It’s hard to imagine a sunnier musical than Easter Parade. Everything fits together perfectly, from the sublime song-and-dance pairing of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire to the score packed with great Irving Berlin standards. Yet this brightly-coloured holiday favourite was at first intended to be darker and sadder, and it almost came together in its final form by a series of accidents.
This backstage tale is set in the vaudeville days of 1912, centred around New York’s famous Easter Parade. It has a warm, nostalgic flavour to it, though the gorgeous costumes would have been fashionable in the 1940s as well as in the period being portrayed. There are plenty of lavishly produced musical numbers, including scenes from the Ziegfeld Follies, but there are also scenes of Garland singing in a dingy nightclub, and glimpses of quirky vaudeville attractions such as a number featuring performing dogs. There is very little dialogue between the songs by comparison with most musicals, but it doesn’t feel too sparse, because every line is made to count.
Astaire plays a character similar to his roles in many other films, drawing on a version of his own personality. He is cast as Don Hewes, a driven, workaholic dancer whose idea of a relaxing date is to say: “I thought we could discuss some of my ideas for new dance steps over dinner.” At the start of the film, Don is in love with his dance partner, Nadine (Ann Miller), but she decides she wants to strike out on her own and is fed up with being just a “hoofer”. In a version of the Pygmalion myth, after a few drinks he bets a pal that he can turn any girl into a great dancer, and picks up the first chorus girl he comes across, Hannah (Garland).
One snatch of dialogue has a definite flavour of A Star Is Born (a tale which itself also draws on Pygmalion).
“What’s your name?” “Hannah Brown.” “I can fix that.”
However, Hannah is not just any girl, and Don soon realises he is wrong to try to turn her into a clone of his former partner. Their early dance scenes together go hilariously wrong, including a dance where feathers from Hannah’s dress fly everywhere, as really happened when Astaire and Rogers performed their Cheek to Cheek dance in Top Hat. But, after these comic mishaps, Don starts adapting the couple’s stage act to her talents, and there are wonderful sequences where the two of them sing and dance together in a breathless succession of vaudeville scenes. The comedy song A Couple of Swells, with Astaire and Garland as a pair of boastful tramps dancing on a conveyor belt, is a definite standout – though Astaire still looks strangely elegant, even dressed as a human scarecrow!
But there are also many other great songs, including Drum Crazy, I Love A Piano, Snooky Ookums, Steppin’ Out With My Baby, Garland’s heartbroken torch song Better Luck Next Time … and so many more. Some of the songs were written specially for the film, while others, including the title song, were taken from Berlin’s rich back catalogue. The one weak singing performance comes from Rat Pack member Peter Lawford, as Don’s best friend Johnny, who forlornly pines after Hannah. He has the great song A Fella with an Umbrella, which was apparently Berlin’s own favourite in the movie, but at times he is out of tune, to my ears anyway! Strange that he wasn’t dubbed. Apparently this part was originally intended for Frank Sinatra, who would definitely have done a better job on the singing, though Lawford does bring an earnest sweetness to the role.
Replacing Sinatra with Lawford was by no means the only casting change. The film was originally lined up as a second chance for Garland to work together with Gene Kelly after The Pirate. However, just days before filming was due to start, Kelly broke his ankle playing football , and MGM wooed Astaire out of retirement to take his place. Cyd Charisse also had to leave the cast because of injury, and was replaced by Ann Miller. Miller herself was also carrying an injury and had to dance in a back brace, but you would never know it to see her dazzling tap performances.
Director Vincente Minnelli was yet another to fall by the wayside, after Garland’s psychiatrist reportedly advised that it wouldn’t be a good idea for the husband and wife to work together again at this time. So Charles Walters stepped in to take his place. The script, too, mainly written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, was endlessly reworked, in particular changing the ending, which in the original script saw more confusion over who really loved whom… and a couple of musical numbers were removed altogether.
The result of all this chopping and changing could all too easily have been a muddle, but in fact it all worked out brilliantly, creating a musical which can be rewatched endlessly. I especially like the way the plot is kept simple, without too many far-fetched coincidences and misunderstandings. The problems between Hannah and Don stem from their working relationship and from her fears that he still loves Nadine, not from the sorts of strained and farcical plot twists you so often get in musicals. And the final scene manages to be happy without ever becoming cloying or over the top.
I’ll just add that I often find myself thinking of Easter Parade alongside Astaire’s follow-up film, The Barkleys of Broadway, his reunion with Ginger Rogers, which was also directed by Walters. I think it tends to be underrated and has a similar warmth to that of Easter Parade.
This piece first appeared during the musicals countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website.