Astaire and Garland are more than swell in... Easter Parade (1948)
I have never been a morning person. Would I like to be? Yes. Am I physically capable of it? Not really, and that is why, from first grade all the way to twelfth grade, getting ready for school was so unbearable. It was during one of these torturous mornings, though, that I vividly remember falling in love with Easter Parade. My mom noticed the film was on TCM and, knowing I worshiped Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, put it on while I ate my breakfast. I was so mesmerized that I rushed through my usual morning routine just to keep my eyes glued to the screen as much as possible before the bus came. As I went out the door, I hit the TV's "record" button, and for the rest of the day I ached to get back home.
Ever since then, Easter Parade has felt like a part of me. Similar to Rebecca, Three Guys Named Mike, Sabrina, and The Wizard of Oz, it is a film that has burned itself on my brain. I'm charmed by almost every single detail, from the smallest gesture of a background actor to the biggest, splashiest dance number. Every rewatch is like visiting a cherished friend. A vivacious, funny, good-hearted friend.
We begin on the day before Easter, 1911. A dapper man named Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) jauntily makes his way in and out of stores, accumulating more and more boxes as he smiles at saleswomen and watches a particularly musical fashion show set to the bouncy "Happy Easter." Everything is rosy, including the pink stuffed bunny Don spots in a toy store window. When he goes to pay for it, though, a little boy snatches the bunny and refuses to give it up. Don decides to distract the kid by making the drums in the store seem much more enticing. The resulting number, "Drum Crazy," is a kinetic wonder. Fred worked amazingly well with props, plus he really could play the drums, so this routine is a treat from start to finish. And it succeeds in distracting the little boy enough that Don can take his bunny!
With his arms full, Don arrives at the apartment of Nadine Hale (Ann Miller), his glamorous dancing partner. Right away we can tell that Don is in love with her, but we can also tell that Nadine doesn't reciprocate his feelings by the way she barely looks at her presents. Then comes the big blow: Nadine has been approached to headline a new show -- by herself. Don is stunned and tries to convince her to stay with him by crooning their signature song, "It Only Happens When I Dance with You." As he twirls Nadine around the apartment and they end the dance with a kiss, the crisis seems to have been averted.
Their intimate moment ends when the doorbell rings and they're joined by their good friend Johnny (Peter Lawford). Unlike the reception she gave Don, Nadine is thrilled to see Johnny and fawns over his present: a little pug that she squeals will go perfectly with her new beige suit. (That's right, Nadine matches her dogs to her clothes, which begs the question of just how many dogs she owns.) Nadine again puts a damper on the evening when she reveals to the men that she has already signed the contract for her solo act. The team of Nadine & Hewes is officially over.
Hurt, Don storms out and is followed by Johnny to a bar. Johnny tries to cheer up his friend, but Don is beyond frustrated. After all, he was the one who discovered Nadine and made her into the sophisticated, talented woman she is now. How could she just turn her back on him? Once Johnny goes back to Nadine, Don watches the floor show and decides that the best way to make Nadine jealous is to find and mold another partner. As the pink-clad chorus girls strike their final pose, Don randomly chooses Hannah Brown (Judy Garland). After looking her up and down closely, he curtly says he'd like to offer her a job and then tells her where to meet him the next day before leaving. Unimpressed and unamused, Hannah tells her bartender friend Mike (Clinton Sundberg) about the offer. When she recounts the strange man's name, though, it suddenly hits her she was talking to the Don Hewes. Her mind still reeling, she goes back onstage for her solo "I Want to Go Back to Michigan," proving that Don certainly knows how to pick out talent. Watch the entire scene here.
The next morning at a rehearsal hall, Don and a piano player are waiting for Hannah. Now sober, Don regrets his hastiness from last night and is almost out the door when Hannah appears. Don's chagrin intensifies with every minute of rehearsal. First, he discovers that she actually has very little experience, causing him to snidely ask, "Ms. Brown, what idiot ever told you you were a dancer?" "You did!" she responds to his embarrassment. Then Hannah hilariously reveals that she has a hard time discerning between left and right ever since her mother forced her to become right-handed when she was a child. With a rubber band now around her left leg, rehearsal proceeds and Hannah slowly starts to get better. Holding her in a close embrace, Don instructs her to look deep into his eyes with their lips just inches apart -- and then matter-of-factly calls for lunch, unaware that he has made Hannah feel a touch flustered. You can watch the rehearsal scene here.
