Easter Parade (1948): Judy & Fred Together At Last

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There’s a slight disclaimer that must go with Easter Parade. It has very little to do with Resurrection Sunday. More so, it’s a premium excuse for a lavish musical. At least in this regard, it thoroughly accommodates its audience.

The show starts off gloriously, not with dialogue, but with song, reminiscent of the great operettas of old or the future works of Jacques Demy where the film is buoyed by a range of voices imitating the joyous chorus of life. Here we have the seemingly ageless Fred Astaire strutting down the street greeting folks, doing some window shopping, picking out a hat as models file by and everyone chimes in with “Happy Easter!”

What becomes immediately apparent, even as we are thrust right into song, is the immaculately colored world, bright and cheery, personifying the holiday festivities and simultaneously satiating audiences who come to expect such glorious decadence from Technicolor movie musicals of the age. It rarely disappoints in terms of pure opulent set design.

When Astaire spies a bunny in a toy store window, it inspires his finest number in the picture, a worthy precursor in fact to his shoeshine number in The Band Wagon (1953). Because what sets it apart is how alive, lithe, and playful it is. Gene Kelly was imbued with this ability too, but you have to witness it to completely understand the magic when environment and inspiration coalesce.

They could animate the world around them by taking lifeless objects and turning them into tools to personify emotion. Like all the preeminent performers, they take the tirelessly rehearsed and make it feel like the epitome of the organic, in a way that suggests we are discovering something precisely at the same moment they are. We are part of the magic born out of the moment.

Astaire banging on drums and xylophones. Twirling sticks and tossing toys like, well, a kid in a toy store. The story hasn’t even started yet, and he’s already made Easter Parade into something special. It’s when you’re reminded that these lavish musicals were at their best when they momentarily lost their plotlines through acts of artistry and inspiration that still managed to somehow advance the narrative.

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At some point, the exposition must arrive and with it a plot. It comes in the form of Don’s ravishing and vain dance partner. Nadine (Ann Miller) is intent on striking out on her own and commanding a larger audience. In fact, she’s already made up her mind and signed a contract with Ziegfeld, leaving Don to start from scratch with a new partner. Regardless, there’s no denying the chemistry they had together. Astaire and Miller absolutely light it up in “It Only Happens When I Dance With You.”

However, now feeling betrayed and saddled with a bit of a Pygmalion complex, he convinces himself that he can turn any second-rate performer into his costar, and he just happens to pick Hannah Brown (Judy Garland). The unassuming starlet splits her time as a waitress at a local bar while struggling to differentiate her left foot from her right. She looks like a hopeless case. Not so!

Fresh off his quality success in MGMs Good News (1947) from the year prior, Peter Lawford is inserted in the storyline as the close friend of Don and Nadine, caught in the middle of their personal and professional squabble. When he meets Hannah in the rain, it only makes things more complicated. One could wager that the handsome and youthful Lawford is partially miscast, but he has a good-natured charm that makes us disregard any of that. We like him as much as we’re supposed to.

From their initial encounter, the Astaire and Garland relationship is front and center, evolving into the film’s most important dynamic. So far the movie is coming through on its promises. Again, we’re not all that interested in their acting per se, unless I’m just speaking for myself.

What actually strikes my curiosity is seeing them perform in tandem because they were consummate professionals who knew the Hollywood circuit like the back of their hand by now. Astaire, though still looking so spry, had years already logged with Ginger Rogers and others, not to mention stints on Vaudeville and the stage. Garland of course, though still quite young, had, since adolescence, been trained up and groomed in the ways of Hollywood. The shining examples early on, of course, being The Wizard of Oz and then her onscreen partnership with Mickey Rooney.

“Couple of Swells” endears itself as a delightfully corny number with our stars ruefully ditching the fine attire for artful dodger, tramp-like garb. Buying into their affectionate relationship by this point is no difficult task. They’ve made us believe in it.

