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  • Writer's pictureDiana Balakirov

From Berlin to Fifth Avenue

Updated: Mar 31

She was the darling of the silver screen and one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)'s most valuable assets. He was a tap-dancing legend and former vaudevillian, setting the Golden Age of Hollywood stage ablaze with a world-class approach to entertainment. Together, they were a match made in heaven – a winning combination of performers who come along only once in a lifetime and the likes of whom we'll probably never see again.


When Gene Kelly, originally slated to play hoofer Don Hewes in the 1948 production of Easter Parade, suffered an injury, Fred Astaire was offered the part. Coming out of a somewhat premature retirement to star alongside Judy Garland, who was cast in the leading role of character Hannah Brown, was just the beginning; even as the iconic pairing proved to be highly effective, resulting in a stellar box office performance for the film, Fred's career would also get its second wind for two more decades. A string of successes such as this may seem fortuitous for a run-of-the-mill picture, but no less should be expected from an Arthur Freed production.


Musicals created by the so-called Freed Unit at MGM were considered to be in a league of their own and of a slightly different caliber than any titles that emerged from the gates of competing Hollywood studios. Exceptionally talented individuals – including composers, directors, dancers, singers and actors – were handpicked by the producer and set into motion alongside fellow collaborations who shared a similar creative vision. The winning formula was consistently in place as 40+ titles, all produced by Freed, became part of a legacy in cinematic achievement that is truly awe-inspiring and worthy of consideration. And Easter Parade, one of Freed's crown jewels, just happens to be at the top of that list.


A two-disc special edition reveals hidden Easter eggs

*Contains spoilers*


"Easter Parade," the song that gave the movie its name, was written by Irving Berlin – perhaps one of the greatest American composers and lyricists of all time – in 1933. It was first heard in a Broadway show called As Thousands Cheer before actor Don Ameche performed it on the big screen in 1938's Alexander's Ragtime Band. Crooner Bing Crosby also gave the song a whirl in 1942's Holiday Inn, in which he starred with Fred Astaire. Amid all this exposure, what the composer really wanted was for a major Hollywood studio to build a motion picture around the title tune. A deal with Twentieth Century-Fox had fallen through before MGM made the necessary arrangements for Irving to pull eight standards from his existing catalog while also supplying the musical with eight new numbers.


Judy Garland was already slated to appear in the 1948 production, much to the delight of Berlin, as was Gene Kelly. The original star-studded lineup also included legendary vocalist Frank Sinatra, comedian Red Skelton and operatic soprano Kathryn Grayson in supporting roles, while visionary Vincente Minnelli, Judy's husband at the time, was waiting in the wings to direct the film. With the story's evolvement and development, however, casting took an interesting turn. The three supporting players were pulled from the production even as fellow Rat Packer Peter Lawford and ballerina Cyd Charisse came onboard. The opportunity to replace Kathryn with Cyd, who eventually handed over her dancing shoes to tap extraordinaire Ann Miller, is a particularly interesting one as it clearly demonstrates a change in the supporting female character's featured skillset. Another interesting consideration is the ultimate removal of Vincente, whose reputation for directing musicals that were vibrant, lavish and stunning, would have been well-suited for Easter Parade. But marital struggles in the Minnelli-Garland household were too stark to ignore; in the end, Charles Walters took charge of the picture, clearly having his work cut out for him.

 

Part of what makes Easter Parade so memorable is the stunning cinematography of Harry Stradling that perfectly complements the director's style. Bursts of warm colors, stylish fashions and artful decorations are ever-present and oh-so enticing. As the story unfolds with Don strolling down the streets of New York, an ensemble following in his footsteps with a joyful rendition of "Happy Easter," we catch glimpses of beautiful arrangements at a florist shop and take in the joys and wonders of a bygone toy store that sells nostalgia-rich treasures only a few of us may recall from our own childhoods. Determined to buy a present for his professional and romantic partner, Nadine Hale (Ann Miller), Don tricks an innocent boy into giving up a stuffed rabbit that happened to catch his eye. In the expert hands of Fred Astaire, Don doesn't just ask for the rabbit; he puts on a catchy song-and-dance number that's hard to resist – especially for the awestruck child. "Drum Crazy" is a fun and catchy tune, and it gets the audience in just the right mood to settle in for the rest of the adventure.



Don's intention of showering Nadine with gifts, although well-meaning, proves to be fruitless. Willing to walk away from a lucrative partnership, Nadine has set her sights on becoming a star in her own right, so much so, that Don's heartfelt appeal for her to choose him in "It Only Happens When I Dance with You" is entirely wasted. Settling the matter over a drink at Pastini's, a local restaurant and bar, Don vows to find someone, even an unknown like floor singer Hannah Brown, whom he discovers singing "I Want to Go Back to Michigan," to take Nadine's place.

