Monday, April 25, 2011

The Easter Parade of 1948

My Easter observance would not be complete without a viewing of the 1948 musical Easter Parade.  It is a wonderful confection, and a superb example of what Hollywood once did best and can now do no longer.

The plot is simple.  Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) is discarded by his dancing partner, the ambitious man-eater Nadine Hale (Ann Miller).  Vowing that he could make a dancer out of anyone, Don recruits barroom hoofer Hannah Brown (Judy Garland).  After many missteps, including a failed attempt to mirror the glamour of Nadine, Don and Hannah establish their own rhythm and meet with great success.  Complicating the various relationships is handsome law student Johnny Harrow (Peter Lawford), who is courting both Hannah and Nadine.

From such simple elements are made great jewels.  The score is by Irving Berlin (1888-1989), one of the trio (along with Cole Porter and George Gershwin) that are the bedrock of what has become known as the Great American Songbook.  The score, with many tunes more than 20 years old when Easter Parade was filmed, includes many familiar gems and several overlooked delights.

Fred Astaire (1899-1987) was lured out of retirement to play Don when the original star, Gene Kelly, broke his ankle playing touch football on his lawn.  This is one of the most fortuitous sport injuries in history, because Astaire is wonderful in the part.  Astaire aged dramatically throughout the 1940s (compare the Astaire of Easter Parade with the boyish dancer of Holiday Inn only six years pervious), and with age came a gravitas that suits the part.  Kelly, a fine actor and dancer in a very different way, would have been brash and somewhat abrasive in the role, while Astaire operates with a sense of creeping disappointment and uncertainty.  It is an elegant performance.

Many of Astaire’s signature dance numbers occur here, including the jaunty “Drum Crazy” and “Steppin’ Out with My Baby.”  The latter is regarded by many to be one of Astaire’s finest moments, but I find the slow motion effects somewhat dehumanizing – it’s the one misstep in the film.

Berlin thought Astaire a wonderful singer, and I concur.  His phrasing is masterful, and his voice has a pleasant lilt.  Add to that his consummate physical style (he glides rather than walks) and natural dandyism, and you have one of the most beguiling artists to grace the movie medium.  When good men die they go to heaven; when better men die, they become Fred Astaire.

Astaire was never noted for his romantic ardor as a performer, but he is ideally matched in Judy Garland.  Though she could not dance as well as any of Astaire’s other screen partners, they play so wonderfully well together that it doesn’t matter.  In fact, there is one instant when Garland generates true sexual heat in Astaire.  It is at the end, when he takes her in his arms as she sings the title number.  It lasts only a few seconds, but one can see everything written on Astaire’s face: the recapturing of young love, the promise of a younger woman, and the possibilities of life starting anew.  I’m sure the 23 year age difference between the stars is responsible in part for the reaction, but it is a naked and delicious moment.

Judy Garland (1922-1969) was a powerhouse.  There is an entire cult of Garland to which I have been largely immune, but she amply displays all of her considerable strengths in Easter Parade.  The secret to the Garland persona, I believe, is a febrile vulnerability mixed with resiliency.  Her singing here is something to behold.  Her delivery of “Better Luck Next Time” displays all of her strengths – powerful and lovely voice, vulnerability, a hint of resignation, and longing.  Despite all the carefree shenanigans of Easter Parade, it’s her plaintive longing in this number that lingers in the memory.

Garland was also a gifted comedienne and dramatic actress.  Astaire’s Hewes would come off a clutching Svengali without an actress able to rise to his talent, and Garland gives as good as she gets.  Whether subverting Astaire’s grander schemes, admonishing his bad behavior or inspiring his love, she fully owns half the film.

Peter Lawford (1923-1984) was never a compelling performer, but he is certainly a charming presence.  Happily, the best moment in his film career occurs in Easter Parade – rebuffed by Garland in favor of Astaire over dinner, he responds with genuine pathos and sympathy.  No other film was able to inspire in him such honesty and depth of feeling, and, perhaps Lawford was capable of better things than his career ultimately delivered.

Ann Miller (1923-2004), usually brazen ingénues or enthusiastic hoofers, is very effective as comic villainess Nadine Hale.  Her solo turn, “Shakin’ the Blues Away,” is one of the real treats of Easter Parade.  Perhaps she is another talent who requires re-evaluation.

Beyond the performances of the main cast, Easter Parade is awash in other delights as well, including Jules Munshin’s turn as the waiter Francois, and the large production number, “The Girl on the Magazine Cover.”

Watching a film like Easter Parade during the harsh realities of 2011 cannot help but inspire wonder.  The film debuted within the confines of living memory, but does it not seem an artifact of a distant and fabulous past?  It would be impossible to craft a film like Easter Parade today – we have become too jaded, or, perhaps, less worthy.   We no longer seek our better selves or strive to create beauty in our popular entertainment; our popular films and music work in concert with us to degrade us further. 

After decades of veneration, the classic era of American film has fallen into something like disfavor with the common audience; even some filmmakers today have taken to sneering at the accomplishment of mid-20th Century movie-making.  They are philistines.

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