Friday, February 22, 2013

EASTER PARADE: Blu-ray (MGM 1948) Warner Home Video

Everyone’s fond of quoting Jerome Kern’s assessment of fellow composer, Irving Berlin. When asked what Berlin’s place in American music was, Kern lovingly replied, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music!”  In hindsight, this snap assessment rings more true. In fact many of Berlin’s songs have endured the passage of time and managed to overcome changing musical tastes; with Berlin’s contributions to holiday and patriotic ballads, including White Christmas, Happy Holidays, God Bless America, and, Easter Parade, perennially revived and covered by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby to Michael Buble. Berlin, who never went beyond the most remedial training as a composer, and whose entire repertoire of composition was confined to the standard thirty-two bar structure that most – if not all – of his contemporaries regarded as ‘formulaic’, nevertheless illustrates, and has since repeatedly proven the old adage: “write what you know and do it well”.  Arguably, no one did it better than Irving Berlin.
But Berlin was also something of a shameless self-promoter – his most prolific period between 1900 and 1920. As such, the tunes most closely associate with Berlin’s movie career have been largely repurposed from this earlier and more innocent time.  With the advent of the movies Berlin’s thematic Americana was much in demand. Berlin also wrote for the movies. But he tended to reissue his oldies more – ensconced as part of the American fabric. Two of Berlin’s most iconic songs remain White Christmas and Easter Parade – so perhaps it isn’t surprising to find splashy Technicolor musicals named after each. Easter Parade, the song, was first published in 1933 for the Broadway revue ‘As Thousands Cheer’. The song then found renewed popularity in 1942’s Holiday Inn, ironically the film that introduced White Christmas.
By 1948 Easter Parade was primed for its own movie musical – a blush and bashful extravaganza set in 1912 to take advantage of another bumper crop of classics from Berlin’s backlog. The year before, producer Arthur Freed had engaged screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett to flesh out his initial concept for the plot, by Freed’s own admission – to be kept simple and intimate. And Berlin came to Metro too, to work closely with the writers. Like many of MGM’s most beloved movie musicals Easter Parade (1948) went through a litany of major changes before it finally reached the screen.
MGM’s late VP in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg had always believed that movies were not made – but remade; an edict retained at the studio long after his premature death in 1936 and employed throughout Easter Parade’s gestation period. The film’s original director, Vincent Minnelli was replaced by Charles Walters who thought the Goodrich/Hackett screenplay terribly ‘mean spirited’ and immediately ordered rewrites. Sidney Sheldon came on board to take ‘the meanness’ out.
Berlin then dove headstrong into crafting brand new songs for the story – nine in all, seven of which would survive the final cut. Musical arranger Robert Alton was brought in to stage the numbers and on Nov. 25, 1947 principal photography began. Regrettably, the film’s original co-star, Gene Kelly was nowhere to be found. During rehearsals he had broken his ankle in a game of touch football. Berlin was frantic. But Freed remained circumspect, yet confident. Who wouldn’t be with Fred Astaire waiting in the wings?
Astaire had announced his retired from movies the year before – a self-imposed respite he gladly forwent when Freed pitched the prospect of working with Judy Garland instead. Undeniably MGM’s greatest musical star, Garland had built her reputation on a string of effervescent musicals that continue to resonate with audiences to this day. She and Kelly had been handsomely paired in Kelly’s first musical at the studio: For Me And My Gal (1942) – a resounding success for all concerned, and Garland – who could occasionally be temperamental on the set – had looked forward to working with Gene again. But Fred Astaire was not exactly chopped liver. So Garland, ever the perfectionist, quickly warmed to her new costar; the two reaching a symbiotic plasir du artistic amour by the time production wrapped. Viewing Easter Parade today the sheer joy in bringing it to the screen is palpable – Astaire and Garland clearly feeding off a mutually shared creative energy and respect for each other’s formidable talents.  Astaire, never one for self-parody or lampoon, seems to truly be enjoying himself in their comedic pas deux ‘A Couple of Swells’; the two garbed as a pair of toothless hobos slumming it on Fifth Ave.