 

It is no secret that Judy Garland led a challenging life. Her immense, God-given talent, on-screen sensitivity and uncanny ability to captivate an audience were a blessing in as much as they were a curse a blessing in the sense that she left behind a legacy of remarkable achievements and a curse in that she had paid a hefty price for all of her success. Most people tend to associate Judy's work with the role of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz and do not know much about her other contributions to pop culture history outside of the 1939 classic. Judy's full repertoire, when one takes a moment to examine it, consists of a significant amount of over 30 wonderful films, a 1960's television series, which features some of the best live performances ever captured on tape and endless concert appearances that have set showstopping precedents and broken attendance records. Judy's portrayal of Hannah in a movie like Easter Parade is one of her best, and you'd certainly never know that anything may have been going amiss behind the scenes.


As the unwitting accomplice in Don's clever plan, Hannah is innocent, fresh-faced and eager to learn. She is a real trooper and continues to go with the flow when Don tests the waters of her appeal and tries to turn her into a carbon copy of Nadine. Dancing is clearly not Hannah's strong suit, especially when she can't tell her right leg from her left; neither is a made-up stage name like Juanita, which, unfortunately, comes with an exotic dress full of molting feathers. Judy's sense of comedic timing, especially amid several mishaps experienced during Don's tutelage, is flawless and natural. You can't help but sympathize with her at all times, even when she blunders her way through an awkward performance of "Beautiful Faces Need Beautiful Clothes," shot for Easter Parade as a cheeky (pun intended) tribute to Ginger Rogers' own feathery frock in Top Hat.

 

While Easter Parade feels like a rags-to-riches tale of sorts, Hannah Brown's rise to fame alongside Don Hewes is essentially a love story. And not just hers. The various romantic entanglements highlighted throughout the film provide the audience with plenty of laughs, a chance to shed a few tears and witness several jaw-dropping performances along the way. Nadine's feelings for Don are redirected toward the hoofer's best friend, Johnny Harrow III (Peter Lawford), who fancies Nadine but also has his sights set on Hannah. During "A Fella with an Umbrella," Johnny braves inclement weather to escort Hannah to rehearsal, the first of many ways in which he shows support as a way of becoming her friend and confidant. Hannah, meanwhile, can't help but fall in love with her leading partner – a man who has yet to make up his mind.


As Don gets to know Hannah, he recognizes that her talent lies mostly in her singing, not in the over-the-top dancing he's come to expect from Nadine. The change of repertoire in Don's act, now called Hannah & Hewes, marks a turning point for Easter Parade and brings to light a series of unique vaudeville numbers that include "I Love a Piano," "Snookey Ookums" and "The Ragtime Violin." A triple threat, indeed.



By the time that "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam" rolls along, Hannah is at the top of her game, matching Don step by a step in a well-choreographed dance routine that draws just as much attention to Judy Garland's intricate footwork as it does to Fred Astaire's. Though Judy's greatest asset was her singing voice, she holds her own extremely well against a performer who has been paired with the likes of Cyd Charisse, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers and Vera-Ellen and is considered one of the greatest dancers of all time. But as graceful and inventive as Fred appeared to be on the screen, his skill did not come as naturally to him as it did to his sister and childhood dancing partner, Adele. Constantly working hard to hone his craft, the real-life Fred and the fictional Hannah proved, once and for all, that practice really does make perfect.

 

With so many casting changes that plagued Easter Parade in the earlier days of pre-production, it is a wonder that the film came together as well as it did. In this case, strength really does lie in numbers, and the supporting players who ended up in the musical shone brightly all on their own.


I've always found Peter Lawford to be very likeable. While I've seen him in several musicals, including Good News, Royal Wedding and It Happened in Brooklyn, I am particularly fond of him in the role of Laurie Laurence, whom I believe to be a perfect casting choice amid consecutive remakes, in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and as Johnny in Easter Parade. Jules Munshin, another fantastic supporting player, portrays François, an enthusiastic maître d' who goes out of his way to recommend signature dishes at a fine dining restaurant, only to watch his guests leave without eating. Even with limited screen time, Jules manages to steal the show.


Ann Miller was a particularly valuable addition to the cast, making a debut at MGM in Easter Parade after working for competing studios Columbia Pictures and RKO Radio Pictures (RKO). It is highly likely that the casual movie viewer, especially in this day and age, may not be familiar with Ann's work. If that's the case, her performance as Nadine should not be missed under any circumstance. Not only is Ann well-suited to play the fierce and fiery starlet, a determined and sometimes manipulative woman who is not afraid to go after what she wants, she leaves her spectators speechless during "Shakin' the Blues Away" while delivering a tap-dancing routine for the ages, accompanied by her own vocals, in a post-injury back brace.


