The catchphrase for Easter Parade was “The Happiest Musical Ever Made Is Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade”. And that’s pretty accurate. The highest the stakes get is whether or not Hannah Brown (played wonderfully by Judy Garland) and Don Hewes (played equally wonderfully by Fred Astaire) will become a big hit, and you know right from the start, despite Don initially giving Hannah the stupid stage name of Juanita, that they will be just that.
The film tells the tale of Don Hewes, a well known ballroom dancer whose equally famous longtime partner, Nadine Hale (played to waspish perfection by Ann Miller), has decided to quit the act and become a solo dancer. Although Don tries to persuade her that he loves her and that they make an amazing team, the rather self obsessed Nadine decides that a solo career is the only way she’ll ever show the world how truly talented she is, and leaves Don wondering what to do next.
Quite by chance he meets a chorus girl come waitress at a small restaurant, and despite initially trying to tell her that he was drunk whilst asking her to be his new dance partner, he sets about trying to make her into the new Nadine with rather hilarious results. Eventually Don realises that he and Hannah need to be themselves in order for their act to be successful. But once they find success, their personal feelings threaten their hard won repute.
Easter Parade is the kind of musical that has all the magic of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with its glorious almost painted looking Technicolor, and the dream team of Garland and Astaire, not to mention songs that include “It Only Happens When I Dance With You”, “Shakin The Blues Away”, “Steppin Out With My Baby” and, of course the titular “Easter Parade”. The film quite rightfully won the 1948 Oscar for Best Film Score, and was nominated by the AFI on their 100 Years… 100 Songs and Greatest Movie Musical lists. On top of all of that, it was the highest grossing musical of 1948 and the most financially successful film of Garland and Astaire’s respective careers.
It’s a film that explores desires for acclaim, but how those desires and the achievement of success means little when you have no meaningful human relationships. Nadine, the film’s “villain”, and I put that in inverted commas because even though she’s a petty, spiteful individual who tries to humiliate Hannah, her efforts are rather pathetic at best; desires love from Jonathan Harrow (played very cutely by Peter Lawford), who rather fancies Hannah.
Although you love to hate Nadine, Miller plays her so well that you cannot help but dazzle at her talents and wonder why she isn’t better known now (I seem to say this a lot in relation to classic film stars). When she does her solo number to “Shakin’ the Blues Away”, I experience chills. The footwork she makes look so effortless is absolutely dizzyingly dazzling, not to mention the amount of times she spins around with a train attached to her black corset. I would trip and fall into the orchestral pit for sure. Although Judy and Fred are clearly the stars of the film, Ann threatens to steal it from under them on quite a few occasions, which probably explains why she doesn’t get more than one real solo number.
Despite all of her fancy footwork (and what fancy footwork it is!), you always root for Judy and Fred as Hannah and Don to be together and achieve the success that they deserve. I find it to be such a pity that the pair only made one film together, in the same way that I feel Judy and Gene Kelly should have also made another feature together.
Although Judy was quite a bit younger than Fred, there’s nothing gross about them being together, as they’re so wonderfully natural in their shared scenes, and I particularly love how they play off of each other’s comedic timing.
Although I love every interaction between them, my two favourites are when they first dance together and Hannah says she doesn’t know her left for her right (I feel you, girl), and Don acts like a disgruntled primary school teacher.
Then when Don decides that Hannah will no longer be Juanita and tells her that she’s been trying to be someone else, and Hannah gives him a mouthful. Judy delivering the line “You told me to move like that” whilst doing a bizarre Ancient Egyptian-esque pose, makes me guffaw with laughter every time (much to the chagrin of my mother’s eardrums).
The costumes by Irene in Easter Parade are some of the most exquisite I’ve seen, from the opening sequence where Don tries to find a suitable hat for Nadine, to the yellow and black number that Ann Miller wears for “Shakin’ The Blues Away”, and let’s not forget Judy’s gorgeous white outfit that she wears at the end for her first official Easter Parade. All of these creations are wonderfully detailed and authentic for the film’s early twentieth century setting.
I think aside from Meet Me In St Louis, Judy looks her most beautiful here, and my in addition to her beautiful white ensemble, my favourite outfit is the one she wears after Hannah and Don have the successful opening night of their show and attend dinner at the Ziegfeld Roof. Judy looks absolutely incredible in the emerald green, which highlights her lovely complexion and very fine eyes.
If you want to see a film that epitomises the beauty and opulence of the Golden Age musical, and calls to mind the spectacle of Ziegfeld’s vaudevillian with a touch of class productions, then definitely watch Easter Parade. It’s the kind of film that will fill you with enough happiness to last many an hour, and reinforce why the classic era of Hollywood is so iconic.
This is my horrifically late contribution for the lovely Zoe’s The Great Ziegfeld Blogathon. Please do visit her fascinating blog to read everyone’s wonderful contribution to this event dedicated to a legend of entertainment.