Easter Parade was marketed by MGM’s publicity department as ‘the happiest musical ever made’. Certainly, this much is true of the backstage badinage as well as the creative synergy evident on the screen. Garland would later lament the loss of her solo, ‘Mr. Monotony’ – a fascinating rhythmic number in which she wore the top half of a tuxedo – decidedly risqué for 1912. Although the song did not survive, due mainly to time constraints, Garland’s costume did. She would wear it again for her iconic ‘Get Happy’ routine in her final MGM movie musical, Summer Stock (1950).
Our story begins with a most unwelcomed surprise. Having spent a mint on gifts for his dancing partner, Vaudevillian Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) returns to Nadine Hale’s (Ann Miller) apartment only to discover that she has decided to leave the act after being offered a solo career. The wound cuts deeper than that. For Don had sincerely hoped to become romantically involved with Nadine. But it’s no soap, as Don quickly realizes, and he has little opportunity to succeed on the stage without a female partner. 
Nadine has set her cap for Jonathan Harrow III (Peter Lawford); a wealthy playboy who doesn’t particularly share her romantic interests. In the meantime, Don skulks off to a ratskeller café to drown his sorrows. Fortune smiles on him when he hears Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) sing ‘Michigan’ as part of the café’s nightly entertainment. She’s good. Fabulous, even. But can she dance? Realizing who Don is, Hannah resigns herself to try. She reports to the theater the next afternoon for rehearsals but quickly reveals just how inexperienced a dancer she is. In fact, Hannah doesn’t even know her left foot from her right!
Hannah’s lack of confidence is equally hampered by Don’s disregard for either her feelings or personal tastes, and by his overall insistence to remake her into a statuesque glamor queen a la Nadine Hale. It is interesting to note that Garland suffered a similar fate after signing her first MGM contract – frequently referred to by L.B. Mayer as his “little monkey” and placed on a debilitating and stringent diet; given ‘pep’, ‘diet’ and ‘sleeping’ pills to keep her weight, energy and productivity in line; a lethal cocktail that would ultimately wreck both Garland’s health and her career.
Changing Hannah’s name to Wanita, Don debuts their new act to tepid reviews. At the same time Nadine opens in her review-styled show. Don sneaks into the New Amsterdam Theater and observes how accomplished Nadine has become in his absence. She whirls like a dervish, performing ‘Takin’ The Blues Away’ to a packed house. Don returns to Hannah anew, but with a brand new perspective on their teaming. There is no Wanita – only Hannah Brown. Delighted by Don’s conversion, Hannah excels in their act and the two steadily rise among the ranks to become contenders for the Ziegfeld Follies.
But when Don learns that the new follies is to be built around Nadine he decides that Hannah and Hewes will land their own show; a fabulous review that threatens to eclipse Nadine’s new stardom overnight. Meanwhile, Hannah begins to see Jonathan socially. He presents himself to her whimsically as ‘The Fella With An Umbrella’ on a very rainy afternoon. Unfortunately, Hannah is drawn to Don, who still harbors a romantic yen for Nadine. After their triumphant debut, Don takes Hannah to the Ziegfeld rooftop review starring Nadine. She performs ‘The Girl on the Cover of a Magazine’ and then coaxes Don to accept a reprise of one of their old dance routines.
The crowd loves it, but Hannah has been emotionally wounded for the last time. She confronts Don with the understanding that she will always be just little ol’ Hannah Brown to him – a partner in dance but never in life. In an impromptu decision, Hannah quits their act and returns to the small café where her dreams of stardom first began. She is attended by bartender, Mike (Clinton Sunberg) who has always had strong feelings for her, and is later sought by Jonathan, much to Nadine’s chagrin.
In the meantime, Don has had a change of heart. He realizes that he truly loves Hannah for herself – as a partner on the stage and in life. As the whole of New York make ready for the annual Easter parade Don receives several knocks at the door. A top hat, flowers and a live bunny arrive in rapid succession before Hannah makes her entrance, much to Don’s delight.
