I’ve been humming the tunes from Easter Parade all week, but I can barely remember what the film’s about. My head’s filled with Judy Garland’s smile and Fred Astaire’s nimble dancing, but the plot seems to have slid right out of my head upon finishing the movie. Let me be honest. I had to go back and watch key bits of the film again to write the summary to follow, even though I just watched it a couple of days ago.
Easter Parade is set in early 20th century New York city, where Fred Astaire’s Don Hewes has gone through a professional breakup with his longtime dance partner, Nadine Hale, played by Ann Miller. The duo has been highly successful, but Nadine signs a contract on her own, leaving Don bitter and without anyone to dance with. In his anger, Don plucks Hannah Brown, a lowly chorus girl played by Judy Garland, off of the stage, asserting that he can turn her into a star within a year. Over the course of that year, his bitterness against Nadine turns to love for Hannah as their act becomes a big hit.
This utterly forgettable plot is an effective showcase for Garland and Astaire who perform a panoply of delightful musical numbers composed by Irving Berlin of White Christmas fame. Astaire repeatedly shows off his virtuoso dancing skills in numbers like Stepping Out with my Baby and Drum Crazy, in which he bamboozles a stuffed bunny out of the hands of a child by distracting him with fancy footwork. Judy Garland’s natural charisma and phenomenal voice shine in numbers like Fella with an Umbrella, where she’s sharing a stroll in the rain with Don’s best friend Johnny, played by Peter Lawford. She puts in a soulful, quiet performance with It Only Happens When I Dance with You. And the two of them together are stunning when given the right material. The song Easter Parade, for example serves as a heartwarming illustration of the power that these two actors have over the human heart.
And yet, despite having a wonderful leading couple and several standout musical numbers, Easter Parade, at times feels like something less than a film. While a number like Stepping Out with my Baby is outstanding, it appears almost completely out of context with the film. Similarly, The Girl on the Magazine Cover features a catchy tune and some clever set design but lacks any connection to the story at large. In the middle of the film, there is an extended humorous scene of a waiter excitedly miming the preparation of a salad. It’s a fun bit of comedic acting, but again, adds nothing to the movie as a whole. Easter Parade has the production value and star power of a film, but doesn’t actually feel like one. In the end, I was left feeling as though I was watching a variety show strung together with a plot rather than a coherent package. With the best musicals, the dramatic action and musical numbers complement each other to produce a whole that’s more than just the sum of its parts. In the case of Easter Parade, each of the pieces was highly entertaining, but the whole was exactly the sum of its parts, nothing more.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with a variety show starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. I frequently found myself tapping my feet and grinning during the movie. Days later, I can’t get the phrase ‘fella with an umbrella’ out of my head. Going back and re-watching some of Astaire and Garland’s numbers together warms the cockles of my heart. If you aren’t a fan of show tunes, though, Easter Parade doesn’t have much to offer you. If spending an evening with the dulcet tones of Judy Garland’s singing and the exuberance of Fred Astaire’s dancing sounds like a blast, then Easter Parade won’t disappoint.