On their way to lunch, Don and Hannah find themselves in the Easter Parade, a real procession that happens every Easter and is most closely associated with New York City's fashionable Fifth Avenue. Flanked by two wolfhounds and wearing the chic hat Don gave her earlier, Nadine strolls by, photographers snapping her picture. While Don stews, Hannah, oblivious to who the woman is, gasps over Nadine's appearance... except for "that silly hat." The audience is already aware of how different Nadine and Hannah are -- one is glitzy and superficial while the other is down-to-earth and sympathetic -- but Don is so stuck on Nadine that he can't see Hannah as her own person rather than his former partner's soon-to-be clone.
This is especially apparent in the next scene when he takes Hannah shopping. Instead of listening to what dresses and purses she likes, Don chooses the more ostentatious options. Even worse, as they leave one of the stores, he breaks the news that Hannah's stage name will now be Juanita. "If you wanted a Juanita, why did you pick me?" a horrified Hannah asks. He explains that in order for their act to be successful, she needs to become the type of woman that men will stop and look at in the street (you know, similar to how everyone stared at Nadine in the previous scene).
Hannah believes she can do that without changing, so
they do an experiment: Don will walk a few feet behind her and they'll see if any men do indeed turn around and look at her. Hannah has no luck at first, but soon Don is surprised to see smiling men walking by. Unbeknownst to him, though, Hannah is making an absurd, blowfish-like face to get their attention. It's a truly glorious moment.
Now that she has the "right" clothes and name, Hannah and Don make their debut and, much like their first rehearsal, it is a disaster. Wearing a blue gown dripping in feathers that won't stop shedding -- a nod to Nadine's first outfit, and also a reference to Ginger Rogers's infamous Top Hat dress -- and struggling to execute the choreography, Hannah does her best but the results are comedic gold rather than the flawless success Don wanted.
Some days later, Johnny greets Nadine at a fancy restaurant for lunch. As they talk, it becomes clear that Johnny isn't blind to Nadine's vanity nor the fact that she is pretty darn interested in his family's money. When Don shows up, he and Nadine realize that Johnny tricked them both into coming so they would finally talk with one another. He then does the smart thing and makes a quick exit. Don, still in love, tries to play it cool but Nadine wastes no time in mocking his new partner and pointing out that Don is only creating an imitation of her. While this was obvious to everyone else, it is a lightbulb moment for Don and he rushes off.
Meanwhile, Hannah is paying for her lunch at a drugstore when it begins to rain. Standing in the doorway of the building, she finds herself pressed up against Johnny, who is also using the doorway as cover from the downpour. When Hannah remarks that she is late for an appointment a few blocks away, the smitten Johnny buys the giant umbrella off of a nearby vegetable cart and offers to walk her there. He then decides to serenade her with the adorable "A Fella with an Umbrella." I know some people think this is the weakest number in the film because of Peter Lawford's singing, but I have always loved it. I like that Lawford's voice isn't perfect. To me, it makes the moment sweeter because, thanks to Judy's reactions, we see that Hannah doesn't think it's perfect either and yet she still considers Johnny endearing.
Behind the scenes, the rain led to quite a few problems. For one thing, it caused the dyed feathers on Judy's hat to drip down her face, necessitating the use of Vaseline on the feathers (hence their sudden darker hue). Another issue, according to director Charles Walters, was that Judy got unavoidably wet. It seems silly, but Arthur Freed was furious that a big MGM star like Judy was getting soaked. "Arthur," she chimed in, "how the hell do you expect me to do this scene if I don't get wet?!" Freed calmed down and Walters was able to breathe a sigh of relief, later saying, "She was fighting [the] battle, because I didn't have the clout. But, oh, Arthur was red in the face."