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In truth, Garland had never met Astaire before their teaming though she had purportedly wanted to work with him for many years because he was the tops — the best of the best.

The rest of the production’s background is tumultuous, and the actual details sketchy at best. Scriptwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were initially called upon only to have their draft touched up by Sidney Shelton. Vicente Minnelli was removed as director at the behest of Garland’s psychiatrist, deeming it better for her to work without her husband.

We might also call it an odd chance of serendipity as Gene Kelly (Garland’s co-star in many MGM musicals) was also slated for this project until he broke his ankle playing volleyball (right before production commenced).

Who was coaxed out of retirement to take on the role instead? Only the best: Fred Astaire. And Astaire would retire numerous other times thereafter, but you just cannot keep a man who was born to dance like he was away from the floor. Thank goodness he would come back for numerous more efforts. His successes in the 50s are too innumerable to count.

Simply put, he makes every movie he’s in worth watching for the mere chance that you will glimpse something spectacular. Paired with Garland, a world-class performer in her own right, there’s no missing, even if both have more iconic pictures. That’s probably more a testament to their iconic careers than the merits of Easter Parade. Because it all but delivers on everything you come to expect from the two names written above the title.  There’s a good chance you’ll be left with a broad smile on your face.

4/5 Stars

Good News (1947)

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The title Good News means next to nothing to me but it does suggest a certain sunny disposition we tend to equate with MGM musicals of the period. That assumption is fairly well-founded. Furthermore, I am well aware of Adolph Green and Betty Comden, that screenplay dream team, an integral part of Arthur Freed’s unit that had so many quality pictures to their name.

Most obvious inclusions include Singin in the Rain (1952), On the Town (1949), and The Band Wagon (1953). And here they are working in the realm of retro nostalgia pieces, their forte, a light comedy scattered with quips and a substantive lineup of tunes. But the important differentiation here is that this was the first one. This is where it all began, in theory at least, making them into a screenwriting mainstay. While the picture has long since been overshadowed by its successors and was never a huge box office success, there’s no doubting the unassuming charms still present in Good News.

Like Singin in the Rain (1952), the year is 1927 but instead of film sets in a Hollywood back lot, we are met with the world of Flappers and Sheiks — the names for boys and girls on college campuses across Middle America. On this particular campus, good ol’ Tait University, the boys are batty about football and girls and the girls are batty about boys — at least on a very basic level. So nothing is all that different.

And yet for anyone born in the latter half of the 20th-century, you can’t help and look at the depictions and think that everything is different.  Whether its styles of clothing, social rituals, colloquialisms, practically everything. Granted this is a musical.

Still, the school’s All-American running back Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford) shimmies, shakes, struts, and sings with his buddies about the necessity of being a ladies’ man on campus. Because when they’re not on the field the subject of utmost importance is girls. Obviously. Thus, when a new girl fresh off of finishing school brings her refined manners, stuffy French vocabulary, and flamboyant dress, all the boys heads start turning including Tommy’s.

But as is often the case, not everyone is so infatuated or completely distracted by the opposite sex. For instance, we meet Connie Lane (June Allyson) as she calls for a wrench to remedy a leaky sink and she’s dressed to the nines. She’s a good student and pays her way through school at the local library. Boys are not her main concern though that’s not to say that romance doesn’t tickle her fancy.

So the film is a frolicking and invariably cheesy examination of the mating rituals of college kids. It’s crazy stuff sometimes but be assured we are in for a light and breezy good time — a squeaky-clean version of what college life is if you will.  It’s also short on plot but what is there proves to be a springboard for song and dance. For the most part, that’s promise enough.

A highlight is the familiar velvety fog of crooner Mel Torme as well as the rather dorky but endearing wiles of Joan McCracken who feels much in the same vein to parts Betty Garret would ultimately play. Of course, this is really the Lawford and Allyson show as they must come to know each other, show genuine feelings, get confused about it all, and fall back together again. That’s the way the story has been told since the dawn of time. This one is little different.

