In part “deux” of Bright Lights’ tribute to Easter, we present that devout duo, Fred and Judy, offering spiritual and musical solace on this day of reflection.
Remember how it was, America? Remember when we could celebrate religious holidays like Americans, with shopping sprees, good clothes, and good times? Remember the days when we weren’t being harassed and bullied by obsessive compulsives whose idea of entertainment is watching some poor soul being beaten to death in a three-hour gorefest?1 People who say — nay, who scream — that we’re persecuting them because we don’t share their appetite for blood-soaked masochistic ritual? Who revel in the sight of eighty over-grown goliaths beating one another senseless but blanch at a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple? Who work themselves into a state of murderous apoplexy because we refuse to be as guilt-ridden as they are?
Well, there is good news. You can go back to those good old days, for a few hours at least, via the 2005 restoration of the 1948 MGM classic Easter Parade, now on DVD.
One suspects that Fred Astaire was almost as grateful for Easter Parade in 1948 as we are today. Rarely has he seemed so fully confident and in control of a film as he is in Easter Parade, particularly in the first half. Fred had “retired” in 1946, in large part, one suspects, because Hollywood was beginning to doubt that he could carry a picture. His big successes in the forties — Holiday Inn and Blue Skies — starred Bing Crosby, not Fred Astaire. His two previous pictures — Ziegfeld Follies and Yolanda and the Thief — both lost money, and neither was really “about” Fred.2
But in Easter Parade, Fred is large and in charge, the star of a no-expense-spared picture,3 one that, most satisfyingly for Fred, grossed more than either Holiday Inn or Blue Skies. Of course, Irving’s tunes, Judy Garland’s singing, and Ann Miller’s dancing helped, but Fred was the only guy in the film, unless you’re willing to count Peter Lawford’s complacent doormat cum stage-door Johnnie.4
Easter Parade was intended as a vehicle for Judy and Gene Kelly, but Gene was probably getting tired of working with Judy, and bailed just as shooting was ready to start.5 When Fred stepped in, the picture seems a perfect fit. We meet him striding down Fifth Avenue circa 1911, singing “Happy Easter” and spending money like there’s no tomorrow. During a visit to a toy store, a giant rabbit catches his eye, but a small boy already has his mitts on it, so Fred distracts the kid with a snappy drum and dance routine, “Drum Crazy,” which recalls the “Nice Work If You Can Get It” number that concludes A Damsel in Distress. At one point things start to get a little cute, as Fred amuses the kid with a miniature drum, but the number recovers nicely when Fred slips off with the bunny in tow. Finders keepers, losers weepers, son!6 Welcome to the Big Apple!
But Fred’s in for a little pain of his own when he tries to shower his booty on dance partner and inamorata Ann Miller. She’s got bad news for Fred: she’s breaking up the act, in more ways than one. Fred tries to rekindle the romance with “It Only Happens When I Dance with You,” which gives an exciting glimpse, but only a glimpse, of what a real dance with Miller and Astaire might have been like. An unsuccessful seduction is a demanding subject for a dance. Fred only attempted it once before, in the famous “Never Gonna Dance” number in Swing Time, and it’s likely that no one wanted that much emotion up front in the picture. And then there’s the unfortunate fact that Astaire didn’t like dancing with Miller. Too tall! Too big!7
So Fred’s out on his own, bemoaning the fickle ways of women in a bar with rich boy Peter Lawford (right). As they drink, a line of chorus girls appears, and Fred announces that he could take any one of them and turn her into a bigger star than Ann ever will be. Naturally, he picks Judy, and we’re off on an on-again, off-again, on-again romance, with Peter as the ever-obliging confidante of all three principals. As long as he can buy sirloin tips for show folks in fancy restaurants, he’s happy.
Once Fred settles on Judy as his protégé, he takes her shopping in a sequence that could be a prequel for Vertigo, dressing her as a reincarnation of Ann. Later, of course, he realizes that he’s got it all wrong: Let Judy be Judy! And so it goes, with shake-ups, break-ups, and misunderstandings galore, until Judy finally takes matters in hand: “You aren’t dressed yet? Just like a man! We have a date, remember?”