Back to the plot! Although Hannah is grateful to Johnny for his help, once they arrive outside of Don's apartment building, she ducks inside when he isn't looking. Upstairs, Don is annoyed at her lateness but he is also excited to tell her his discovery: she shouldn't be Juanita! Hannah points out that she tried to tell him that before, but Don brushes it off and asks her to sing "I Love a Piano" so he can figure out what her real style is. This is why the script didn't allow Don to see "I Want to Go Back to Michigan" earlier -- he only saw Hannah as a chorus girl, not as a formidable talent in her own right. "I Love a Piano" fixes that. With her one-of-a-kind voice and her warm presence, Hannah finally shines and Don could not be more delighted. They begin to dance, except this time Hannah is relaxed and doesn't miss a step.
As Don spins her around the room, the scene cross-dissolves to them spinning on stage. Now billed as Hannah & Hewes, they complete their exuberant rendition of "I Love Piano" and the audience loves it. Next in the performance montage is "Snooky Ookums," a hysterical song about the annoying terms of endearment a couple calls each other. The disgusted faces Fred and Judy make are A-plus. The third routine is "The Ragtime Violin," a splendid little fast-paced song and dance. Lastly, we see Don and Hannah auditioning for the latest Ziegfeld show with the energetic "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam'." They're moving up in the world!
Side tangent: since I just wrote a little bit about Two Girls and a Sailor for Van Johnson's birthday, there is something in Easter Parade that I'd be remiss if I didn't point it out. During this musical montage, one of the performer cards that is displayed before Hannah and Don's slides in is for someone named Dick Deyo. I have to believe that this came from Two Girls since that was the name of June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven's vaudevillian father. The card in question doesn't appear in Two Girls, but maybe it came from a deleted shot or scene? Whatever the explanation, I love the thought that Hannah & Hewes were contemporaries of the Deyo Sisters' parents!
Don and Hannah's audition, of course, goes very well, but things take a turn when Nadine appears and discloses that they just auditioned to be part of her new Ziegfeld show. Neither Hannah nor Don are happy to hear this, but Hannah is especially disappointed when she sees the way Don looks at Nadine. She asks him point-blank if he was in love with his former partner. When he can barely give her an answer, she hurriedly leaves -- and runs into Johnny again outside. After piecing together that they both know Don, Johnny asks her to dinner that evening and she accepts.
Later, Hannah is in her apartment when Don shows up to tell her that he turned down the Follies. Hannah is shocked, but Don believes that Nadine "doesn't deserve to be in the same show as you!" Just then, Johnny arrives, making for an awkward moment as Don slowly realizes his best friend and his partner are about to go on a date.
Returning to the restaurant where he tried to pull a Parent Trap on Nadine and Don, Johnny and Hannah are seated by the same head waiter who served Johnny in the previous scene (Jules Munshin in his film debut). When they ask about ordering a salad, Munshin delivers a long, detailed miming routine about the special salad he makes from an old family recipe. It's a weird moment, and to be honest, as much as I adore this film, I have never really liked this bit. But it does segue into one of my favorite scenes.
As Hannah and Johnny talk, conversation turns toward Don. Since he is all business all the time, Hannah tries to learn more about him through Johnny, but things get unexpectedly romantic when Johnny confesses that it was love at first sight for him when he met Hannah outside the drugstore. She tenderly tells him she would be a fool not to return his feelings, but her heart belongs to Don. She then goes into a wistful, yearning monologue about how love isn't at all what she thought it'd be. In a voice that'd break your heart, Judy lays everything bare, concluding her speech with this beautiful line: "When they were passing out the wishes, I wished for him."
Weeks later, it's the opening night of Nadine's show. Curious and maybe also still carrying a torch for her, Don watches from the cheap seats as Nadine does a tour-de-force performance of "Shakin' the Blues Away." In a stellar black and canary yellow outfit, Ann Miller and her fast taps are a marvel. The staging wisely keeps things sparse: the set decor is just massive grayish green curtains and Miller is the only one onstage, drawing your complete focus.
