“Fred put me completely at ease. He’s a gentleman – and lots of fun to work with.”
( Judy Garland on Fred Astaire )
The year was 1948. Judy Garland and Gene Kelly were about to embark on their next big musical extravaganza, and were heading to critical acclaim when suddenly a disastrous mishap threatened to put a halt to their plans.
Judy Garland and Gene Kelly were left in a quandary that seemed impossible to escape, but when confusion was beginning to fuel more difficulties, a movie musical miracle was born, and a legendary screen pairing was on the horizon.
The movie in question is Easter Parade, and the stars that made it are Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, two of cinemas most influential musical stars who almost never appeared in a single film together.
Fred Astaire and Judy Garland were destined to make movie history together, but it’s only through sheer luck that this epiphany occurred. Initially Easter Parade was intended as a starring vehicle for Gene Kelly and his frequent dancing partner, Judy Garland, but Kelly was forced to abandon the project when he broke his ankle during a game of volleyball. At first Kelly’s injury created havoc for Garland and the production team, who envisioned the film not coming to fruition. However, Gene Kelly had an inkling that magic could still be made if Garland united with America’s most popular dancer, Fred Astaire.
Gene Kelly certainly possessed a great thought, but there was one problem: Fred Astaire was in retirement from motion pictures, and he would have to be coaxed into replacing Kelly. Luckily, this task was not as arduous as anticipated. L. K. Sidney, the vice president from MGM had phoned Astaire, and asked him if he was willing to return to the studio. As it turned out, Fred Astaire was full of ambition and still had plenty of scope for ideas.
The thought of starring alongside Judy Garland also lured him back to the studio. Fred had admired Garland from afar and secretly wanted to work with her. Now that the chance had arose, Fred was eager to break out of his retirement and make a comeback.
The only concern about having to return to the studio so soon was the important job that was awaiting him and the little time he had to rehearse. After a two year hiatus from motion pictures, Fred Astaire was clinging to the hope that he was still able to dance and was capable of handling the strenuous workout that was involved. Apart from teaching ballroom at his dance studios, Astaire hadn’t put his dancing artistry to good use during his two year absence. For one of the first times in his life, he now proposed a few questions: Would he still possess the ability to dance?. What if his muscles and joints have stiffened? Those types of scenarios kept creeping up in his mind. Fortunately, his optimism took higher precedence over his negativity and the perils of failure was not in his reach.
Once Astaire realized he still retained the power to dance, he sprung back into action. Fred spent most of his days rehearsing, and when he wasn’t practicing he was collaborating with choreographer, Robert Alton on his dance sequences and discussing different ideas. In order to replace Gene Kelly, the script underwent a myriad of amendments, and the part of Don Hewes had to be rewritten to suit the styles of Fred Astaire.
“L.K. Sidney got me on the phone and asked me if I’d care to come home again. With Irving Berlin’s score and the wonderful Judy Garland to play opposite, I was lucky. The part could be made to suit me. I called Gene to find out for sure whether or not he wanted to relinquish his role, he assured me that he could not possibly continue. My retirement was over. Of course, Judy was the star of the picture. And its a joy to work with somebody like Judy, because she’s a super talent, with a great sense of humor. She could do anything. She wasn’t primarily a dancer, but she could do what you asked her to do. And she had a great charm, and she was a very big star. She was in good form – we had a very good time. Our numbers together remain as high spots of enjoyment in my career. Her uncanny knowledge of showmanship impressed me more than ever as I worked with her.”
( Fred Astaire on Judy Garland )
Easter Parade may have had a troubled production, but the delays that originally ensued were not evident during filming. Once the shooting process commenced everything ran smoothly. Judy Garland appeared to be in better health, and all cast members built a great rapport with each other. This made it incredibly beneficial to the film, and with the continuous pattern of advantages, Easter Parade was completed in three months.
The result of Fred Astaire vacating his retirement to collide with Judy Garland in Easter Parade proved to be among the best decisions he made in his life. The film was an immediate hit, and was touted as the greatest musical of the year. Although Astaire and Garland never attained any Academy Awards for their performance, Roger Edens and Johnny Green took home the statuette for “Best Musical Score.”
Fred Astaire and Judy Garland are not the only masterminds behind the films triumph. Directer Charles Walters contributed a lot to the project. At the time of directing Easter Parade, Walters’ experience was not as comprehensive, but he still had vast knowledge on movie musicals to successfully helm the production. Before his work on Easter Parade, Charles Walters only had one feature film to his credit, though he was partly involved with Ziegfeld Follies and Spreadin’ the Jam, which were both released in 1945. Joining Charles Walters in acclamation were Sidney Sheldon, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett who provided a screenplay that was rich in flavor and lively in character development.