There aren’t any great dances in Easter Parade, but there’s so much good hoofing and so many good songs that only a purist could object, and I sure ain’t one of those. Judy does a very nice job with Berlin’s faux-rustic “Michigan” (“That’s why I wish again, that I was in Michigan”), and Fred and Judy have a series of excellent vaudeville routines on their way to the top — “I Love A Piano,” “Rag Time Violin,” and “When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam.” Miller’s big number, “Shakin’ the Blues Away,” is a disappointment, a rat-a-tat-tat exercise in tap technique that wastes her talents and leaves her spinning aimlessly across an empty stage.8 Fred’s big solo, “Steppin’ Out with My Baby,” is a bit raucous and unsubtle, but quite enjoyable, if you can forgive Berlin’s remarkably uninventive lyrics (“Nothing’s wrong ’cause I’m in right”? “There’ll be smooth sailing ’cause I’m trimming my sails”?) and some tedious slo-mo shtick that mostly leaves us wondering if Fred is going to catch his cane (he does).9
In addition to all the singing and dancing, the film benefits greatly from the costumes, sets, and décor, giving us a very satisfying look at life de luxe in New York just prior to the First World War. The swank apartments, fine restaurants, and posh hotel suites in which the stars spend all their time represent solid luxury rather than obvious Hollywood make-believe. It’s a rare instance of intelligence and self-restraint on the part of a studio as given to compulsive, unpurposed (not to mention tasteless) extravagance as MGM, and it’s well served by the excellent restoration job.
The most famous number in Easter Parade (deservedly) is Fred and Judy doing “A Couple of Swells,” which plays off “Be A Clown” from Gene and Judy’s previous film The Pirate.10 Fred does a nice job as an elegant tramp, and Judy is truly in her element, though I wish she wasn’t sporting a blacked-out tooth, a gross form of whimsy that I’ve always found unsettling.11
But even after “A Couple of Swells,” which puts them in the big time, there’s still more to come. Fred very unthoughtfully insists that they celebrate their night of triumph by going to the Ziegfeld Follies, where, surprise, surprise, they just happen to catch Ann’s act, a “parade of beauty” number featuring a strapping young tenor (Richard Beavers, right) belting out one of Irving’s golden oldies, “The Girl on the Magazine Cover,” with the beauties posing as living magazine covers from 1912.12 Apparently Robert Alton, who directed all the musical sequences, thought that 35-year-old magazines would be box office, though it’s hard to imagine that he was right. But the concept, clueless though it may be, is so earnestly carried out that it attains a certain clunky charm, at least for those with a taste for the antique. Miller doesn’t do much dancing, but she does wave around a huge scarlet ostrich fan to very good effect.
Naturally, once Ann spies Fred and Judy in the crowd she can’t resist stirring up more trouble, and she quickly talks Fred into joining her in one of their old numbers, which just happens to be “It Only Happens When I Dance with You.” The dance is a bit longer but less interesting than their first version, which we saw at the beginning of the picture. One gathers that Fred simply wasn’t interested in putting any real effort into the dance. The wonderful inventiveness and attention to detail in his great dances with Ginger and others are entirely lacking, particularly frustrating because Ann was probably one of the most technically accomplished partners he ever had.13
Judy, of course, doesn’t bother to hang around to watch the lack of fireworks. She splits and she and Fred have a series of improbable and unattractive missed communications. Judy sings “Better Luck Next Time,” sort of a warm-up for “The Man That Got Away,” the mother of all torch songs, which she’ll unleash six years later in A Star Is Born. Fortunately, Peter shows up in the morning to goad her into going after Fred, and, in an obvious, enjoyable scene, she gets him, bringing Fred an “Easter bonnet,” a top hat with a big glossy bow. Naturally, she sings “Easter Parade” as well, and after some nice capering they step out arm in arm to join Fifth Avenue’s elegant passing throng.
Easter Parade doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with such issues as poverty, racism, communism, or the Bomb. It’s the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic equivalent of a Schraft’s hot fudge sundae, heavy on the fudge and heavy on the schlag. So what? You don’t like chocolate?