More weeks go by and Nadine's show is a smash. Worried about Don, Hannah calls up Johnny to locate her partner. Johnny hasn't seen him, but he does remind her of their dinner date. Their conversation is interrupted when Don appears with a big announcement: he scored them a contract to be headliners of their own show! And it opens on the day before Easter, the one-year anniversary of the day they met. To celebrate, they make a date for tonight. The best part of this scene is after Don leaves and Hannah goes to get dressed. As soon as her bedroom door shuts, she remembers that poor Johnny is still on the phone. Having overheard everything, he gallantly tells her he
can't make their date. Hannah feels terrible that she forgot about it so easily, but Johnny knows what Don means to her and lets her off the hook. Besides, he always has Nadine waiting in the wings!
At Don's apartment, everything is ready for a romantic evening with the fireplace roaring, candles lit on the table, and Don wearing a beautiful velvet smoking jacket. Dressed to the nines, Hannah arrives and is happy to find such a romantic setting... until Don starts talking about his plans for their new numbers. Angry, she finally confronts him, even accusing him of being a pair of dancing shoes rather than a human
being. "What color are my eyes?" she challenges with her eyes closed. "You won't be able to answer that because you never paid enough attention to it!" Don gently kisses her and correctly tells her her eyes are brown. Hannah definitely isn't upset anymore! Reflecting on how their partnership is no longer about getting back at Nadine, Don comments, "I told her I could teach any girl in the world how to dance--" "And you have," Hannah interjects. "No, we have," he replies, pointedly (and thankfully) giving credit where it's due.
Noticing the sheet music for "It Only Happens When I Dance with You" on his piano, Hannah plays and sings the tune for Don as he sits by her with a pensive look. Don can be quite grumpy, but I've always felt that it was because Nadine broke his heart and he feels determined not to let it happen again, instead burying himself in work. It seems like this moment allows Don to let Nadine go and realize what a treasure Hannah is.
By the end of the song, Hannah's wish finally comes true when Don says, "Why didn't you tell me I was in love with you?" Fun fact: Gene Kelly had actually said this to Judy in the first film they made together, For Me and My Gal. I've never been able to figure out if the Hacketts or Sidney Sheldon purposely reused the line, but it's kind of funny to think that if Gene hadn't been replaced, he would've said the same "I love you" confession to Judy in two different movies.
The film jumps to opening night of Hannah and Don's show. First on the stage is Don and an enormous cast of dancers for the brilliant "Steppin' Out with My Baby." To this day, even after seeing most of Fred's work, this number remains one of my most loved. Berlin's song is so catchy; there are many unique costumes to look at; and the choreography is loads of fun. I also adore the quick shot of Judy/Hannah watching proudly from the wings. And then there is Fred, my darling, crazy talented Fred. Dancing with three different partners in three different styles and tempos, he illustrates his versatility with ease and beauty. His skill is particularly apparent when the film employs slow motion while everyone else dances behind him in real-time. It may not be realistic, but it does give you the opportunity to see Fred in a way that enables you to really notice his every move. No matter how many times I've seen it, I still hold my breath when he throws his cane up in the air, as if I don't already know that he will suavely catch it.
After "Steppin' Out," it's time for the film's best-known number, "A Couple of Swells." With blacked-out teeth, torn clothes, and horrendous wigs, Fred and Judy ham it up in the best way possible. Ever the well-dressed man, Fred was hesitant about appearing as a tramp, but Judy, who couldn't get enough of the idea, made him see how much fun it would be by going to his trailer in costume and cracking him up.
Even though he staged the number, Chuck Walters believed the magic of it came from Judy and Fred: "All I had to do was stand back and let it happen." Gene Kelly would later confess that although he was pleased he was the impetus for Fred coming out of retirement, he felt "a twinge of regret" every time he saw this particular number. In 1951, after Judy had been fired by MGM and was making a comeback with a series of record-breaking concerts, she asked Walters and Roger Edens to craft her upcoming engagement at the famed Palace Theater in New York, which critics would wind up calling "one of the greatest personal triumphs in show business history." Walters included "A Couple of Swells" in the show and even performed it with her in full tramp costume on opening night.
