Friday, April 7, 2017

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 uncannily endured the passage of time and changing musical tastes. The composer’s contributions to holidays and patriotic ballads, including White Christmas, Happy Holidays, God Bless America, and, Easter Parade, have been 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 is confined to the standard thirty-two bar structure that most – if not all – 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 are largely repurposed from this earlier and more innocent time.  With the advent of the movies, Berlin’s thematic Americana was much in demand. We should make it clear, Berlin also wrote exclusively for the movies. But he tended to reissue his oldies more – ensconced as part of the American fabric – fattening out these time-honored standards with two or three ‘new’ songs to create ‘a score’. Two of Berlin’s most iconic tunes 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 Berlin’s Broadway revue ‘As Thousands Cheer’. The song then found renewed popularity in 1942’s Holiday Inn, ironically the film that introduced White Christmas to movie audiences for the very first time.
By 1948, Easter Parade was primed for its own movie musical – a blush and bashful extravaganza set in the milieu of 1912 and taking full advantage of another bumper crop 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. All musicals function (or rather, function best) on a basic ‘boy meets girl’ scenario. The narrative wrinkle eventually ironed out by Goodrich and Hackett concerns a girl, struggling to make good on a promise to herself, to become a star, but who inevitably succumbs to the expert tutelage of her Svengali; a professional dancer, recently dumped by his longtime partner and desperate for a comeback of his own. Berlin liked the idea, and would defer to producer, Arthur Freed’s good taste and judgment. But he came to Metro every day just in case; also, to work closely with the writers, flesh out the score, and listen during rehearsals, often with nervous, sweaty palms. He would not be disappointed. Like almost anything Arthur Freed touched during this period in his long and distinguished tenure, Easter Parade (1948) would go one to become one of MGM’s most beloved musicals.
And, like almost every musical achieved at the studio, Easter Parade went through some major revisions before it finally reached the screen. MGM’s late VP in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg always believed movies were not made – but remade; an edict retained at the studio long after his premature death in 1936 and liberally applied 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. Freed then turned to noted screenwriter (and later, novelist) Sidney Sheldon to take ‘the meanness’ out. Meanwhile, Berlin dove headstrong into crafting brand new songs for the story – nine in all, seven surviving the final cut. Musical arranger, Robert Alton was brought in to stage the numbers and on Nov. 25, 1947 principal photography began. Regrettably, or perhaps fortuitously (depending on one’s point of view) the film’s original co-star, Gene Kelly needed to be replaced as, between rehearsals, Kelly had elected to indulge in a little skirmish of touch football – against L.B. Mayer’s strenuous objections. He broke his ankle in the process. Mayer was apoplectic. In truth, he never much cared for Kelly – whom he greatly admired as a dancer and moneymaker for the studio but could barely tolerate as a human being.  Berlin was frantic. But Freed remained circumspect, and strangely confident. Who wouldn’t be with Fred Astaire waiting in the wings?
Astaire had announced his retirement from the movies a year earlier – a self-imposed respite he gladly forwent when Freed pitched the prospect of working with Judy Garland to him. Moreover, Astaire had Kelly’s blessing on the matter; Kelly eternally grateful to Astaire for stepping into his shoes – literally – in the eleventh hour or pre-production. Undeniably MGM’s greatest homegrown musical star, Garland had built a reputation on a solid backlog of effervescent musicals, four of them co-starring Mickey Rooney. In the early forties, she proved her pliability at the studio and was, regrettably, overworked to the point of physical exhaustion by Mayer, who simply plugged her into any and nearly all musical comedies made during this period. Garland and Kelly had been handsomely paired in Kelly’s first musical for the studio: For Me And My Gal (1942) – a resounding success for all concerned, and Garland – who could 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. Somewhere along the way it was decided Garland’s solo, ‘Mr. Monotony’ should be cut from the movie. Sporting only the top half of a tuxedo, her hair neatly bobbed and hidden beneath a matching black fedora, Garland’s sex appeal in the number was decidedly more contemporary than suited the picture’s turn-of-the-century ambiance.  But Garland would have her day in the same outfit two years later, and again, costarring opposite Gene Kelly in her ebullient swan song, singing ‘Get Happy’ in Summer Stock (1950). 
