Easter Parade (1948)
C: I was planning to write about an Esther Williams’ swim-tacular, but the unseasonably cold weather made bathing suits and pristine swimming pools too difficult to face. Instead I am holiday-appropriate with the Judy Garland–Fred Astaire classic Easter Parade.
This movie was planned as a Gene Kelly–Judy Garland film to be directed by Garland’s husband Vincente Minelli. This trio had just made an elaborate, ridiculous-even-for-MGM musical The Pirate, and the studio thought it was going to be a big success (it wasn’t.) MGM hoped to capitalize on that The Pirate by throwing Kelly, Garland, and Minnelli together on another project.
I’m not very fond of The Pirate. To me it feels like one giant dream ballet, and though I love a good dream ballet, The Pirate is just too much color, too much fantasy, and too many magnificent Gene Kelly dance numbers. It makes me feel the same way as eating a piece of cake loaded with frosting. Delicious, yes, but afterwards I feel nauseous. Also, I can’t tell if Judy Garland is mocking the film or not.
Luckily for me, MGM’s best laid plans for Easter Parade went awry. Garland had a nervous breakdown during production of The Pirate which was partly due to working with her husband. So Minelli was removed from Easter Parade and replaced by director Charles Walters (High Society, Dangerous When Wet, Easy to Love, Summer Stock) to keep Garland happy and healthy–ish.
I don’t want to dwell on Judy Garland’s problems because it bums me out, but suffice it to say that at this point things were beginning to spiral.
Anyway, Gene Kelly broke his ankle. He apparently told the studio he hurt it during rehearsals for the film, but he actually hurt it playing sports (volleyball or football–there are different versions). So MGM had lost two out of its three Pirate people before the film began shooting. Gene Kelly suggested MGM get Fred Astaire to take his place. Astaire had retired from movies two years earlier, but Gene called him and begged, and Astaire agreed to come back. The Kelly–Garland–Minelli project had become the Astaire–Garland–Walters film.
The movie spans Easter 1911 to Easter 1912, and the title refers to the high society parade down 5th Avenue on Easter Sunday, when ladies and gents would put on their fanciest Easter bonnets and strut.
Astaire (a few years before Royal Wedding) plays Don Hewes, one half of a famous vaudeville dance duo. Nadine is his partner, played by Ann Miller (also seen in Hit the Deck). The part was originally given to Cyd Charisse, but then she got hurt during rehearsals and Miller took over. The casting department must have been in a tizzy over this film.
Don is in love with Nadine, but she fancies Don’s friend Johnny (Peter Lawford). And she plans to leave Don and star in a solo show. Poor Don is heartbroken and drowns his sorrows in a bar where Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) performs. He drunkenly tells Johnny that he turned Nadine into a star and can do the same thing with another woman–he doesn’t need Nadine! To prove his point, he randomly selects Hannah from the chorus line and tells her she will be his new partner. He attempts to mold her into another Nadine: sophisticated, refined, a bit snooty, and very graceful.
But poor Hannah, whom he renames “Juanita” is not any of those things. Their first performance, in which ”Juanita” wears a gown trimmed in ostrich feathers and attempts to glide around the stage, is disastrous. (The ostrich feather gown is a reference to the gown Ginger Rogers wore in Top Hat (1935). The feathers kept coming loose as Ginger twirled and dipped, and it drove Fred crazy to have all these little feathers getting in his face and floating around the set. Fred called Ginger “Feathers” after this incident. In Easter Parade, Hannah’s dress sheds for comic effect, not accidentally as it did in Top Hat.) Twirl break with Nadine!
Don realizes he can’t turn Hannah into Nadine, but that Hannah is immensely talented in her own way. Duh, it’s Judy Garland.
Love triangles ensue–Nadine, Johnny, Hannah, Don…around and around…Hannah and Don climb the vaudeville ladder, which gives the film a reason to include several performances of songs that have nothing to do with the plot.
This musical is more like Royal Wedding than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in that it includes stellar performers playing stellar performers putting on a show. The audience gets to see auditions and the finished show, with some non-performance performances, too.
So Judy Garland and Peter Lawford sing “A Fella with an Umbrella” (sorry, Rihanna) as part of their courtship, but Garland and Astaire perform “A Couple of Swells” as part of their vaudeville act. Seven Brides is a totally “integrated musical” where the songs and dances are “integrated” into the story and push the plot forward rather than pausing it for a random performances. The line between “integrated” musical and “revues” (a format closer to vaudeville where various numbers are performed that don’t necessarily have any connection) can be blurry. True revues are just a string of performances without an overriding plot, and the “Couple of Swells” number gives us information about the relationship between Hannah and Don, and shows a progression in their career, so it’s not just a random song.
And it’s similar to the “How could you believe me when I said I love you, when you know I’ve been a liar all my life?” number that Astaire and Powell perform in Royal Wedding a few years later.
The point of this digression is that if you like watching incredible talents like Astaire and Garland doing their thing, then you will probably like Easter Parade. If you get bored during “random” numbers then Easter Parade might not be your new favorite. When I was little I used to get bored watching Fred Astaire’s solo numbers, but now I enjoy it because he’s just so darn amazing.
Easter Parade is structured the way it is (concerning vaudeville performers with plenty of opportunities for them to perform for an onscreen audience) because it was written to showcase songs from Irving Berlin’s catalog.