A formative number comes off as a musical French lesson as Tommy goes under the tutelage of Ms. Lane to land the new girl in town who is giving him the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, Allyson imparts her knowledge and delivers a warm rendition of the tune, “All The Best Things in Life Are Free.”

“Pass the Peace Pipe” at the local soda fountain — a song that feels doubly archaic coming from the 1920s through the 1940s to the present day — is no less a lively foot-tapping number to be sure. But be relieved that the football scrimmage is not turned into a giant musical number of its own. Football is football and dance is dance. Each gets its own arena and there are plenty of theatrics in both. The cherry on top is a stellar large-scale dance number, “Varsity Drag,” to sum it all up in a rousing fashion much as it began.

3.5/5 Stars

Little Women (1949)

Littlewomen1949movieposter.jpgIn the recent days, I gained a new appreciation of June Allyson as a screen talent and in her own way she pulls off Jo March quite well though it’s needlessly difficult to begin comparing her with Katharine Hepburn or Winona Ryder.

Meanwhile, Mervyn LeRoy was a capable director of many quality films and it’s difficult to say anything damaging about this one because no matter the amount of mawkishness, it’s all heart to the very last frame.

If possible to imagine, this cast is even more star-studded than the 1933 adaptation and yet still somehow the casting just doesn’t seem quite right. In the Katharine Hepburn anchored cast every character was almost perfectly wrought and they felt like an impeccable ensemble.

Somehow here you have the varying personalities rubbing up against each other and it doesn’t feel like this is the March Family as much as this is June Allyson, this is Elizabeth Taylor, this is Janet Leigh, and Margaret O’Brien. Their beloved Marmee being played by none other than Mary Astor. They’re all fine actresses with esteemed Hollywood careers in their own rights but as a family, the dynamic is slightly off.

Of all the names attached, Elizabeth Taylor feels the most at odds with the material, not that she couldn’t play these types of sincere characters — she did it in Jane Eyre (1943) and National Velvet (1944) — but she’s nearly past that stage of being cute and now simply comes off as a bit of a snob. If I know anything about the character Amy (which I may not) she’s hardly that.

This is also far from Janet Leigh’s best role as she all but disappears into the background because there’s this underlining sense that Jo is the oldest sister here (due to Allyson’s obvious age advantage over Leigh) and so with that subtext Meg loses a great deal of her quiet strength as the perceived eldest sister. Because that means she’s hardly the one that the others look up to due to her age. She’s just the noble one while Jo is the free spirit hurtling over fences and throwing snowballs. Thus, the order of sisters really does matter for the full integrity of the narrative.

Come to think of it, the other obvious departure in the film is the development of Beth as the youngest March girl which gave Margaret O’Brien the opportunity to play her and she does a fine job at stirring the heartstrings with her timid solemnity but another dynamic gets altered in the process. I also wasn’t sure what I would have to say about Peter Lawford as Laurie and yet he does a commendable job as does the stately mustachioed C. Aubrey Smith.

It’s fascinating how the same story with at times almost verbatim dialogue can give you a completely different sense of the characters. Because it’s true that this version borrowed much as far as dialogue from the 1933 version. Thus, the scenes are all but the same with slight alterations to the opening and such, but the results are starkly different.

The same goes for the setting or rather the tones of the sets. Though the colored pictorials are glorious and lend a real jovial nature to everything also helping to make this Little Women adaptation a shoe-in for annual yuletide viewing, some stories just are not made for that treatment. It’s no detriment to this film whatsoever but there’s something about the original black and white that evokes the nostalgic aura of tintypes and antebellum photography in a way that this one simply cannot. Little Women seems like such a story.

Of course, that’s only my opinion and it could very easily be the case that someone else’s conception of the March family is very different than my own. That’s part of the fascination with novels and their adaptations. Despite our best efforts, or maybe because of them, they all turn out vastly different. It’s probably for the best.

3.5/5 Stars