Easter Parade June 10, 2016
The image one remembers most from 1948’s Easter Parade is not of a refined dance sequence but of a comedic musical piece reminiscent of a vaudeville number. The stars of this image are Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, who are dressed up as dirty street urchins. Their faces humorously soiled and their smiles characterized by faux rottenness, they pander around the stage singing Irving Berlin’s “A Couple of Swells,” which is about as self-depracating as one might expect in a showpiece that calls for the Hollywood Golden Age’s most respectable talents to look ridiculous for a couple of minutes.
So it’s odd that it works as one of the most iconic performances in the careers of Astaire and Garland. It doesn’t show off Astaire’s frantic feet and it doesn’t hurl Garland’s velvety vocal talents at us either, rather tapping into their remarkable abilities to make any scene appear to be the most important in the scope of their profession. And I think that’s why they’ve never been considered to be anything other than esteemed: to go on autopilot was never an option for them.
They easily could have in Easter Parade. Astaire considered himself to be retired before being coerced into starring (he replaced an injured Gene Kelly); Garland had only recently been released from a psychiatric hospital after multiple mental health issues. So it’s nothing short of a miracle that the film is the bubbly Technicolor musical that it is — as we enjoy ourselves tremendously, never does it cross our minds that our leading man was perhaps slightly tired of dancing for a living, that our leading lady had bigger fish to fry (psychologically, I mean) than singing her heart out for adoring audiences.
Easter Parade is a commanding achievement in the powers of star quality and the powers of a great soundtrack; it’s a satisfying, frothy delight that plays into the enviable capabilities of its headliners. It’s never much more than a collection of what MGM does best — anything not revolving around singing or dancing is overwhelmingly lightweight — but what MGM does best is still unfathomably good. And it’s a treat to see Astaire and Garland, in their only partnership, do the representing.
In Easter Parade, Astaire portrays Don Hewes, a Broadway star whose career is at a standstill due to his dancing partner’s (Ann Miller) decision to leave him in pursuit of a solo offer. Uninterested in doing anything else with his life, Don almost immediately searches for someone to take her place — anyone with a sense of rhythm will do. Hastily, he picks Hannah Brown (Garland), a chorus girl who captures his interest at a local bar.
The quick choice turns out to be a good one: though not graced with the dancing gifts of Rita Hayworth, Hannah has a chocolatey voice that could melt the heart of any audience member. Don is forced to adjust his style in order to create better balance between him and his newest partner — unfamiliar to him is the incorporation of extensive signing — but, before long, success meets the recently formed pair. Dubbed Hannah & Hewes by the press, popularity is a given. But things cannot always be so idyllic in a Hollywood musical; romance is waiting in the wings, and such could harm the occupational perfection of the situation.
Like the partnership at the center of Easter Parade, smart is the way the screenwriting team of the film (consisting of Sidney Sheldon, Frances Goodrich, and Albert Hackett) recognizes the strengths of Astaire and Garland and counterweighs them with notable symbiosis. Emphasis is put on their individual specialities, of course, but the choosing of the numbers they perform together is ingeniously wise. “A Couple of Swells” being a befitting instance, downplayed are broader singing and dancing elements (as, clearly, one actor is better than the other). Essences are left behind to ensure that our stars both appear to be in their comfort zones, and the results are spotless. There isn’t a weak component within Easter Parade. It’s an adroit showcasing.
I additionally like Miller’s vaguely villainous role (which is forgivable only because the actress was also one of the finest dancers of the Golden Age), and I like director Charles Walters’s intelligent, inviting staging. If only it had the wit of The Band Wagon, of Singin’ in the Rain — then Easter Parade would have the potential to stand among the greats. For now, though, it’s pretty damn good. B