You want singing and dancing? In Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade," you get singing and dancing. MGM didn't claim "That's Entertainment" for nothing. OK, that song was from "The Band Wagon" five years later, but who's counting?
"Easter Parade" gives us the best and the brightest singing and dancing stars of 1948: Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ann Miller, and Peter Lawford. Peter Lawford? Well, three out of four ain't bad. And neither are the seventeen Irving Berlin songs we get along the way. Indeed, about fifty per cent of the movie is made up of music by Berlin, America's longest-lived and possibly most-beloved songwriter.
Berlin was already an American institution when he came to "Easter Parade," having established himself as a preeminent Tin Pan Alley composer all the way back in 1911 when he penned "Alexander's Ragtime Band." His lifetime spanned over a hundred years (1888-1989), one of the most remarkable musical careers ever enjoyed. Name the tune and he probably wrote it, from "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "Blue Skies," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," and "Always" to "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Puttin' On the Ritz," and "God Bless America"; plus such musicals as "Annie Get Your Gun," "Top Hat," "Follow the Fleet," "Call Me Madam," "Holiday Inn," "White Christmas," and "Easter Parade." In all, he wrote over 800 popular songs, 19 Broadway shows, and 18 motion pictures. Whew!
The plot for "Easter Parade" is the slimmest excuse to show off the movie's music and dancing, a clothesline to string them all together. The time is 1912, New York City, and Astaire plays Don Hewes, one half of the successful Broadway dance team of Nadine and Hewes. Nadine, played by Ann Miller, is a conceited entertainer who decides she doesn't need Don anymore and goes off to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies alone. Don needs a new partner or his contracts are up, so in a moment of drunken despair he tells his friend Johnny (Peter Lawford) that he can take any common, ordinary showgirl and turn her into a sensational partner. In one year, he brags, he will make her into the dancing toast of New York, and they'll parade down the avenue on Easter with everyone recognizing them. It's a kind of Professor Henry Higgins, "Pygmalion" thing. The woman he chooses, almost at random, is Hannah Brown, played by Judy Garland. Naturally, it takes some doing, but Hannah eventually more than fulfills his expectations. She even fills his dreams.
The song-and-dance numbers alternately arise from the circumstances of the situation or from the stage acts of Astaire, Garland, and Miller. For instance, the first song, "Happy Easter," occurs as Astaire is walking down Fifth Avenue buying gifts and greeting people as they pass. For me, the highlight of the show is the second number, "Drum Crazy," sung and danced by Astaire in a toy store; it's dazzling. "It Only Happens When I Dance With You" is sung by Astaire to Miller as he tries to persuade his old partner to stay. "I Love a Piano" is sung by Astaire and Garland as he tries to teach the fledgling dancer about the act. "Ragtime Violin," "Alabama Choo Choo," and "Snooky Oookums" are sung as parts of the Astaire-Garland stage act. And so on. In addition to my favored "Drum Crazy," I enjoyed "Steppin' Out With My Baby," a big production number; "A Couple of Swells," which became one of Garland's own signature tunes; and, of course, the song everyone waits for, "Easter Parade," which closes the show (in surprising fashion).
Astaire is a legend, of course. His singing and acting were more than acceptable, but his dancing was never matched. Gene Kelly came close in an energetic sort of way, but was there ever a more elegant dancer than Astaire? The only trouble with Astaire was that he was so amazingly charismatic, limber, graceful, and acrobatic that anyone dancing with him was hardly noticed, even Ginger Rogers. Garland and, especially, Miller are terrific in "Easter Parade," but they fade by comparison to Astaire because our eyes are always glued to him.
I have to confess I have never been a big Judy Garland fan. Naturally, I loved her in "The Wizard of Oz," but it seemed to me that throughout her movie heyday in the forties, she was always playing the same character. The voice was consistently big and dramatic and appealing, but her characterizations were almost always alike. She was the same person transplanted from one generic musical to another, and "Easter Parade" is no exception. I know I'm in a minority here; Garland has a legion of fans. But in any case, she's fine as Astaire's awkward, naive new partner.
The only one who is out of his league is Peter Lawford as a rich college student, Johnny Harrow III. That doesn't make any difference, either. He has only one song to sing, "A Fella With an Umbrella," and he does so gamely, the rain in the scene muffling his squeaky monotone.