Originally, there was supposed to be another number after "Swells," a solo for Judy called "Mr. Monotony." It wound up on the cutting room floor, but you can still find it on YouTube. If you're as big a fan of Judy's "Get Happy" number from Summer Stock as I am, you'll notice that the sleek tuxedo costume she wears first appeared in "Mr. Monotony." When it became apparent that Judy needed another solo for Summer Stock, Walters, who was again directing her, asked what she wanted to do. Without hesitating, Judy replied that she wanted to sing "Get Happy" while wearing this costume. Wise choice!
Backstage after the show, it is clear that Hannah & Hewes are a hit. Johnny congratulates them and then heads to the rooftop at the Follies where Nadine is performing. Don and Hannah soon follow, Hannah unaware that Nadine will be there. Meanwhile, in her dressing room Nadine is getting the lowdown on their opening from her maid Essie (Jeni LeGon), whom she sent to spy on the show. Essie swears that everything was terrible and that people laughed at them dressed as tramps -- something Nadine would never wear -- but when the audience cheers at the mere entrance of Hannah and Don into the room, Nadine gives poor, loyal Essie a dirty look. Oops.
Before she can do anything, though, it's curtains up on "The Girl on the Magazine Cover," a sequence similar to Singin' in the Rain's "Beautiful Girls" or Du Barry was a Lady's "I Love an Esquire Girl" in that it is more a fashion show than it is a musical number. At the end of it, Nadine is revealed to be the final magazine cover girl and she does a short ballroom dance with a group of tuxedoed gentlemen.
Once that's over, we discover that Nadine has a trick up her sleeve. From the stage, she publicly asks Don to join her for a performance of their signature number, "It Only Happens..." With the audience cheering him on, he gets up and the old partners immediately fall back into step with one another. When Ann Miller was given her role, Fred admitted he was worried about her height, an issue he always took into account when selecting a dance partner. Miller agreed to wear a "low" hairstyle, though, and ballet flats when they danced, writing in her autobiography that they carefully watched the footage to make sure you can't see the shoes. I don't know what footage they were looking at because you can plainly see Miller's flats throughout her two routines with Fred, just like you can see the high heels she was wearing for "Magazine Cover" only seconds before "It Only Happens..."
While Don and Nadine are having their reunion, Hannah looks on from her table, devastated. She flees before the dance is even through and returns to the place where it all started, the bar where Don found her. Her friend Mike is still the bartender and he kindly toasts her opening night. Hannah is feeling low, though, and she sings the forlorn "Better Luck Next Time" before bursting into sobs. Nobody could pull on your heartstrings quite like Judy.
Back at her hotel, Hannah arrives to find Don waiting for her. He tries to explain and even tells Hannah, "I don't want her, I want you!" "It seems to depend on what song is being played," she snaps. She slams the door in his face, but he insists that although their relationship started as a ploy to win back Nadine, "how did I know that you'd be the most wonderful girl in the whole world?" He then declares that he'll stay there all night just to prove he won't give up on them. Unfortunately, the snarling house detective mistakes him for a masher and forces him to leave. What is even more unfortunate is that Hannah doesn't know this and she does open her door for him, only to see nobody there.
In the morning, Johnny comes to see Hannah and learns that she has been up all night thinking about Don. She actually looks like it, too! Wearing a robe with her hair loose and practically no make-up on, Judy created this look and fought the studio to keep it in the finished film. I'm all for the glamour of old Hollywood, but I do appreciate Hannah's natural appearance here. It just makes sense for her character.
Scared that she has lost Don forever, Hannah is a wreck. She is downright irate, though, when Johnny lies that Don is already auditioning for a new partner. Once she admits that she is still very much in love with Don, Johnny remarks, "If I loved someone, I'd find out a way to let them know it." "Well, it's different with a man!" "Why?" "I don't know, it just is, that's all! It's easier. They can--" Suddenly, Hannah gets an idea and rushes to get dressed, thanking Johnny profusely. His good deed done for the day, he telephones Nadine to make a date.
