Thursday, July 28, 2011

Easter Parade (1948)

Fred Astaire and Judy Garland together in the same film? The combination is not completely intuitive, but it works wonderfully, as producer Arthur Freed proved in this 1948 outing. The idea of teaming Astaire with a singer had been tried before to good effect. He had, in fact, made two movies with Bing Crosby: Holiday Inn and Blue Skies, but had never been paired with a female singer before. Easter Parade was originally intended as a vehicle for Gene Kelly and Judy Garland - Fred Astaire being completely off the radar because he retired the year before. When Kelly broke his leg during rehearsals, however, MGM begged Astaire to take his place - and apparently they didn't have to ask very hard. It's a good thing they did, too, because Astaire would continue to make films for the next fifteen years, producing some of his best-remembered works such as Royal Wedding, and The Band Wagon along with the film I'm reviewing today.

Set around 1910, Easter Parade follows the career of a vaudeville dancer (Fred Astaire) who loses his partner (Ann Miller) and must look for a girl to take her place. In a fit of drunken frustration, he bets that he can take any girl out of a chorus line and turn her into a star. Judy Garland ends up being the victim of this arrangement, and Astaire soon finds that she has no talent for the elegant ballroom dancing that is the staple of his act. Ironically, he is so mired in his personal angst that he remains oblivious to the fact that Judy's primary asset is not her feet but her voice, but when he finally discovers this, their act becomes a smash success. Of course by this point Garland has fallen madly in love with him, but Astaire remains stuck on his ex-partner, who is stuck on his friend (Peter Lawford), who is stuck on Judy, creating a hilarious circle of unrequited love. In the typical fashion of musical comedies, however, Astaire comes to realize that Garland is a much better option, and after some songs and dances, they all live happily ever after.

The highlight of this film for me is Astaire's big number, "Steppin' Out with My Baby," one of his all-time great tap routines, his absolutely joyous "Drum Crazy" solo, the "Couple of Swells" duet with Judy, and Ann Miller's "Shakin' the Blues Away." The music is a compilation of Irving Berlin hits plus a few written especially for this picture such as "It Only Happens When I Dance with You," which was inspired by Judy Garland. This being the case, there are no bad tunes in the bunch, though a few such as "Down on the Farm" are merely good and not excellent. Similarly, with Fred Astaire and Ann Miller doing the dances, none of those numbers fall flat either. It should be a great thrill for audiences to watch the undisputed best male dancer in Hollywood perform alongside a talented female dancer like Ann Miller, but their numbers together lack the romance we see in Astaire's parings with dancers like Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth because in this film his character and Ann Miller's never share the same love connection. This is not to say that the numbers aren't highly enjoyable, but they're not quite on the same level as some of Astaire's best pairings.

Before I close this review, I have to say that I love Judy's conundrum in the final scene of how to let a man know that she's in love with him: men are so difficult to buy for. The gender reversal she comes up with is just brilliant, as is Astaire's reaction to it.

I give this movie a 7.9 out of 10, a prime example of the great MGM musicals.

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