The movie was initially to be directed by Garland's husband, Vincente Minnelli, but Garland's psychiatrist suggested it would not be a good idea. Garland's private life was a notorious mess. So Charles Walters was brought in. Walters was an old hand at choreography and would continue to make high-profile musicals his whole life. Among his other credits were "Ziegfeld Follies," "High Society," and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." What's more, Gene Kelly was supposed to have played opposite Garland, as he had just done in "The Pirate" (1948), but he broke an ankle and Astaire took over (never mind that he was over twice Garland's age; Hollywood has never paid much attention to such trivial conventions). Moreover, Cyd Charisse was supposed to have played Nadine, but she, too, was injured and Ann Miller stepped in. With all the changes, it's a wonder the movie ever got off the ground.
"Easter Parade" may not be my favorite musical, nor even my favorite Judy Garland musical, but I have to admit it's hard not to like. The film's spirits are always high, the dancing is effervescent, and the Irving Berlin tunes, hit and miss though they may be, provide enough delights to carry the show. The movie is wholly out of style these days but fun stuff, nonetheless.
The picture is presented in a 1.33:1 screen ratio, closely approximating the original 1.37:1 dimensions of the day. The print has been completely restored to all its Technicolor brilliance and looks as good as it has probably looked at any time in its life. Colors are bright and sharp, and there doesn't appear to be a blemish, scratch, or age spot in sight. On the minor downside, typical of 1940s' and 50s' Technicolor, the hues are rather more vibrant than one would see in real life (but the movies are supposed to be bigger and brighter than real life or they wouldn't be movies), and there is some slight line shimmer from time to time. It's nothing to fret over.
The monaural sound is quite clean and clear throughout the midrange, but it's also expectedly limited in the frequency extremes, lowest bass and highest treble. Nevertheless, it is reasonably dynamic in the musical numbers, even without the benefit of rear-channel surround for better overall ambiance. It does well with what it has to work with, the sound further clarified through Dolby Digital 1.0 mono processing and made quieter through suitable noise filtering. The result is pleasing, particularly in the midrange, even if it isn't multichannel state-of-the-art.
In keeping with the movie's perennial appeal, Warner Bros. have accorded it a two-disc Special Edition. Disc one contains the movie in its new digital transfer, plus several other items of interest. The first is an audio commentary by Fred Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, and Judy Garland biographer John Fricke. They relate a host of inside details concerning the film in a mostly fascinating listen. For instance, as I mentioned before, we're told the movie was first planned for Gene Kelly, who broke his ankle and recommended Astaire, who had recently announced one of many retirements but accepted. Astaire's daughter also tells us that over the years people would sue the Fred Astaire Dance Studios because they never learned to dance as well as her dad. It's an amusing and informative commentary.
In addition, disc one includes a Judy Garland trailer gallery, with trailers for eleven Garland movies. Chronologically, they are "Love Finds Andy Hardy" (1938), "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), "Ziegfeld Girl" (1941), "For Me and My Gal" (1942), "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944), "The Harvey Girls" (1946), "Ziegfeld Follies" (1946), "'Til the Clouds Roll By" (1946), "The Pirate" (1948), "Easter Parade" (1948), "In the Good Old Summertime" (1949), and "A Star Is Born" (1954). Finally, there are thirty scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two contains several more attractive items. First, there's a new, 2005, making-of documentary, "Easter Parade: On the Avenue." It's thirty-four minutes long and hosted by John Fricke, assisted by Astaire's daughter, as on the commentary. In the documentary, we hear from Sidney Sheldon, the screenwriter who was brought in to lighten up the script; Ann Miller, who reminisces about her role; and various others of the filmmakers. Second, there's an "American Masters" documentary profile, "Judy Garland: By Myself." It is almost two hours long, divided into twenty-two chapters, and quite comprehensive. Third, there's a series of outtakes for Garland's eventually deleted "Mr. Monotony" musical number. And fourth, there are two audio-only bonuses: a brief radio promo, and, more important, a March 11, 1951 "Screen Guild Playhouse" radio production of "Easter Parade," with Garland, Astaire, Lawford, and Monica Lewis. It's fifty-four minutes long, and while no fast forward is available, it is conveniently divided into nineteen chapters.
The two discs are housed in a slim-line keep case, further enclosed in a colorful cardboard slipcover. But Warners Bros. provide no chapter insert or informational booklet, which seems an odd oversight given the money they spent on everything else.
"Easter Parade" was an immediate hit with moviegoers in 1948, and it's been a musical favorite ever since. While some of its initial glitter may have worn off with age, WB's new transfer certainly does up its picture as brilliantly as ever, and what music remains fashionable is as sparkling as it could be. Better yet, Astaire is as amazing as ever to watch. If not everything in the movie works, and surely the plot and characters are only incidental to the music, it's not for lack of trying. Still and all, insofar as splashy Hollywood musicals go, there's enough in it, like Berlin's tunes, Astaire's dancing, WB's video, and Garland being Garland, to make it a pleasure.