Over at Don's place, he is stupefied when present after present show up on his doorstep. In a great reversal from the beginning of the film, Hannah appears and reveals she sent the items. Without even acknowledging last night's fight, she reminds Don about the Easter date they set a year ago and serenades him with the title song. It's a fantastic moment as she flips the traditional gender roles, winking at him and having him sit on her lap. The happy couple then join the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, where Don takes a ring from his pocket. In a terrific callback to their first rehearsal, Hannah excitedly offers her right hand, causing Don to motion that it's the wrong one. The camera then slowly pulls back to reveal the massive Fifth Avenue set, filled with over 700 extras. The end!
After the success of Blue Skies, a 1946 musical comprised of new and old tunes by Irving Berlin, the prolific songwriter wanted to craft another film that would be overflowing with his work. His idea, Easter Parade, found its home in MGM's Freed Unit, where it was set to star Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Kathryn Grayson, and Red Skelton. As production on another MGM project, The Pirate, got underway, though, the studio envisioned Easter Parade as a reteaming of that film's key talent: Kelly, Judy Garland, Vincente Minnelli, and screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
The Pirate, however, became a troubled film, especially for Judy, so once work on Easter Parade began, her psychiatrist suggested that filming on this new picture might be happier and smoother if her director husband was taken off the film. His replacement? Broadway dancer-turned-MGM dance director Charles Walters, pictured on the left below. Just coming off of the high of his directorial debut, Good News, Walters was astounded that producer Arthur Freed would give him such a major film when Good News wouldn't even be released for another three months. Someone who didn't have the same level of confidence in Walters, however, was Irving Berlin. He had been working closely with Goodrich and Hackett on the script, telling them his own experiences with vaudeville and the stage, and he wasn't pleased that an unknown would be taking the reins. L.B. Mayer supported Freed's decision, though, and Berlin would later admit he was wrong after viewing some of the rushes.
The first, and probably the most important, change Walters made was the script, which he called "terrible" and "heavy." While Don is gruff and demanding in the final film, Walters claimed that the Hacketts' version had Don viciously berating Hannah at every turn; even worse, Hannah just accepted it and never wavered in her love for him. "The script completely martyred her," the director recalled, "and it was neither refined nor pleasant." He knew a new writer was crucial, but as a novice director, he needed someone with more power to persuade Freed. And so he went to Judy and Gene, both of whom were his friends and had previously worked with him on Du Barry was a Lady, Girl Crazy, Presenting Lily Mars, and Meet Me in St. Louis.
"I have to talk to you seriously," he told them. "I have no clout, and I'm lucky to get the goddamn thing. But let me tell you something: it stinks. And the audience is going to hate you, Gene, for what you're doing to this poor girl. Because, don't forget, Judy is always sympathetic. ... I think it should be taken away from the Hacketts and see if [Sidney Sheldon] and I can't work on it and lighten it. It's got to be fun; it's a musical." The stars agreed and were able to convince Freed without ever letting on that it was Walters's idea.
Fresh off of winning a Best Screenplay Oscar for The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, Sidney Sheldon (pictured in the middle below) immediately knew how to approach Easter Parade. "The story the Hacketts had written was too serious for a musical," he remembered. "What [their] screenplay needed was humor and a light touch." After working with Berlin, Sheldon submitted his revisions and waited for a week until Freed's secretary asked him to come to the office. Convinced that everybody hated what he had done, he nervously took a seat. "When Judy walked in, my spirits lifted," he later said. "It was like seeing an old friend. When I was an usher, I had seen her movies over and over. Her first words were, 'Hello, Sidney. I loved your screenplay.' The door opened, and Gene Kelly came in. 'Author, author,' he said. 'You did a damn fine job.' I was filled with a sudden sense of euphoria."
Goodrich, Hackett, and Sheldon are all aces in my book, so it's no wonder that I love this script. I've thought it was clever and heartfelt for years, but it wasn't until I was writing out the plot for this review that I realized how strong it is. It is so well thought-out, and there are many little touches that make these characters living, breathing creations, such as Hannah's confusion over left and right. It's a humorous detail that pops up throughout the film, from that first rehearsal to opening night when she is super nervous to the final scene when Don proposes.