After Ann Miller's showstopper, Easter Parade continues to gather momentum as only a few musicals do. With a cavalcade of numbers, one all-out sensory experience replaces the next, leaving the audience to wonder how much better the movie can possibly get. The sky turns out to be the limit as more performances follow, and it becomes difficult to pick a favorite presentation from among the following treasures:


Fred Astaire, as Don Hewes, takes the stage with three other dancers during "Steppin' Out with My Baby," a sequence that is orchestrated to the rhythm of different genres and styles. The tempo changes drastically with the choreography, speeding up and slowing down in contrast to the busier background movement with the front-and-center set of Don's intricate steps. It's truly a marvel of a production and one of the prime examples of innovation mixed with special effects and cinematography that seemed to accompany Fred's on-screen work at MGM.


In what is probably the most iconic musical number, the so-called "it factor" of Easter Parade, Don and Hannah dress up like two bums with a taste for the finer things, refusing to let life drag them down. They go with the flow, literally, as the stage shifts to trace their steps and follow their movements. A good time is had by all, and troubles are forgotten as Fred and Judy give all other MGM pairings a run for their money. "We're A Couple of Swells" seems to be an all-around fan favorite. Judy herself has paid tribute to it during her solo concerts and TV show, while other imitators enjoyed putting their own spins on professionally produced and homespun versions. When I watch this number, I can't help but think back to an episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour that featured a sketch called "Freddy the Freeloader," performed by star Lucille Ball and special guest Red Skelton (whom I mentioned earlier). Since Easter Parade preceded the 1957-1960 television series, I can't help but wonder about the latter's origin story.



"The Girl on the Magazine Cover" gives us a rare glimpse into a world of glamour, sophistication and poise through a showcase of 10 beautiful Ziegfeld girls and the stunning fashions, circa 1910s, that adorn vintage magazine covers such as Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar. Charles Walters' direction truly shines during this production and serves as proof, once and for all, that he was the right choice to replace Vincente Minnelli for Arthur Freed's picture.


The solo performance of "Mr. Monotony" was filmed but deleted from Easter Parade. Though certainly in top form, vocally and physically, a scantily dressed Judy Garland seduces the audience in a way that is a bit out of character for the Hannah Brown whom the audience has come to know. Equally as out of line with the time period the film portrays, the risqué number did not become available to the public until the 1990s. I stumbled upon it when I got my hands on a copy of That's Entertainment III the third installment in a multi-part compilation of MGM's best and greatest works and gained a newfound appreciation for Judy's performance. Fortunately, "Mr. Monotony" was repurposed into another musical sequence called "Get Happy," which made its debut in Summer Stock two years after Easter Parade. The new and improved number became a smash hit and forever immortalized the outfit Judy wore as one of her signature ensembles.

 

Beloved Easter traditions date back thousands of years. From Guatemala and Bermuda to Poland and The Philippines, culturally diverse practices are still being embraced all over the country and world today. Celebrations that emerged in twentieth-century United States with locals establishing their own Sunday traditions are just as noteworthy. The Brennans, a couple from Chicago, procured special outfits for themselves and their 11 children over a course of 20 years, their commemorative photos gaining notoriety and a base of followers along the way. Philadelphia's Easter Promenade, an annual event first held at a city square in 1931, now attracts thousands of eager fashionistas.


Historically, Easter parades held in major cities consisted of crowds strolling down decorated city sidewalks, dressed in their Sunday best and sharing in plenty of good cheer and merriment. While Atlantic City is considered to be the first US city to have hosted an Easter parade in 1876, New York's procession dates back to the Civil War with a promenade of wealthy and fashionable residents strolling down Fifth Avenue. It is this tradition to which Easter Parade pays particular attention, making it the focal point of the story at the beginning and end of the film.


After Don Hewes meets Hannah Brown, he knows he's got his work cut out for him in making her a star of Nadine's caliber. He promises her, during that year's Easter procession, that she'll become so famous, passersby will recognize her on the streets. As months go by, Don gets to know a talented young woman who's different from Nadine in very surprising ways. There is plenty of character development on both sides as Don tries to return to his old ways but finds out he's had a change of heart. Hannah, at times uncertain of herself or where she belongs, experiences a disappointment that sets her back but ultimately gives her strength to rise up and claim what's rightfully hers.



The 1912 promenade feels like a celebration of character growth, reconciliation and hope for a promising future. Giving a nod to New York's history and culture, the ending scene, wonderfully shot and staged, offers one of the most satisfying conclusions one can find in a Hollywood musical. And the gift of the story that's well-told, acted and produced – all to the glorious music of Irving Berlin – keeps giving in such a way, that it's hard not to make Easter Parade a part of one's own annual tradition.


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