a terrific jealous quarrel with Don, Hannah bemoans the fact that social rules allow men quickly to patch over such matters by presenting women with flowers, candy and such. Well, Johnny suggests, what’s good for the gander . . . . It’s Easter Sunday, and a year earlier Don and Hannah had made a date to walk in the parade, by which time, Don assured Hannah, she would be a star with all eyes on her. Sending ahead gifts, including an elegant chapeau, Hannah simply turns up at Don’s apartment to keep the date, with no mention of the storm between them the night before. It’s a radiant scene, and the social gender reversal gives us our heart’s desire: the chance to watch and hear Judy Garland sing tenderly and electrifyingly to her beau, with the change of a word, one of the most enchanting songs ever:
In your Easter bonnet,
With all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest fellow
In the Easter parade . . . .
Today, it’s hard not to apply a feminist reading to the moment, but I interpret it in a different light—one that in fact contributes heartily to the film’s thematic brightness. Hannah brings to her romance with Don what he has brought to their professional partnership: an artist’s creativity—the imagination capable of transcending those limits, whether physical or social, that resonate with our mortality, that is, the limited nature of our existence. The therapeutic illusion of the theater has always been to transcend these limits through imagination, with barrier-crashings between genders, between humans and beasts, between humans and gods. Art thus transforms mortality into immortality, while all the while retaining the undertow of exquisitely sad feeling that underscores the mortal human condition inspiring this imaginative transformation.
As it happens, in a series of related barrier crashings the film Easter Parade repeatedly evokes this sense of the transcendent capabilities of art. Some of the incidents are small: Don crossing the border dividing performers and audience by approaching Hannah, after she sings, for the first time in the club; a waiter pantomiming for diners at their table the making and tossing of the house salad; Nadine stepping out of a “composed” simulated magazine cover and breaking into dance. Other incidents, though, are momentous. For “Drum Crazy,” Don crashes the border between shop and customer when, using them as props, he dances off of the merchandise in a musical instrument store. For “A Couple of Swells,” Hannah & Hewes as two hobos express their desire to crash a high-society dinner party. For “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’” the two, rehearsing, spiritedly dance, bounding across the stage back and forth while all the while, seated and standing behind them perfectly still, the backstage crew, also facing us, take in the back view of this performance. Haunting: the juxtaposition of stasis and fabulous motion. It is as if the performing pair, achieving the immortality of sheer energy, are the projection—an emanation of the souls—of the mortals situated behind them. Or vice versa: the unnatural lack of movement may confer a hint of immortality on the stagehands, while the singing-dancing pair, whose performance must come to an end, suggest the limited condition the “immortal ones” have transcended. Perhaps the most electric moment of this terrific number occurs when laterally, one behind the other and staying in a single spot on the stage, Hewes and Brown simulate in dance coupled cars of a train, blending the ideas of motion and non-motion. But without doubt the film’s highest attainment along the same lines occurs in the film’s most brilliant, most transcendental song-and-dance: “Steppin’ Out with My Baby”—the one number to match the beauty of “Easter Parade.” (Three choreographers worked on the film: Astaire, Walters, Robert Alton.) For one thing, there is the border-crashing implicit in the racial transvestism: this is a “black” number performed by whites—a point effortlessly communicated without the use of blackface. Even more memorably, there is Hewes dancing, to our eye, in slow motion in the foreground while others dance in the frame, in the background, in real time. The slow motion renders time timeless; it captures a kind of twilight, a rapturous sense of humanity touching eternity. Essential to the spiritual implications here are Don’s manipulations of a cane; in slow motion they seem to strike the border between time and eternity, life and art, life and death. This is more than the cane that Astaire (regrettably, tastelessly) used as a simulated gun in Top Hat; this is Prospero’s wand. Nowhere else does Easter Parade come so close to the magic of René Clair. Moreover, the sudden restoration of Hewes to real time—the flawlessly executed bridge is a shot in real time of Hannah watching from the wings—is explosive, an outburst of energy suggesting the sublimity of art. (The film’s cutter is Albert Akst.)
Astaire, 48, never danced a number with more panache. (Alas, Garland would not live so many years as that.)
Peter Lawford plays Johnny with sensitivity and intelligence; he is thoroughly winning. Talk-singing, he has a charming duet with Garland (“A Fella with an Umbrella”), and his romantic capitulation to Nadine is handled with grace. After her unexpectedly wonderful performance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), Ann Miller is certainly no longer a joke; however, be forewarned that her Nadine is, at best, agreeably unpleasant. Miller, of course, dances more smoothly with Astaire than Garland can. (It’s a good thing that the film acknowledges Miller’s superior dancing ability; the usual Hollywood practice is to pretend that the star can do everything better than any supporting player.) Still, the extension she wears in one number is ridiculous (Miller has quite enough hair of her own), and it’s distracting to see her dancing with Astaire in ballet slippers because otherwise she would threaten to dwarf him. Her Texas twang is irritating, but I suppose my main objection to Miller is that she makes Nadine seem unnecessarily stupid. Vanity does not require stupidity. (Irrelevancy: Miller once went out on a date with poet John Ashbery. Let your mind roll around that.) Clinton Sundberg, if I’m not mistaken a future suicide, is quite dear as a sympathetic, slightly cynical bartender. “Education’s all right,” he opines; “It’s the people who spoil it.”
The color cinematography by Harry Stradling, the art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith, the costumes by Irene and Valles, the Oscar-winning musical score by Johnny Green: all this, and more, contribute to a fine piece of work.
History suggests that Minnelli’s preparation guided Walters’ direction. Rightly or wrongly, I count Easter Parade as a Minnelli film. In fact, I consider it one of his best films.
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