Unusual for MGM, in casting the supporting role of the haughty and exclusive, Nadine Hale, Freed turned to outside talent, Ann Miller – newly arrived at Metro via a long, but dubious tenure at RKO. The running gag throughout the war years had been if America was to be invaded one could seek viable refuge at RKO because ‘they hadn’t a hit in years!’ Nevertheless, Miller was an inspired dancer with designs to succeed her idol, Eleanor Powell (for some years, the tops in taps dancing lady at MGM). By 1948, Powell had retired from Metro, though, like Astaire, she would resurface from time to time on film. Unlike Astaire, Powell would never again receive star billing; performing cameo routines in somebody else’s musical. But Miller’s participation on Easter Parade was hardly assured. Indeed, Mayer, who had signed her to a contract on the understanding he could ‘court’ her – albeit, with her mother along as chaperone – was to have his dalliances dashed by Miller herself. When Mayer proposed marriage, Miller was reportedly shocked, telling Mayer although she greatly admired him as a friend he was old enough to be her father. Miller’s cold shoulder also might have had something to do with what she deemed a ‘sad’ first marriage to Reese Llewellyn Milner. He beat her so severely, Miller was actually recovering from a broken back at the time Easter Parade went before the cameras. Mayer was hardly sympathetic, however, and once spurned, ensured Miller he would not lift a finger to secure the part of Nadine Hale for her. But she could, at least, audition for it. If Freed thought she could do it, she would. Freed did and Miller began her ascension as Metro’s successor to Eleanor Powell.
The last bit of inspired casting was Peter Lawford, frequently hired to sing and dance alongside Metro’s esteemed pantheon of great musical stars, despite the fact he admittedly lacked either the pipes or terpsichorean talents to compete on the same latitude as a Garland or Astaire. Nevertheless, Lawford in his youth was drop-dead handsome, possessing an unimpeachable charisma, perhaps never more capitalized upon than in the quintessential collegiate musical, Good News (1947). In Easter Parade, he is, quite simply, Johnny - the dashing young playboy, as fetching in his ascot and top hat as a casual straw summer derby and spats, relentlessly pursued by Miller’s Nadine Hale (who will prove his equal) even as he falls hard for Garland’s Hannah Brown.  Lawford’s behind the scenes reputation as a ladies man did not diminish his popularity among the swooning bobbysoxers who found the Brit-born stud deliciously adorable to the point where his popularity at the box office soared. Although he rarely played the lead, he often had the meatiest supporting parts of any contract player in big and glossy movies on which his own stardom was perpetually secured. In the company of Astaire, Garland and Miller, Lawford cannot help but look good too – and, in fact, holds his own; perhaps, because he never allowed the presence of greatness to intimidate him, while openly and unashamedly admitting his ‘betters’ were – indeed – often better than he. In retrospect, such humility only made him more attractive to his fans.
Viewing Easter Parade today, the sheer joy in bringing it to the screen is unmistakable – Astaire and Garland clearly feeding off their mutually shared creative energy and healthy respect for the other’s formidable talents.  Astaire, never one for self-parody or lampoon, truly enjoyed their comedic pas deux ‘A Couple of Swells’; attired as a pair of toothless hobos slumming it on Fifth Ave. And Garland, for all her backstage demons, brought on by her growing chronic addiction to studio-sanctioned pills, meant to manage her high-strung mood swings and fluctuating weight, summoned up all her courage and congeniality for Easter Parade; by all accounts a very happy work experience for all concerned. Easter Parade was marketed by MGM’s publicity department as ‘the happiest musical ever made’. This much is true also of the in the wings badinage as well as the actors’ creative synergy on the screen. Garland would later lament that her solo, ‘Mr. Monotony’ – a rhythmic tongue-twister – was cut. But otherwise, Garland’s experiences on Easter Parade proved joyous and, if hardly restful, then at least sincerely lacking in the usual stressors of making a big and splashy Hollywood musical with perfection plus at play, both behind and on the big screen.
Our story begins with a most unwelcomed surprise. Having spent a mint on gifts for his dancing partner, Vaudevillian hoofer, Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) returns to Nadine Hale’s (Ann Miller) apartment only to discover she has decided to leave the act for good after being offered the opportunity to pursue a solo career. her announcement cuts deeper than expected. For Don had sincerely hoped to become romantically involved with Nadine. But it’s no soap, as Don quickly realizes. Regrettably, he has little opportunity to succeed on the stage without a partner. Meanwhile, Nadine has set her cap for Jonathan Harrow III (Peter Lawford); a wealthy playboy who doesn’t share her romantic interests. To quell his anxieties, as well as his sorrows, Don skulks off to a café, where he encounters Mike, the bartender (Clinton Sunberg) a sort of philosopher of the spirits. But fortune is about to smile on Don after he hears waitress, Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) tenderly 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 accept his invitation for an audition the next afternoon. She reports for duty but quickly reveals her inexperience. In fact, Hannah doesn’t even know her left foot from her right!