Hannah has made her choice. She would rather be miserable with Don than without him. The two affectionately embrace and Don makes ready to escort her along the avenue. Their final moments in the film are spent amongst the glamorous attendees of the Easter parade, with Hannah momentarily forgetting herself in a grand gesture reminiscent of something Nadine would do. The two share a good laugh and the camera pans to reveal Fifth Avenue bedecked in a review of courtly men and elegant women.
For this penultimate fade to black, barely visible on the screen for just a minute or two, Freed amassed 700 extras on MGM’s New York Street, the upper portions of the buildings a seamless matte painting over which the titles ‘The End’ and ‘Made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood California’ appear. The latter statement – appearomg on virtually every MGM picture made between 1943 and ‘53 – had always been a source of contention for both city councils. You see, MGM occupied a vast property outside Hollywood known as Culver City. It never owned facilities in Hollywood proper – hence the wording should have read ‘Made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Culver City, CA.’
Apart from this penultimate extravagance, Easter Parade is a remarkably subdued, though never anything less than glossy entertainment. Most of the musical numbers are intimately staged, just as Arthur Freed had intended. Even Ann Miller’s electrifying solo, ‘Shakin’ the Blues Away’ is performed without the benefit of a chorus, staged against a towering blue-gray drape dramatically flowing about Miller’s whirling terpsichorean appendages. Otherwise, most of the songs are set against a plain curtain or painted backdrop, or performed as an audition on an empty stage.
There are two notable exceptions. The first is Astaire’s solo ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby’ – a gaudy ‘trick’ routine that separates Astaire from a chorine of gaudily clad bar room dancers but interrupts his own dancing with some intrusive slo-mo effects that, frankly, take away from Astaire’s otherwise flawless skill. The other big budget routine is ‘The Girl On The Cover of A Magazine’; in hindsight something of a dry run for Singin’ In The Rain’s ‘Beautiful Girl’ production number. ‘The Girl on the Cover of A Magazine’ is a lovingly staged ‘vintage’ number featuring mannequin-type models from the front covers of various popular magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Modern Bride who come to life. These episodic vignettes give way to a full blown dance featuring Ann Miller with a rather large feathery fan and flanked by a chorus of tuxedo clad men. The number is stately without question, yet somehow displaced by Easter Parade’s myriad of treasures. 
It goes without saying, though it ought to be repeated, that Judy Garland was truly one of the all-time great musical comedy stars; a diverse entertainer who could just as easily make us laugh as she could break our hearts. The veneer between Garland’s camera-self and the real person hiding behind that persona seems thin; fragile even, with Garland yearning to be liked – even loved – for herself. Garland’s fans have never forgotten her. But Easter Parade endures primarily because of her peerless performance as that sad-eyed, occasionally frustrated, though always put-together chanteuse who knows her way around a lyric, a nuance and a gesture.
Fred Astaire is perfection itself – a dancer with no equal – even Gene Kelly. I have always maintained that comparing Astaire to Kelly is a fool’s errand at best. The two are dancers; master craftsmen – period. But that is where the similarity and the comparisons should stop. Kelly is earthy elegance. But Astaire is eloquent sophistication, and viewing Easter Parade today it is difficult to imagine how Kelly would have assuaged into Astaire’s Svengali-type role unless heavily rewritten to his strengths.
The marvel that is Fred Astaire cannot be quantified with any degree of success except when experiencing the man in flight and in perfect step on the screen. Ginger Rogers was arguably Astaire’s greatest partner. But in Garland Astaire has a cohort more enigmatic as a presence. When Garland and Astaire dance together, curiously enough we look at her instead of him, perhaps consciously studying to see if her footwork will match his, tap for tap. She does, and our admiration for Garland as an all-around entertainer exponentially grows. The choreography in Easter Parade isn’t particularly overtaxing. In fact, Astaire seems to be taking it easy, performing soft shoe shuffles and casual waltzes with effortless aplomb.