Once the script and the director were finally set, Easter Parade's cast endured two more shake-ups due to injuries. During the Esther Williams aquamusical On an Island with You, Cyd Charisse, who was Freed's choice for Nadine, was late to film her last dance number. Knowing that producer Joe Pasternak had invited a group of exhibitors to watch the number, Charisse proceeded to dance without warming up... and quickly tore a ligament in her knee, costing her the role of Nadine.
Ann Miller was recovering from a painful injury herself, the result of an accidental fall she had while arguing with her abusive first husband, Reese Milner. In addition to a severe back injury, Miller had been nine-months pregnant and lost the baby. Doctors told her she couldn't have more children and that she would never dance again. While the first part of that was sadly proven true, Miller was determined to continue with her dancing career. Still using a traction bed and a steel back brace, she happily auditioned for Easter Parade when she heard that MGM was looking for a new Nadine. "To be in a picture with Fred Astaire was every dancing girl's dream," she remarked. Once she was chosen by Freed and Astaire, Miller worked hard, dancing with her torso tightly wrapped in tape, which left her skin raw by the time production was over. "I really just killed myself trying to be good," she recalled.
The other injury that changed Easter Parade's line-up was, famously, Gene Kelly's broken ankle, sustained when a friend came down on it during a volleyball match. Freed initially considered casting Gene Nelson as Don, but he and Kelly quickly agreed there was only one man for the job: Fred Astaire. Although he had retired two years ago after making Blue Skies, Fred had to admit that he was feeling restless and bored. He was also excited by the idea of working with Judy and enthusiastically accepted after asking Gene three questions: "Will this hurt your career?" "Do you think I can learn the dances?" "Is there any chance you could do the picture?"
When Walters learned who his new star would be, he was over the moon. "I couldn't contain my joy," he confessed. "[Fred] was my hero, my idol. I could not get over the fact that I was going to work with him. I will never forget the moment when, while we were trying out wardrobe, Fred approached me -- in that elegant way that only he has -- and asked me what I thought of [his] jacket and vest. I said, 'You're kidding. You're asking me?' He was clearly delighted."
For the stars and their director, Easter Parade was a lovefest -- everybody adored everybody. Ann Miller, for example, had a platonic crush on Walters, admitting, "I just thought Chuck was one of the cutest people I ever met on that lot, and Judy did, too. We gave him a pretty bad time, because we were carrying on, laughing and giggling and talking with him." Walters, meanwhile, affectionately called Miller "a kookie darling."
Despite a busy schedule that included reshoots for The Pirate on top of making Easter Parade, Judy was in good spirits. "I never had any problems with Judy," Walters stated, "Really I didn't." Miller, however, claimed in her autobiography that the actress would have days where she never showed up or she would bring in her infant daughter, Liza, to purposely distract the crew. Still, Miller loved Judy and declared her a "fantastic genius."
Berlin was a fan of Judy's, too. "That child has more talent in that little body of hers than anybody that's been around in a long time," he once said. "She's a songwriter's dream; I'll go on record as saying that. A songwriter couldn't wish for a better break than to have Judy introduce his new tunes." Out of everybody, though, Fred had the most praise for his co-star:
"Of course, Judy was the star of the picture. And it's a joy to work with somebody like Judy, because she's a super talent, with a great sense of humor. She could do anything. She wasn't primarily a dancer, but she could do what you asked her to do. And she had a great charm, and she was a very big star. She was in good form...we had a very good time. [Our numbers together] remain with me as high spots of enjoyment in my career. Her uncanny knowledge of showmanship impressed me more than ever as I worked with her."
Fred's stand-in, Joe Niemeyer, could tell how much the actor
cherished the experience of collaborating with Judy. "I've never seen him as happy as he was during the making of Easter Parade," Niemeyer said. "It's a wonderful story and a wonderful picture. But to him, the joy came from working with Judy, a girl whose own sense of timing and comedy and perfection is as intense as his. With Judy, the film was nothing but play [for him]."