Hannah’s lagging confidence is further hampered by Don’s disregard for her feelings and personal tastes; also, by his overall insistence on remaking her rather mousy public persona into a statuesque glamor queen a la the ilk of Nadine Hale. It is, perhaps, interesting to note 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 with her breakneck schedule; a lethal cocktail, ultimately to wreck both Garland’s health and career.  Sheathed in inappropriately glamorous gowns, Hannah’s name changed by Don to Juanita, the act debuts to tepid reviews. It’s a minor disaster, but as yet, Don has no inkling his own course of action is responsible for the misfire. At the same time, Nadine opens in her own revue-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. Aside: in years to come, Ann Miller would explain that while the number appears effortless, in reality she was strapped into an iron-boned corset to keep her, as yet, unhealed, broken back rigidly erect; the number performed under duress and extreme pain. Daylight begins to glimmer for Don. Hannah is not Nadine. Armed with this revelation, Don returns to Hannah anew with a brand new perspective on their teaming. There is no Juanita – only Hannah Brown. Liberated by Don’s change of heart to be herself Hannah excels in their revamped act and the two steadily make a name for themselves along the Great White Way, enough to become contenders for the new season of the Ziegfeld Follies.
But when Don learns the follies are being built around Nadine he decides Hannah and Hewes are too big to play second fiddle. Instead, they will star in their own rival show; a fabulous revue that threatens Nadine’s stardom. Ironically, Hannah begins to see Jonathan socially at precisely the moment Don realizes his affections for her extend beyond their professional relationship. Johnny is mad for Hannah too, presenting himself whimsically as ‘The Fella With An Umbrella’ one very rainy afternoon. Unfortunately, Hannah is still drawn to Don, even though he continues to harbor a romantic yen for Nadine. After their triumphant debut, Don takes Hannah to the Ziegfeld rooftop to see the new revue starring Nadine. She performs ‘The Girl on the Cover of a Magazine’ but then deliberately coaxes Don into a reprise of one of their old dance routines; ‘It Only Happens When I Dance With You’; one of Irving Berlin’s least luxuriating ballads.
Nevertheless, the crowd loves it. But Hannah has been emotionally wounded for the last time. She confronts Don with the understanding she will always be just Hannah Brown to him – a partner in dance, though regrettably, never in life. In an impromptu decision, Hannah quits the act and returns to the small café where her dreams of stardom first began. She is comforted by Mike who has always had strong feelings for her, and is later sought out by Johnny, much to Nadine’s chagrin. In the meantime, Don has had a change of heart. He realizes he truly loves Hannah for herself – as a partner on the stage and beyond the footlights. As the whole of New York prepares for its annual Easter parade, Don receives several knocks at the door. A top hat, flowers and a live bunny arrive by special delivery 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 agrees to escort her on the avenue. Their final moments are spent among the glamorous attendees of the parade; Hannah momentarily forgetting herself in a grand gesture reminiscent of something Nadine would do. The two old hams share a hearty laugh as the camera pans to reveal Fifth Avenue resplendently bedecked in courtly, polished gentlemen and their elegant ladies.
For this penultimate fade to black, barely visible on the screen for a minute or two, Arthur Freed amassed 700 extras on MGM’s New York Street back lot, the upper portions of each building created as a seamless matte painting over which the titles ‘The End’ and ‘Made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood California’ appear. Virtually all MGM pictures shot between 1940 and ‘53 – contained this misnomer, as MGM was not located in Hollywood, but rather in Culver City, California, thus proving a source of constant consternation for both city councils. Yet, 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 affairs, just as Arthur Freed 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 that dramatically flows as Miller’s whirls about the stage. Many of the songs are set against a plain curtain or painted backdrop, or performed as an audition on a sparsely populated 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 his chorine with some intrusive slo-mo effects to take away from Astaire’s otherwise flawless skill. The other big and flashy number is ‘The Girl On The Cover of A Magazine’; in hindsight something of a dry run for Singin’ In The Rain’s ‘Beautiful Girl’.The Girl on the Cover of A Magazine’ is lovingly staged as ‘vintage’ kitsch, featuring mannequin-esque models from the front covers of various popular magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Modern Bride, who magically come to life. These episodic vignettes give way to a full blown dance routine; Ann Miller with a lurid and large feathery fan, flanked by a chorus of tuxedo-clad suitors. The number is stately and charming, yet somehow displaced within Easter Parade’s myriad of more intimate treasures.