Ann Miller had long dreamed of a dancing career opposite Astaire. Regrettably, Easter Parade doesn’t really allow for too much of that. The leggy and statuesque Miller doesn’t quite fit Astaire anyway. She’s too glossy somehow and in a mannequin sort of way, a flashy, splashy dab of color that can quickly brighten the mood of a solo, but tends to sour any pas deux in which she clearly is not the star. Indeed, a brief retrospective of Miller’s career at MGM reveals that her best tap work was never done with a partner, but alone in solos like Gotta Hear That Beat (from Small Town Girl) that could electrify and ignite the Technicolor screen.
To this triage of formidable musical talents, Easter Parade rounds out its central cast with a decidedly minor contributor – Peter Lawford. Undeniably good to look at, Peter Lawford spent much of his MGM career playing rakishly handsome, though decidedly congenial and occasionally antiseptic love interests. He’s better suited for a costar like Jane Powell (whom he appeared opposite in Royal Wedding) or June Allyson (Good News). But both Garland and Miller dwarf his artistic prowess. Garland clearly plays down to his limitations during ‘Fella With An Umbrella’ choosing to ease his thin vocals with a cloying smoothness in her own. It works, but remains rather obvious to behold.      
Easter Parade was yet another colossal success for Arthur Freed and MGM – a peerless example of how the studio’s homegrown and in-house craftsmen could assemble, produce and slickly package their stars into a tune-filled spectacle. But viewed today Easter Parade seems pretty much par for the course of what MGM used to offer its audiences in general; lavish escapism of the highest order. Perhaps the bar had been set just a tad too high.
Easter Parade is an undeniable feel good. The entire cast delivers superb performances. Yet, as the years roll on, Easter Parade increasingly resembles second tier MGM as opposed to its top tier classics like Singin’ In the Rain, The Band Wagon and Gigi – to name but three. However, it is important to note that second tier MGM in its prime was still better than virtually first tier anybody else. But especially from today’s vantage, Easter Parade remains an iconic, glossy, musically effervescent relic from an era now just as bygone as the vintage the movie is emulating. 
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is cause for celebration. The old 2 disc DVD looked very fine indeed, but the Blu-ray now reveals an overall sharpness to that magical Technicolor image that the DVD decidedly lacked. Colors look remarkably similar. There are exceptions to this rule. I was, for example, startled by how much more refined Nadine’s lurid orange frock appears on the Blu-ray. On DVD it looked uniformly bright and…well…orange. On the Blu-ray however, it gains a subtle nuance of texture and shading, as do the rest of the costumes, particularly Astaire’s tweeds and Garland’s blue and yellow checkered audition ensemble.
Details in hair and makeup reveal themselves too. I’d like to say I was blown away, but really, the similarities between the DVD and Blu-ray were more the norm for my viewing experience than the exception. Let’s just say I was impressed. The DTS audio kicks things up another notch with good solid clarity and nice separations. Like its standard format predecessor, Easter Parade on Blu-ray retains the 5.1 upgrade to its original mono mix and I’m happy to report that it sounds better than ever.
Please note: Warner Home Video has made an ultra-goof on this disc; advertising the American Masters documentary on Judy Garland: ‘By Myself’ as a supplement on the back jacket. Due to a mastering error this disc DOES NOT contain this documentary. It is uncertain whether or not WB will be instituting a disc replacement program for this catalogue title. One would hope so. However, be forewarned that if you buy this disc you are not getting all of the extra features as advertised. U.K. and Canadian discs will not contain this documentary, since PBS has always denied the rights for distribution outside of the United States. Dumb! Really dumb!  But currently, the U.S. edition is missing this nearly 2 hr. documentary too! All of the international releases, plus the U.S. release get ‘On The Avenue’ The making of Easter Parade, plus an audio commentary with Astaire’s daughter and Garland biographer John Fricke, some vintage junkets and a trailer. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

No comments: