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Movie Musical Monday, April 9th: “Easter Parade”

April 9, 2012

Good morning, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

Today’s film extends the Easter holiday weekend by one more day.  I know Passover began last Friday, too, but we’re discussing a  musical from 1948: at this point in American history, the only holidays were Christian ones and they were celebrated with movies featuring songs by Jewish composers.  In accordance with this formula, we have yet another Freed Unit Feature, Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade.

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The film paired Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in the only movie musical they would star in opposite each other, but this happened completely by accident.  Let me explain:

WHAT IS THIS MUSICAL ABOUT?

This musical is all about settling, both professionally and romantically.  Even the circumstances under which this movie was made speak to this central theme.  The feature was originally pitched by Berlin to 20th Century Fox, but they wouldn’t give him enough money.  So it got picked up by Arthur Freed over at MGM.  Gene Kelly was initially slated for the male lead, but broke his ankle (playing some sport, very manfully I’m sure), so after only a year of retirement, Fred Astaire was coaxed back into movies with this role.  Cyd Charisse was originally meant to fill the dancer part in the film, but she pulled a tendon, and was replaced by Ann Miller.  And finally, director Charles Walters was a replacement for Vincent Minnelli, after psychiatrists advised the studio that the all-too-fragile Judy Garland (released from a sanatorium just before filming began) would not be able to cope with the pressure of being directed by her then-husband.  Somehow, despite all this flux, the movie got made, resulting in the highest grossing film of either Garland or Astaire’s careers.

WHAT IS THIS MUSICAL NOT ABOUT:

Easter.

BUT BACK TO THE SYNOPSIS:

It’s 1912, and ballroom dancer Don Hewes (Astaire) is out the day before Easter buying a lot of stuff for a lady.  How exciting it must have been for movie-goers in 1948 to see their beloved Fred Astaire back in action, and to be treated to an opening sequence like this:

OH MY GOD GUYS THAT WAS SO GOOD!  You have to give it up to Astaire–he could use props in dance probably better than anyone on film, and his amazing sense of rhythm shines through in this number.  Don’t let your experience of current cinema have you disbelieving that he is actually dancing.  There are no CGI effects at work here.  Just talent.

However, the dance sequence to “Drum Crazy” tells us something very vital about this character: this man would steal a from a child.  Oh yes, it seems very clever in the moment, and no doubt we all smiled when he tipped his hat that last time.  But it does suggest a certain lack of morality and/or a means-to-an-end mentality in this character, who has no qualms in depriving a child of a pink stuffed bunny.  Does a man like that deserve our (or anyone else’s) love?  I have my reservations.

Anyway, Don shows up at an apartment belonging to his dancing partner Nadine (Miller), with all his purchases in tow.  For some reason Ann Miller’s costume designer thought they could hide her very-round-cheeks by attempting to camouflage them with blush the same color as her dress.  This does not deter Don (for some reason), and he gives her all those presents, including the ill-gotten lagomorpha and that hat he picked out specially.  He notices that her steamer trunks are sitting in the room and asks about this–they’re meant to be leaving New York tomorrow after they walk in the (title tie-in) Easter parade.  They’re going on tour ballroom dancing.  But Nadine breaks it to Don: she’s been offered a show here in town and wants to stay.  Don tries to shirk this off, and then confesses that things with Nadine have been different from with other girls he’s danced with in the past.

(NOTE: You may have noticed–as I did–that Ann Miller was wearing slipper-like shoes in this sequence.  She wears flats when dancing with Astaire in this movie, and heels for the rest of her numbers.  This is probably because she and Astaire were too close in height, and if she had worn heels she would have been taller than him, and that’s a big “NO.”  Judy Garland, however, was only 5′, so dancing in heels with Astaire was not an issue, and more a requirement.)

Ending their dance with a deep kiss, Don and Nadine are interrupted by their mutual friend Jonathan Harrow the III, played by Peter Lawford.

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Poor Peter Lawford: the most unpopular member of the Rat Pack, who (as usual), plays the guy who’s good-looking, charming, reliable, and therefore ultimately ends up relegated to the “friend zone.”  All things considered, though, you could do a lot worse than Peter Lawford.  And he was British.  Come on.

Anyway, he shows up and is all, “Ooooooo, you guys were totally making out,” and then gives Nadine a present himself: a new puppy.  (Ann Miller has a lot of dogs in this movie, no joke.  She even had one when Fred Astaire entered the scene initially.  And as an upper class, vain lady, her first reaction to the pug is to comment on what she’ll wear with it.  Clearly this character helped make way for Paris Hilton.) Jonathan reminds them that he’s taking them to dinner before they leave town, and Nadine says, “I’m not leaving.”

WHOA!  Did that kiss NOT just happen?  Did that dance number NOT just happen?  She looked so into it while it was going on, with her come-hither stare and her very nimble limbs.  But we have to face facts: Nadine was just leading Don on–through dance.  The woman is cold, despite arguments to the contrary.

Don storms out, leaving Nadine alone with Jonathan, who then asks why she won’t go.  She says, “Don’t you know?”  Apparently, Nadine has designs on Jonathan.  Whoops.  Jonathan’s sense of brotherhood towards Don, which makes this pass a turn off, and he runs off after his friend leaving the harlot behind.  Jonathan isn’t into the strong come-on from a girl, especially one who paints an inch thick.  He is British, after all.

Don ends up at a local bar, trying to drown the memory of Nadine in a tumbler FULL of alcohol.  According to the philosophizing bartender Mike, it takes a lot of bourbon to forget a brunette–they’re the ones you’ve got to watch out for.  Jonathan shows up and consoles his friend with a half-hearted “Bitches, man.”  Don is all, “Whatever, dude, I’m done with her, I’m over it,” and makes the PLOT POINT statement that he could take any girl out of the chorus and replace Nadine with her.  AS IF BY FATE, a chorus of girls shows up in the background of the frame as he’s saying this.

Jonathan leaves, possibly to go get dinner with Nadine–I know, I know, but come on: I mean, he’s *in* there–but it is unclear.  Then Don picks out some small light-haired brunette (Judy Garland), sees that’s she’s wearing heels and is therefore tall enough to be his partner, and offers her $150 a week to dance with him.  He gives her his card, and she says “thank you very much,” and he goes.  She immediately rips up his card, scoffing to Mike that the man wanted her to give up a good $15 a week job.  Suddenly she realizes who he was, has a minor freak out, picks up the pieces of his card, and composes herself just in time to get out and sing one of Irving Berlin’s many songs about a state.

The next day, Judy Garland shows up a minute late to rehearsal, just as Fred Astaire is walking out, having had second thoughts about the whole thing and still missing Nadine.  She apologizes for her tardiness, and explains how she quit her job to do this.  So now Don is all like, “Oh shit, she quit her job,” and he’s going to have to keep.  He asks her name.  It’s Hannah Brown.  He says they’ll fix that, and then yells all these dance moves in her face.  But it seems Miss Brown doesn’t actually know the difference between her left and right foot.  Literally.  The only reason she could get through in the dance numbers at the bar is because she wore a garter on her left leg in the show, and that’s how she could tell them apart.  But she doesn’t have a garter today.  Don gives her a rubber band to put around her leg to rehearse with.  They finish rehearsing the number, the final moment almost leading to a kiss.  Hannah gets hot under the collar, but Don calls for lunch and breaks the mood he didn’t even notice.  They end up on the Avenue during the (title tie-in) Easter parade, and who do they pass by but Nadine, with a couple of dogs and wearing the hat Don gave her the day before, like a huntress displaying her latest kill. (The woman is a tarted-up mantis.) Hannah praises Nadine and says that she must be famous because everyone is trying to take her picture.  In a state of jealousy and rejection, Don tells Hannah that at next year’s Easter parade (title tie-in & FORESHADOWING) people will ignore Nadine on the street and be clamoring to take pictures of her.  “They will?”  Don says yes, mostly to buck himself up, and they go shopping.

After buying a lot of clothes that would look better on someone taller with a less impressive belt, Don tells Hannah she’s being renamed Juanita, because girl dancers are supposed to be “exotic.” ::INSERT STRIPPER JOKE HERE::  They have their first performance, but it’s a bit of a mess, and they only get one bow.  Don has roses sent up to the stage for Hannah.  She, like any woman would, thinks they must mean something.  But Don only sent them because it’s good for business to make Hannah seem sought after.  It’s all about PR, it’s all about appearances.  It’s clear this extra effort on Don’s part in terms of marketing is meant to compensate for his feeling that he’s had to settle for someone beneath his talent because the woman he’d prefer to dance with and also loves is wearing his hat while walking other men’s dogs (pun intended, if you get my meaning).

At a swank restaurant sometime later, Nadine shows up thinking she’s to meeting Jonathan for lunch.  There’s a third place setting, and she assumes she’s going to meet Jonathan’s father.  In fact, Jonathan had invited both her and Don to lunch separately, intending to leave them alone so they can make up.  While he’s politely trying to tell her “I DON’T WANT TO DATE YOU, YOU SOCIAL CLIMBING, OVER-ROUGED TAP DANCER,” Don shows up, and Jonathan makes a hasty exit.  After some preliminary small talk, Don is about to be all like, “Come back, baby,” but then Nadine decides to twist the knife and throws in his face that her show’s rehearsals are starting soon: ha ha ha.  Don says something mean, and Nadine says she wasn’t satisfied spending her life being a common hoofer.  It comes out that Don took her out of the chorus, too–and who knows what chorine Nadine may have replaced.  She also tells him to stop having his new partner imitate her, with her hair and clothes (but not blush). All of her friends are laughing.  Don is struck by inspiration and runs off, leaving Ann Miller thoroughly embarrassed at being left in the restaurant by not one, but Two men.

Across town, Hannah is finishing her own lunch for $.15 at a drug store.  She goes outside to head to rehearsal, but it’s raining.  Suddenly from frame right, Jonathan runs on to take shelter from the downpour in the door frame of the drugstore.  He ends up bumping into Hannah, and from the moment he looks at her brown eyes and her clean cheek bones, we know he’s smitten.   Suddenly he’s flirting like a professional, and in a matter of moments finds out that she’s A) unmarried, B) from the country, and C) loves to walk in the rain.  She keeps complaining about being late, and finally Lawford pulls the most chivalrous act of buying an umbrella off a fruit stand to walk her the two blocks to her appointment, while doing his best audition for Freddy in My Fair Lady:

But alas, before he can get his card out, Judy Garland disappears into his friend Don’s apartment.  Which he has visited before, but doesn’t recognize in the haze of love and rain, I guess.  Wha-wha.

When Hannah gets inside, Don complains that she’s half-an-hour late.  Even though it’s normal to be half-an-hour late to everything on days when it rains in New York City, she was only two blocks away, and also managed to get in a two-minute duet on her way there.  So yeah–she kind of doesn’t have an excuse.  But never mind that, Don says, he’s realized what’s wrong with the act: “You’ve been trying to be somebody else.”  Oh yes: because it was Judy Garland’s idea to remake over her whole image from wholesome song-and-dance-girl-possibly-from-Michigan into *Juanita.*  Right.  I remember when that happened–never.  She points out his flawed logic, and he changes the subject and asks her if she knows a song he has handy.  Well of course she does, and Don finally discovers the real purpose of having Judy Garland in a film: that she is meant to dance AND sing, not just dance.  That would be pointless and poor casting.  The act is revamped, and the pair become more and more popular, as evidenced in this medley:

They become so popular that they eventually get an audition for God Himself, aka Florenz Ziegfeld:

They are obviously getting this job, but then who comes sauntering down the aisle by Nadine, carrying yet another dog and wearing a couple of other animals.  Don’s face falls at seeing her, and Hannah notices.  And what do you know: the show they were auditioning for has Nadine as the headliner.  Nadine rather pointedly drops to Hannah that “Don’s told me all about you,” then slinks off to run her own number.  It dawns on Hannah that not only was Nadine the woman they saw at the (title tie-in) Easter parade, but also Don’s former dancing partner.  She questions Don directly, “Were you in love with her?” and then runs off as Don begins to stammer out an answer.

From her reaction, it’s clear that Hannah is in love with Don.  Here’s the problem with that: not once up to this point, aside from that almost-kiss in the rehearsal hall, has the audience ever been privy to an awakening of love on the part of Hannah for Don.  So it’s just like, “What?  When did this happen?”  Of course, the logic of the stage and the stage-on-screen tells us that all double acts end up falling in love with each other.  But she’s never even sung a song about it by herself to an invisible orchestra.  It just doesn’t make sense.  She must have thought that when he told her “I want you to be yourself in the act,” that he was actually saying, “I want you to be yourself because I love you and who you really are.”  A common misinterpretation amongst women in similar situations, so it’s forgivable.  But it’s still wrong and not well justified, dramaturgically speaking.

Don heads up to meet Ziegfeld, and Hannah runs out to the street to get a cab and head home to cry in her bathroom, when what do you know, who pulls up but Jonathan in a large raccoon coat.  Hannah’s all smiles, and Jonathan realizes that she is *THE* Hannah Brown, his friend-who’s-like-a-brother-to-him Don’s new partner.  He asks her to dinner and Hannah, emotionally rebounding and desperate for male attention, says yes.

Later, Hannah is getting ready for the date when Don arrives at her hotel room.  He’s turned down Ziegfeld, telling Hannah they want a marquee all their own, and makes the excuse that Nadine doesn’t deserve to be in the same show as Hannah.  All of a sudden they are really close, and Don looks like he might take the opportunity for comfort that’s right in front of him, when suddenly Jonathan bursts in with his usual sense of timing.  Don is surprised and happy to see him, and even invites Jonathan to join him and Hannah for dinner, suggesting Jonathan get a date.  Jonathan and Hannah look at each other and are both like, “AWK-WARD,” and explain that they have a date.  Don is taken aback, but recovers well.  He leaves, seeming a little dejected at losing his partner and bestie to each other, and possibly for not getting the easy pity fuck he had been hoping for.  Oh well.

Jonathan, having no sense of originality, takes Hannah to the restaurant that he had tried to get Nadine and Don back together at.  This offers the viewers another opportunity to see Jules Munshin in his film debut as the bit-but-memorable part of a waiter named Francois.

(I would totally order that salad.  Where are all of the waiters like this?)

Before they even have drinks brought to them, Judy Garland is talkingtalkingtalking about Don, and using this dinner as an opportunity to pump Jonathan for information about him.  Once Jonathan shuts down the Don-convo, he jumps forward five months in natural relationship progression and goes ahead and tells Hannah he’s in love with her.  Judy Garland looks at him with a face that makes you think there may be a chance.  But then no.  She puts Jonathan down as gently as possible saying, “I’d be such a fool if I didn’t [love you],” but admits, “I’m in love with Don.”  Oof.  This is probably the worst first date in the history of the movie musical. (To watch the date, go here, to 6:05.) She tells Jonathan that love isn’t anything like she expected it: Don totally neglects her, and yet she loves him.  “How is that possible?!” (It’s actually pretty common.) Then she seals this monologue with the most ridiculous line I’ve heard in a long while:

“When they were passing out the wishes…I wished for him.”

^—That is not a paraphrased piece of commentary on the part of the author.  That is actually what she says.  My hand to God.

(Where are these wishes being passed out?  Where do I have to queue up?  Seriously, someone tell me.)

Broken hearted, but somehow closer because of their mutual suffering and understanding, Hannah and Jonathan leave the restaurant.  In the meanwhile, Fred Astaire has gone to see the Follies, because he’s a bit of a masochist when it comes to Nadine and her dancing:

Can you imagine the inner thigh strength you need to build up to tap like that?  I’m sure LB Mayer was drooling all over the place–Ann Miller was his girlfriend for a while.

Fred Astaire skulks out before he can be seen, looking super depressed.  Yes: apparently not being with him hasn’t affected Nadine in the least.  In fact she seems even better.  It’s a shitty situation: there’s nothing worse than seeing that your ex has totally moved on from you, and is excelling in your own chosen life path.  Poor Don!  It’s going to be okay.  Give it a few years and you’ll be in love again, with one of Winston Churchill’s daughters, and do a dance number that’s so awesome everyone will forget that Ann Miller ever existed.  Promise.

A few weeks after the Ziegfeld mishap, Hannah calls up Jonathan.  They have a dinner date (because I guess neither of them have anything better to do than date-not-date each other), but she’s not calling about that.  What she wants to know is if he’s heard from Don.  He’s like, “No would you just shut up about him already we have a non-date-dinner-date.”  But she goes on and on, because he hasn’t been home since yesterday, and the Follies reviews were so good, she’s worried about him.  There’s a knock at the door and Hannah puts the phone down to answer it.  It’s Don.  He comes in calling Hannah “baby” because Charles Dillingham (another famous theatrical producer from this period) wants to build a show around them.  They make a date to have dinner and celebrate, and Don leaves.  Hannah suddenly remembers she’s left Jonathan on the phone, and he’s heard everything.  Before she can say anything about dinner, he says he has to break their date (so he doesn’t have to be dumped himself) and congratulates her.  After he hangs up, he immediately calls Nadine and tells her that he “can make dinner after all.”  So Jonathan, now having been rejected by someone he loves, can finally settle himself–for Nadine.

Hannah shows up at Don’s apartment ready to go out to dinner, but he’s planned for an evening in, with lit candles and a smoking jacket.  It’s somewhat romantic, until he casually brings up the act, and Hannah flips out, upset that yet again what she thought might be a date is really just a business meal.  She tells Don, “when I’m around you I don’t even feel like a girl,” but then he kisses her and that shuts her up.  She wanders over to the piano, a little dizzy, and Don finally tells her that even though the whole thing started with him just wanting to teach some other girl how to dance, but now it’s all different.  This speech sounds vaguely familiar, but never mind, because more borrowed sentiment is on its way.  Hannah busts out Don and Nadine’s old song at the piano (feat. orchestra), in an admission of love that also capitalizes on Don’s emotional attachment to the song.  She’s totally using this to her advantage.

Immediately after she finishes the song, Don holds her and says, “Why didn’t you tell me I was in love with you?”  If you’ve seen For Me and My Gal, you know that that’s exactly what Gene Kelly said to her after a similar revelation. (Which is one of the few things that would have been extra awesome if Kelly had played this part.)

So now they’re together, they have their show, and all is right with the world.  At their opening, Fred Astaire does this very impressive extended dance sequence.  The intricacy of the number almost makes you forget that the company is wearing a very light tanning of black face. (Almost.)

Nadine sent her maid to see the show and to report back at intermission.  She calls and tells Nadine that it’s terrible–but that she should probably stay for another number…you know…just ’cause.  Just to make sure.

By the end of the show, Hannah and Don are a hit.  Hannah wants to celebrate by going back to the bar where they first met, but it turns out Don thought the best thing for them to do would be to celebrate by going up to the roof* to watch his ex in the new Follies show.  He even thought ahead and made reservations for them.  Because that’s romantic.  Right?  Seeing your boyfriend’s ex in a show?  Totally hot?  Right?

Huh.

They end up in front seats, so Judy Garland can see just how much taller Ann Miller is compared to her.  Well that’s just awesome.  Then to add insult to injury, Nadine pulls a dick move after the Ziegfeld production number:

She needs to show everyone she’s still got his balls in a vice.  And she does.  She’s such a Jolene. (PS: Did you see how Ann Miller’s shoes suddenly lost their heels when she re-entered through the curtain?)

Hannah goes home to the bar she got her start in.  It’s closing time, so she pours her heart out to Mike in song.  Despite his offer of helpful philosophy about love lost, she’s going through that post-heartbreak stage where she knows she’ll never love again, and won’t hear it:

So yes, now apparently Don loves Hannah.  This might be true, but again is less believable, because like I discussed earlier with Hannah, Don never has a moment of revelation on his own where he maybe dances out his discovery of love for Hannah, or sings a song about it.  So even now, with his earnest delivery telling Hannah she’s the most wonderful girl in the whole world, we still don’t know if we can totally believe a man who steals toys from children.

The next morning, Jonathan drops by Hannah’s room out of the blue.  He tells her that he stayed at Don’s place last night, and that’s he’s trying to figure out where to find a new dancing partner.  Hannah is furious–how dare he replace her so soon!  Didn’t any of it mean anything to him?  And clearly he loves HER, so just what is going on?  Jonathan says he thinks that when someone loves someone, they ought to show it.  Then Hannah has an epiphany, Jonathan tells her to put on “[Don’s] favorite dress,” and some fucking make-up, then calls his old-standard Nadine to get the hounds, they’re going for a walk, nudge nudge, wink wink.

Don is spending his Sunday morning in when all of these presents arrive at the door for him: flowers, a cake, a new hat and a bunny.  He’s confused, until Hannah shows up, and it’s clear she’s sent everything and is trying to ignore the fact that they totally broke up last night by showering Don with distracting gifts and an uncaring attitude.  She even sings to him, and they dance off to the (title tie-in) Easter parade, bringing our story full circle.

Okay, wait–and now they’re engaged?  Well sure, why not?  We all know the best thing a couple can do after they almost break up for good over confusion as to who is still possibly in love with their ex is to get married.  That will solve all of their problems.  Obviously.  And he just HAPPENS to have a ring on him.  How convenient.

Hopefully Jonathan will still be hanging around for Hannah and won’t be totally bogged down with Nadine when this marriage ultimately fails.  Stranger (and truer) things have happened.  In the meanwhile we can bask in the beauty of watching the sequences between Fred Astaire and Judy Garland over and over again, because they just radiate mutual admiration and love of their work–you can see it.  And it’s beautiful, however nonsensical the plot.

HIDDEN GEM SONGS:

That Irving Berlin sure could write a song.  Here are a few that are pretty great, and should be brought into the room for anyWhiteChristmasaudition, or most musicals written before 1954.

  1. It Only Happens When I Dance With You: This song is just such a beautiful ballad, and could be sung by a man or woman.
  2. Shakin’ the Blues Away: GREAT uptempo number, and again appropriate for a man or a woman.
  3. Steppin’ Out With My Baby: Great smokey jazz number.  Traditionally a man’s song, but the lyrics would work for woman as well.  And please: no black face.
  4. Better Luck Next Time: I had no idea this song existed till I saw this movie, and I really like it.  It is just the teensiest repetitive, but there are a lot of good cut options in this.  Could work for either a man or a woman.
  5. Mr. Monotony: Berlin wrote this song for the movie, but it was cut.  But it’s a good story song.  Here is some outtake footage of Judy Garland filming the number–it’s pretty fun to watch.  Could be sung by either a man or a woman.  Irving Berlin did not discriminate due to sex!  Hooray!

Have a wonderful holiday-like-mindset today, regardless of your religion, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

*New York theaters didn’t have great ventilation in the 1910s, so in the summer the Follies used to play in rooftop gardens.  FACT.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. The College Theatre Dork permalink
    April 11, 2012 9:51 am

    Oh, Easter Parade! I had “I was born in Michigan” stuck in my head all last week, courtsey of a Michigan friend. She was very happy when I showed her that clip 🙂

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