Easter Parade comes in one of those two-DVD packages that are becoming de rigueur for serious restoration projects. Along with the film you get commentary from Fred’s daughter14 and Judy’s biographer, a new documentary on the film, a documentary on Judy, an outtake of Judy doing “Mr. Monotony,”15 and a complete radio production with all the original stars. (This was a standard method of promoting a film back in the good old days. Radio versions of almost all the big “Golden Age” films still exist.)
At current writing, the following Fred Astaire films are available on DVD in quality restoration: Easter Parade, The Bandwagon, You’ll Never Get Rich, You Were Never Lovelier, The Broadway Melody of 1940, Silk Stockings, and Funny Face. Second Chorus and Royal Wedding are available in budget versions only, since their copyrights have expired. According to online gossip, all the Fred & Gingers will be available in quality restoration over the next two years.
Check out Fred online here. There is, unsurprisingly, almost unlimited Judy online. This is a good place to start. My earlier article at covers all of Irving Berlin’s films that didn’t star Fred except for Second Fiddle, Annie Get Your Gun, and Call Me Madam, which aren’t very good. Look under music & musicals for my previous reviews of Astaire’s films.
Note: This review appeared previously, in slightly different form, in of Bright Lights Film Journal issue 48, May 2005.
- What with The Passion of the Christ, Kill Bill 1 & 2, and Dubya in its first five years, the Third Millennium is off to an awfully shaky start. Granted, there are still 995 years to go, but a quick rebound would be appreciated. [↩]
- Ziegfeld Follies was a disastrous, and disastrously expensive, ensemble pic, while Yolanda and the Thief was intended by producer Alan Freed to promote the career of his protégé, Lucille Bremer (both the picture and Bremer’s career were nonstarters). [↩]
- MGM paid Berlin $600,000 upfront for songs both new and old, the equivalent of close to $5 million today. [↩]
- And unless you’re willing to overlook Lawford’s pathetic rendition of “The Fella with an Umbrella.” Why didn’t MGM dub the poor schmuck? Did they want him to look bad? [↩]
- Broken ankle? I wonder. According to online gossip, Judy missed 99 out of 135 days of shooting due to “illness” in their previous outing, The Pirate, which proved to be a massive box office loser. [↩]
- John Mueller, in Astaire Dancing, points out that this is the sort of number that Kelly would do — he liked working with kids — while Fred scarcely worked with them at all. [↩]
- One certainly wishes that Fred hadn’t been such a grouch. Miller projects a very touching sense of embarrassment in the brief dance — moved by Fred’s devotion but unable to respond to it. It’s only after the dance is done that we learn that she’s a “bad” girl — shallow and deceitful. She only thinks about herself! [↩]
- Many of the riffs that Miller uses in this number turn up again in her greatest performance, “Too Darn Hot” in Kiss Me Kate. It’s the old pudding without a theme thing. Good shtick in the right setting equals genius. [↩]
- “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” seems to be done in half blackface. Throughout the picture, Fred looks like he just got back from a month in Cancun, and the three women he dances with in the piece are made up to look even darker. Is this why they’re allowed to be so “passionate”? If this number had been a Balanchine ballet instead of an Irving Berlin picture, Fred would have been a hick in the big city, partying in a whorehouse and then ending up in the streets, sadder but wiser, not a penny in his britches. [↩]
- Frankly, it’s much better than “Be a Clown.” When Kelly tried to be funny he almost always tried too hard. [↩]
- Because I’m high-strung, goddamn it! I’m very high strung! [↩]
- Like so many “parade of beauty” numbers, the girls aren’t all that beautiful. I can never understand this. Hollywood has always had its pick of gorgeous teen-agers, but the women in these bits always look like well-maintained thirty-somethings. What gives? [↩]
- Just to complicate matters further, Miller was apparently struggling with a bad back during the film, which may have affected her performance. [↩]
- Yeah, I think I said Fred didn’t have kids awhile back. Guess I was wrong. [↩]
- Okay, but, um, a little monotonous. [↩]