Set in 1912 in New York, Easter Parade follows the story of Don Hewes ( Fred Astaire ), a successful Broadway dancer who is forced to find a new dance partner after his current partner, Nadine Hale ( Ann Miller ) announces that she’s accepted an offer to appear in a Ziegfeld production and will be abandoning Don to join the show. Don is incensed with anger over Nadine disrupting his plans, but he is convinced that he can find another girl and transform her into a competent dancer.
Don’s new dance partner comes in the form of Hannah Brown ( Judy Garland ), a cheap diner performer whose knowledge on dance is sparse compared to Don’s, but with prolific training, Hannah and Don become highly acclaimed stage sensations.
Easter Parade was first conceived in late 1946, when Irving Berlin conjured up the idea of making a movie around his song Easter Parade. Around the same time, Berlin discussed his plans with Twentieth Century Fox, who reportedly refused to deal with his requests. This spawned a series of altercations until Arthur Freed stepped in and offered his services.
Originally, Easter Parade was designed as a starring vehicle for Judy Garland and Gene Kelly with Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson and Red Skelton playing supporting roles. Vincente Minnelli who was Garland’s husband at the time was set to direct, but when developments for the production commenced, the idea of casting Sinatra, Grayson and Skelton were scrapped. Instead, Peter Lawford and Cyd Charisse were chosen as the films sidekicks.
That was the initial plan, but Easter Parade was plagued with adversities from the onset. The first unfortunate predicament came when Gelly Kelly broke his ankle, but when Cyd Charisse withdrew from the project after tearing a ligament in her knee, the production company were really under strain. With Charisse’ departure, the search for an actress to play Nadine Hall continued. The investigation was over when Ann Miller was rescued from B movies to fulfill the role that would ultimately pave the way for her future success in motion pictures.
“I was pleased to be responsible for getting Fred back to work, but every time I see him and Judy singing A Couple of Swells, I do get a twinge of regret.”
( Gene Kelly )
Around the same time, Arthur Freed removed Vincente Minnelli from the directors chair. The exact motive behind Freed’s decision is unknown, but certain historical sources state that the action was undertaken when Judy’s psychiatrist suggested it due to her marriage with Vincent being under strain. Whatever the reason, Minnelli’s removal from the project was conducted abruptly and in a rather abrasive manner.
Despite these obstacles that could have sabotaged the project, Easter Parade managed to hit all the high notes on its release. The film is composed of masterful musical scores by Irving Berlin whose showcase of songs are festive, joyous and extremely stimulating. A large majority of the music present in the film are a trademark of the singing careers of both Fred Astaire and Judy Garland and are considered to be among their most recognizable songs.
Although Easter Parade is a showcase of memorable musical scores, the famous We’re A Couple Of Swells number still continues to evoke considerable popularity, and is perhaps the best remembered today. The song was performed by both Garland and Astaire and written by Irving Berlin, who was forced to undergo drastic changes to help further the films success. Initially, Berlin wrote Let’s Take An Old-Fashioned Walk for that particular scene, but producer Arthur Freed was more interested in tapping into Judy’s comedic ability and suggested that he replace it with another song that would pay more emphasis on Garland’s talent.
As much as I adore Judy Garland and her remarkable on-screen chemistry with Fred Astaire, I think my favorite scene from the movie though, is where Astaire visits the toy shop and performs his famous tap dance number Drum Crazy. This segment alone gives viewers a glimpse into the window of Astaire’s genius. At the time of filming, Fred was forty-eight, but he exuded so much flexibility and vitality for somebody he’s age. What I also like about this scene is how certain aspects are tangible. In real life, Astaire was a voracious drummer, a passion that he proudly essays during this routine. For those who haven’t seen the movie, you can watch Fred performing the Drum Crazy number here.
Easter Parade marked the first and final time Fred Astaire would work with Judy Garland. The two were set to appear in The Barkley’s of Broadway together the following year, but Garland’s illness thwarted the production plans. In his autobiography, Steps In Time, Astaire stated that the studio decided to wait in the hopes that she might make a rapid recovery. However, the chances of Judy returning to work were impossible. Fred said that Garland’s departure was a great disappointment, though when he discovered that his new co-star would be Ginger Rogers, he was relieved.
Decades after the films release, Fred Astaire often reminisced about his time on the set of Easter Parade, and would later state in his autobiography that making the movie with Judy was one of the “high spots of enjoyment in his career”. Although, Fred was well aware of the crisis’ that constantly surrounded Judy on the home-front, he was one actor that never looked at her through the lens of negativity. Instead, he lauded her for her knowledge on showmanship and her professional work ethic.
