Periodically, I need to watch a musical, especially one with dance in it. Listening to those taps, feeling the thrill of movement and rhythm, walking around the house singing loudly – it like coming awake after hibernation. And although we’ve already passed Easter, it still seems appropriate to review Easter Parade. It always represented to me not only Easter, but spring, as well.
Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) and Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) are a successful ballroom dance team in 1912. However, just before Easter, Nadine tells Don that she is breaking up the team. She is going to join the Ziegfeld Follies and become a star. He’s in love with her and utterly crushed, but she loves a friend of theirs, Jonathan Harrow III (Peter Lawford), a wealthy young man they call Professor because he’s currently in law school.
Hurt and angry, Don gets very drunk indeed and talks wildly of how he doesn’t need Nadine. He made Nadine who she is, he asserts. He made her and he could train another person to take her place as easy as that. To prove his point, he grabs a random chorus girl in a cafe show and tells her to meet him the following morning. She’s going to be his new dance partner.
The random girl is Hannah Browne (Judy Garland), who initially doesn’t take him seriously until she realizes that he is Don Hewes. Awed and a bit star struck, she quits her job and shows up the next morning, much to the disappointment of Don, who immediately regretted his rash invitation after he had recovered from his hang-over. But he’s too proud to admit it and he sets out to remake Hannah Brown in the image of Nadine. He renames her Jaunita (“Well, if you wanted a Jaunita, why did you pick me? Hannah asks him) and chooses the clothes she will wear and generally treats her as if she is not really a person.
The results are disappointing to Don. Hannah is not Nadine. Meanwhile, Hannah falls in love with Don while the Professor falls in love with Hannah. We end up with a love square. Don loves Nadine, Nadine loves the Professor, the Professor loves Hannah, and Hannah loves Don. Fortunately, they are pretty civilized about it, all things considered. They mostly wait patiently and suffer silently (and maybe sing a song about it, if you’re Judy Garland) until they get who they want (in the case of the women) or realize who they really want (in the case of the men).
In Easter Parade, Nadine is portrayed as the unsympathetic one, but I realized that she actually has some very good reasons to break up her act with Don. She was undoubtedly the junior partner, he is the one who imposed his image on her (the clothes, the graceful dancer), but perhaps she really just wants to break loose. She’s like a red hot mama incognito (as evidenced by her tap dance, “Shakin’ the Blues Away”). He could have been smothering her personality. Also, since Don is in love with her and she doesn’t love him back, a separation seems eminently sensible.
Don obviously has a tendency to impose on his partners some inner image he has. He finally learns his lesson with Hannah. He has to let her be herself and when he does, their act comes together brilliantly.
I love Judy Garland as Hannah Brown. It’s not talked about as often, but she was a fine comedian – her facial expressions, reactions to people, the way she delivers her lines, the general awkwardness of her persona, only to start singing and become perfectly self-assured in her movements. When Judy Garland is on the screen, you can’t help watching her. In some ways, she overwhelms Fred Astaire rather than complements him because she has such a strong presence (which is interesting, because she’s also fragile). But I think Astaire is deferring to her, as well, while they dance, letting her…well, do what she does best. She’s not his most skillful dance partner, but she is more than skillful enough and they are a joy to watch. Judy Garland could be hard to work with, but apparently the two of them got along very well.
Originally, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse were to be in the film as Don and Nadine, but both were injured prior to filming and had to be replaced. The idea of Cyd Charisse as Nadine actually makes a lot of sense, considering how much emphasis is placed on Nadine’s grace and elegance. Ann Miller, as I noted, has a more red hot mama persona. But in a weird way, it adds to the sense that Don is shaping his dance partners in an inner image of his own.
I have much more trouble seeing Gene Kelly as Don. It’s difficult to imagine him as the kind of guy who would transform a woman into a graceful fashion icon of grace and sophistication. He seems more like the kind of guy who would be trying to reach the top himself then trying to train people to join him at the top. But perhaps things were rewritten slightly to accommodate the casting change.
Dance, songs by Irving Berlin (the film features a menagerie of his songs written previously for other musicals and revues – like Harry Warren, I can never get his songs out of my head!), it’s one of my favorite musicals by Fred Astaire (though I admittedly have an awful lot of Fred Astaire favorites – I think half his films are my favorite). It’s not to everyone’s tastes.It is considered a slightly weaker MGM musical, but I’ve always had a great weakness for this one.
The red hot mama incognito is incognito no longer.
I love how the mother of the boy is smiling while Fred Astaire cons her son out of a stuffed bunny – of course if someone paid me to stand in a room were Fred Astaire was dancing I’d be smiling, too
Hannah Brown finally being allowed to be herself and do what she does best.