Other films like Till the Clouds Roll By that featured popular songs from songwriters, Jerome Kern in that instance, had been very successful, so MGM and Berlin decided to resurrect some of his songs in a musical.
The title song, for instance, had first appeared in 1933. I can imagine the screenwriters being tossed a pile of songs and told to make them fit together somehow. This is also how Singin’ in the Rain came about, too, but it was Arthur Freed’s songs that were molded into that story. Irving Berlin was a big deal and the publicity photos show how MGM highlighted his involvement in the production. Berlin is the one with glasses/at the piano.
As you may have guessed by now, I love seeing the costume sketches and the finished product on screen. There’s something thrilling about seeing the design on paper and then seeing it draping the form of an actress as she strolls, twirls, or just stands.
(And I don’t think it’s just me–check out this amazing exhibition at the Met! I want to go to there! They have the actual dress from that painting!) But sometimes the thrill is false, because the sketch that survives is not always the actual early design. Often the costume department would create sketches after the costume was finished so that the sketch would perfectly match the completed design. Of course there were many iterations between the original idea for an outfit and the final product, and I suppose they thought it wasn’t as satifsyingly perfect to see the original sketch if it looks nothing like the finished garment. It inspires more confidence to believe that the sketch was easily and perfectly translated into fabric and feathers.
So be wary–sometimes the sketch you see is based on the garment, and not the other way around. And sometimes the famous costume designer did not draw the design at all, but had one of his or her minions do it and then just signed his or her name. Edith Head was not a very good sketch artist, for instance, so she rarely did her own. But it’s still cool. Longtime MGM costume designer Irene Lentz, better known simply as Irene, designed the women’s costumes on this film. Feast your eyes on Ann Miller strutting down 5th Avenue in the first Easter Parade of the movie, wearing the hat that Don bought her right before she broke his heart:
I love images from the costume tests, too. They’d film the actors in the costumes (and hair and makeup) to be sure everything looked all right on film. Sometimes a pattern that looked lovely to the naked eye became a distracting optical illusion when filmed.
Here’s one of Judy Garland’s dresses. I like how they changed the color in the lobby card at the bottom right–a bit of Sleeping Beauty magic!
Here’s Ann Miller in a fabulous dress that looks a little tired and sad on the mannequin. But in the movie it’s incredible. Ombre, sequins, and feathers? Yes, please. It twirls beautifully. And Miss Miller was quite the twirler!
Ann Miller was a dancing prodigy. At 13 she pretended to be 18 so a club in San Francisco would hire her as a dancer. Then she was discovered and signed to RKO, still only 13, though again she said she was 18. She was in B-musicals at RKO and Columbia until moving to MGM where she played supporting roles, like Nadine, in several films.
She was an excellent tap dancer and was said to have the fastest feet in the world. She’s bold, brassy, and exuberant. Lots of fun to watch. Here she is “Shakin’ the Blues Away.” See what I mean by a 1940s vision of 1912 clothes? I kind of love the black scroll things on her stockings, and the curtain-style swag.
What’s especially interesting to me about this movie is that they re-used some costumes from The Harvey Girls, another MGM musical starring Judy Garland from 1946. Irene was the costume supervisor on this film, too. Someone must have remembered those dresses or found them in the costume warehouse, and decided to use some of the saloon girl outfits for dancers in Astaire’s solo “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” number.
In the costume test with Fred Astaire the reddish striped outfit is identical to how it appears in The Harvey Girls, but by the time they filmed the dance the costumers have added a skirt. I’d like to trace costumes and chorus girls (and boys) through movies, but I’m not sure what the payoff would be. The top photos are from The Harvey Girls, the bottom are from Easter Parade.
The orange-zebra dress made it into Easter Parade unscathed. The top photos are from The Harvey Girls, the bottom from Easter Parade. You can see the dress in the right side of the black and white photo.
Judy Garland’s short pink dress from her meeting with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade shows up on dancers during Lucille Ball’s number “Continental Polka” in Easy to Wed (1946). The only thing missing between the two films are the pink gloves seen in the earlier movie. Even the feather puffs on heads and left shoulders make the jump from one film to another. Fun fact: the same dress shows up again in Judy Garland’s dressing room in Summer Stock (1950).
It isn’t that unusual for costumes to be re-used, especially in the background of a dance number, but it’s fun to find them. A lot of the saloon girl costumes show up. I love that they took outfits meant to be from the 1880s and threw them into a 1912 vaudeville performance.
I thought Joe might appreciate Fred’s orange socks that match his vest. Happy Birthday, Joe! “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” is also interesting because Fred Astaire dances in slow motion while the background dancers remain in regular motion. It’s cool for a while but in my opinion it goes on too long.
Easter Parade has dancing showcasing some of the greatest talents of the time, lots of Judy Garland songs, a satisfying love story, and really nothing to do with Easter. Oh, there’s also a fashion show within one of Ann Miller’s numbers to the song “The Girl on the Magazine Cover.” Magazine covers featuring pretty girls in pretty dresses come to life–it’s pretty terrifying and wonderful.
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! Easter Parade took a bit longer than expected, and they missed their targeted Easter release date, instead premiering the film in the summer of 1948. But if you’re intrigued, you can see Easter Parade this Sunday (March 31) on Turner Classic Movies at 6pm ET. Happy Easter! And check out my tumblr for more images.