It goes without saying, though it ought to be repeated, 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 break our hearts. The veneer between Garland’s camera-self and the real fragile person hiding behind it seems thin; Judy yearning to be liked – even loved – for herself. Garland’s fans have never forgotten this intangible and intimate quality. Indeed, it is perennially conveyed to us in re-screenings of all her movies; though particularly, The Wizard of Oz (1939), Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), A Star is Born (1954) and in this movie. It is the ‘little girl lost’ presence that continues to radiate and resonate with her fans; our longing to fit in, even as Garland remains a peerless talent far and above a class of its own, her inner warmth emanating more than the kilowatt stardust of those exceptional gifts. Easter Parade would be nothing at all without her; a tenderly sad-eyed, comically frustrated, though always put-together chanteuse who knows her way around a lyric, a nuance and the subtleties of a casual gesture.
Fred Astaire is, of course, perfection itself – a dancer with no equal – except, perhaps, Gene Kelly. I have always maintained comparing Astaire to Kelly is a fool’s errand at best. The two are master craftsmen – period. But this is where any and all similarities and comparisons ought to end. Kelly is earthy exuberance – often referred to as the proletariat dancer’s dancer. Astaire’s grace hales from another epoch entirely; one steeped in eloquent sophistication. He moves with a stylish liquidity and, when attempting to break free into more frenetic pacing, seems strangely out of his element; even, perhaps deliberately so, just a tad too clumsy. We could fathom Gene Kelly cavorting with arms outstretched, a big toothy grin gazing up at the rainclouds in Singin’ In the Rain in a way Astaire could never attempt, much less pull off convincingly. Astaire’s milieu is more at home on the soundstage, the artifice of these surroundings an enlargement of the impossible silken perfection he exhibits when his body is in motion.  As Easter Parade exists today, it is extremely difficult, if not altogether impracticable, to imagine how Kelly might have assuaged into Astaire’s Svengali-esque role without appearing ‘the bully’, unless heavily rewritten to suit his less sophisticated strengths as an actor.
The marvel that is Fred Astaire cannot be quantified with any degree of accuracy except by experiencing the man in flight on the screen. Ginger Rogers was arguably Astaire’s greatest partner. But in Judy Garland, Astaire has a cohort more enigmatic as an all-around entertainer. Curiously, when Garland and Astaire dance together, all eyes tend to be her instead of him, consciously studying to see if her footwork will match his, tap for tap. She does, and our admiration for Garland thereafter exponentially grows. It should be pointed out that the choreography in Easter Parade isn’t particularly overtaxing, except for the Garland/Astaire spirited pas deux performed to Irving Berlin’s ‘When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam’. 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 does not allow for too much of that. The leggy and statuesque Miller doesn’t quite fit Astaire’s style anyway. She’s too glossy somehow; a flashy/splashy dab of color that can quickly brighten a solo, but tends to dwarf any male dancer, even one as accomplished as Astaire. A brief retrospective of Miller’s career at MGM reveals her best tap work was never done with a partner; her solos, like Gotta Hear That Beat (from Small Town Girl, 1953) or ‘The Lady from the Bayou’ (from 1955’s Hit the Deck) electrifying and edifying the Technicolor screen. Easter Parade was yet another colossal success for Arthur Freed and MGM – an incomparable example of the studio’s homegrown/in-house craftsmen, all the pistons firing in unison to produce a work of classic movie musical art. Oddly enough, when viewed today Easter Parade seems pretty much par for the course of what MGM could do. Undeniably, it’s a ‘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 is still better than virtually first tier anybody else in the business. And especially from today’s vantage, Easter Parade remains iconic, glossy and effervescent film fodder; a movie-land relic from an era tragically just as bygone as its turn-of-the-last-century milieu.
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 crispness the DVD could merely suggest. 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 in 1080p. On DVD it was uniformly bright and…well…orange. On 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 crisp up too. I’d like to say I was blown away, but really, the similarities between the DVD and Blu-ray were more the norm in my viewing experience than the exception. Let’s just say I was impressed. The DTS  5.1 audio kicks things up another notch with good solid clarity and nice separations. Please note: Warner Home Video has made an ultra-goof on this disc; advertising the American Masters documentary Judy Garland: ‘By Myself’ as a supplement on the back jacket. This disc DOES NOT contain that documentary, one may speculate, because Warner possesses no rights to it outside of the continental United States but wanted to market this disc to fans abroad as well. If you can still find Warner’s old 2-disc DVD of Easter Parade I would highly encourage you to do so, as it remains the only way to obtain this formidable critique of Garland, the legend and the lady, and is well worth the price of admission. Easter Parade on Blu-ray contains virtually all the other extras available on the DVD; a featurette on the making of the film, ‘On The Avenue: The making of Easter Parade, plus an audio commentary from Astaire’s daughter and Garland biographer, John Fricke, also some vintage junkets and a trailer. Bottom line: Happy Easter and highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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