One of the films greatest assets is the famed partnership of two legends who both epitomized brilliance. Some reviewers have criticized the film because of the massive age-gap between Astaire and Garland, but these people are clearly not comprehending the gist of the story. Of course, Fred was many years her senior, and it could have been more beneficial if a younger actor was cast, but honestly I can’t envision anyone but Fred Astaire playing the role of Don Hewes. Astaire was an actor who infused his own special kind of magic into each performance he delivered.
What I think was also beneficial to the film was how Astaire and Garland forged a close friendship behind the cameras. That connection only enhanced their on-screen partnership and made their chemistry more magnetic and authentic. It would have been difficult for both stars if they weren’t so affable on set. It could have even hindered the picture or make the scenes together stretch credulity.
Even though Astaire and Garland are the main attractions, the film also boasts a stellar supporting cast. After years of being relegated to B-grade movies, Ann Miller was finally given the opportunity to sport her talents and tap-dancing skills in a high budget musical. The recognition she received cemented her future success an an actress. Enveloped between the three main characters is Peter Lawford, who plays Don’s best friend and sidekick, Johnny Harrow. At the time of filming, Lawford was one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood, but as the years progressed, his status has somewhat diminished.
“Judy and Fred got along just great, because she’s a great pro and a fantastic entertainer, and he was too. And I think that when you put pros together, its always a happy union, because they like to work and work hard. And they did.”
( Ann Miller )
For many people, Easter Parade is remembered as the last big budget musical Judy made for MGM, but for others, the film is remembered for its eye-popping Technicolor, exquisite costumes, vibrant musical scores, and the two leading stars who spawned magic whenever they appeared on screen.
The film deleted a musical number, “Mr. Monotony,” in which Judy Garland wears the same costume she would immortalize two years later in Summer Stock (1950) in the number “Get Happy”; the costume was a man’s tuxedo coat and hat. For years, there were rumors that “Get Happy” was cut from another film and inserted into Summer Stock(1950). It is believed that this song being removed from “Easter Parade” is the origin of that rumor. An abbreviated version of the “Mr. Monotony” number was included in That’s Entertainment! III (1994), and the complete number is included as an extra on the Warner Home Video Easter Parade (1948) DVD.
The dye from the feather on Judy Garland‘s hat in “Fella with an Umbrella” song ran all over her face and jacket, so they coated it with Vaseline. The feather looks different in two different shots.
Ann Miller danced with pinched nerves in her back. She was also taller than Fred Astaire, so she offered to wear ballet slippers instead of heels when she danced with him. This can be seen towards the end of the movie. When she finishes the number “The Girl I Love” she goes behind the curtain wearing red high heels; when she comes back out in front of the audience to entice Astaire to dance with her to their old song “It Only Happens When I Dance With You”, she’s wearing red flats.
Jules Munshin’s seemingly superfluous routine, as the waiter who pantomimes the elongated making of a gourmet salad, had a purpose beyond this film. It was one of several instances wherein MGM enacted a screen test through a feature film in order to determine public response to the performer, and how he or she registered on film. Other memorable examples are Charlotte Arren’s madcap rendition of “Il Baccio” in Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), the Ross Sisters’ jaw-dropping contortionist routine to “Solid Potato Salad” in Broadway Rhythm (1944), and five-year-old Margaret O’Brien’s push-the-button histrionics during an audition sequence in Babes on Broadway (1941). In most cases, these screen tests-cum-screen debuts were ill-fated, but both O’Brien and Munshin scored studio contracts based on enthusiastic audience response to their brief snippets of screen time.
Ann Miller had to perform her biggest numbers in a back brace. In an interview with Robert Osborne, she revealed that she had been thrown down the stairs by her then husband Reese Milner. She was also pregnant at the time and was in a lot of pain.
Judy Garland: Born, Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10th, 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Died: June 22nd, 1969 in Chelsea, London. Aged: 47.
Fred Astaire: Born, Frederick Austerlitz on May 10th, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. Died: June 22nd, 1987 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 88.
Ann Miller: Born, Johnnie Lucille Collier on April 12th, 1923 in Houston, Texas. Died: January 22nd, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 80.
Peter Lawford: Born, Peter Sydney Ernest Aylen on September 7th, 1923 in London, England. Died: December 24th, 1984 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 61.
This post was written for the Second Annual Broadway Bound Blogathon, hosted by Rebecca from Taking Up Room. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please click here.