Judy was just as enamored with Fred, remarking, "Fred put me completely at ease. He's a gentleman -- and lots of fun to work with." Miller summed up their partnership well: "Judy and Fred got along just great -- because she's a great pro and a fantastic entertainer, and he was, too. And I think that when you put pros together, it's always a happy union, because they like to work and work hard. And they did." The pairing of Judy and Fred is something I thank my lucky stars for every time I watch this film. As two of the most iconic entertainers to ever live, it is so joyous to see them together and see how much they respected and loved one another. The fact that we almost didn't get this pairing is unfathomable to me.
According to Gene Kelly's widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, most of the choreography had already been done by Gene (and Robert Alton) before his injury. He told Patricia that Fred "switched" some things around, but "kept all the choreographic lines," which would mean that what you're seeing in Easter Parade is Fred dancing to Gene's choreography. Walters admitted, "If you look very closely, you'll see that the numbers don't really fit Fred." Gene also told his widow that he believed that after this film, "Fred changed his style a lot." I don't know if I agree with that -- I think Fred might have adapted his style to suit how musicals were changing, such as the immensely cool Michael Kidd choreography he did in The Band Wagon, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that it was all Gene's influence.
As for his dancing in Easter Parade, maybe it's because I'm not a dancer like Gene and Walters were, but I don't see what they're talking about. I think Fred's dancing is, as it always was, uniquely his own gorgeous, dreamy style. The only number I could see Gene doing is "A Couple of Swells," but everything else just feels so perfectly suited to Fred. I don't know, is this idea just ingrained in me because I saw the film many times before learning about the Gene Kelly of it all? Could be!
Perhaps the most underrated performer in Easter Parade is Peter Lawford. This might be my bias for this film talking, but I really think Johnny might be my favorite role of Lawford's. Not only is he drop-dead gorgeous, his line readings and reactions are exactly what the character needs. Johnny is just such a sincere, empathetic, and kind person, and he is a lovely friend to Don and especially Hannah. These aren't exactly exciting qualities to see onscreen, but Lawford's charisma helps to carry it off.
One final thing I must discuss is the woman who plays Essie, Nadine's maid. A consistently enjoyable, funny character, I was shocked to learn recently that Essie was portrayed by Jeni LeGon, a groundbreaking female tap dancer who always performed in pants. One of the first Black entertainers to be signed by a major studio (MGM), she would proudly say, "I danced just like one of the boys." However, like many people of color, she never received her due in Hollywood thanks to systemic racism. She was actually let go from Broadway Melody of 1936 because MGM felt she looked more impressive than the star, Eleanor Powell, but the studio's excuse was that they couldn't have two tap dancers in the same film. Right.
It is such a shame that LeGon was cast in Easter Parade as a maid and not even given the chance to perform, but you can see some of her work in Stormy Weather, I Walked with a Zombie, Ali Baba Goes to Town, Hooray for Love, and Double Deal. An article from People in 2005 called her a pioneer of Black Hollywood and said she "battled frank racism, stereotype-constrained casting and on-set segregation to achieve memorable art and pave the way to put us where we are today." She is certainly a lady I can't wait to learn more about!
Easter Parade was still in production when Freed began planning the next film for Walters, Fred, Judy, and Robert Alton. Originally titled You Made Me Love You, The Barkleys of Broadway was all set to be a wonderful film, but it became even more special when Ginger Rogers replaced an exhausted Judy, making the film the tenth and final pairing of Astaire and Rogers, ten years after their last collaboration. With the massive success of Easter Parade, Walters was officially an A-list director, which enabled him to be paired up again with most of his EP stars, including Texas Carnival with Miller; Barkleys and The Belle of New York with Fred; and Summer Stock with Judy and the original Don Hewes, Gene Kelly.
A delectable, unforgettable musical, Irving Berlin's Pygmalion tale is not a film to be missed. It is a captivating example of the enchantment that only classic Hollywood could create, and it will forever be a film that holds a special place in my heart.
This is my entry to the First Annual Peter Lawford Blogathon, hosted by KN Winiarski Writes. You can check out the other tributes to the birthday boy here.