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Easter Film Friday: Irving Berlin's 'Easter Parade' with Judy Garland & Fred Astaire

By Daniel S Levine,
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When searching for a film to look at for Easter, I had a number of Biblical epics to chose from, but ultimately, I went in a different direction. Irving Berlin's Easter Parade doesn't have anything to do with the origin of the holiday and even the ways to celebrate it are out of date. But still, Berlin's music, Fred Astaire's dancing and Judy Garland's singing make it impossible to resist.

Set in 1912, Easter Parade is a Broadway tale about Don Hewes (Astaire) trying to put together a successful dance team after Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) decides to go solo. In an effort to prove that he can teach anyone to be as great a dancer as Nadine, he picks Hannah Brown (Garland), who is singing at a restaurant. At first, he misses her singing “I Want To Go Back To Michigan” and all he saw was her awful dancing routine. Oblivious to her singing ability, he gives her the name “Juanita” and tries to make her just like Nadine and Hannah goes for it, trying to please the man she now loves. But, when Don suddenly realizes that it's better for her to be “Hannah Brown” than “Juanita,” their act takes off.

Easter Parade was the only film that Astaire and Garland made together. While it's unfortunate to hear that, it's easy to see why. Just like in the film, Judy's talents really did lie squarely in singing and Fred could dance forever. However, the meeting of these two giants of film is magical. Judy herself helped bring Fred out of retirement to make Easter Parade after Gene Kelly hurt himself and was unable to perform.

Before the talent was gathered, Easter Parade began partly out of producer Arthur Freed's wish to make an entire musical with just Irving Berlin songs. Berlin, who was still one of the most popular figures in the music world in the mid 1940s, had been approached by another studio for an all-Berlin movie, but those plans never worked out. MGM and Freed jumped at the chance to work with him and the film instantly became Irving Berlin's Easter Parade. No matter who ended up directing the film, it would belong to Berlin, not the director. While Vincente Minnelli was considered, the directing job went to the inexperienced Charles Walters, who just directed his first film, Good News with Peter Lawford. Walters had so much talent at his disposal – including the young Lawford – that he couldn't go wrong.

With a songbook like Berlin's, the Freed unit had a myriad of remarkable tunes to pick. I love the idea that “Easter Parade” isn't the main song in the film. Instead, they went with the romantic classic, “It Only Happens When I Dance With You,” holding the title song until the very end.

Easter Parade is home to two of my favorite musical moments. I love “A Couple of Swells,” which is just hilarious, showing off Judy's underrated talent for comedy. The other is the great “Steppin' Out With My Baby.” While the song isn't the best in the film, it gave Astaire his technical achievement – dancing in slow motion while the background dancers move at regular speed.

Ann Miller is lovely too, even if she is the antagonist in the film. Her showcase is “Shaking The Blues Away,” highlighting her amazing tap dancing skills.

In 1948, Easter Parade was a romantic look back at the way Easter used to be celebrated. While the Easter parade in New York City doesn't draw the crowds – or the hats – that it used to, the film keeps those traditions alive. Seeing it today makes me realize how remarkably fresh Berlin's material remains and just how funny Garland was. While Easter Parade isn't as well regarded today as Singin' In The Rain or The Wizard of Oz, but it really is among the A-list MGM musicals. Besides, it's a lot easier to watch than a Biblical epic on Easter. If you haven't seen it yet, you can catch it on TCM at 6 p.m. on Sunday.

You can talk about this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

 
 

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