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Easter Parade: Special Edition

Excuse us while we gush — despite it breaking the fourth wall of film criticism (if there is such a thing), this reviewer would like to proclaim Easter Parade (1948) one of her all-time favorite musicals. It's one of those watch-any-time-it's-on, throw-in-when-you're on-the-couch-with-the-flu movies that can be viewed hundreds of times without it ever getting old. A famous dancer named Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) loses his partner, Nadine Hale (Ann Miller), then makes a rash bet with a pal (Peter Lawford) that he can turn any girl into a dancer good enough to perform with him. He chooses a chorus girl named Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) and works to make her a Ginger Rogers-style exhibition dancer, but eventually comes to understand that, for their pairing to work, he has to change his style a bit. Lawford woos her, Astaire bullies her then falls for her, and as the team of Hannah and Hewes become a hit, she has to contend with Nadine scheming to get her old partner back. Gorgeous and romantic, the film is crammed with brilliantly conceived musical numbers from the Irving Berlin songbook, including "It Only Happens When I Dance with You," "A Fella with an Umbrella," "I Love a Piano," and "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam'." Pure magic.

Written by the husband-and-wife team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who were responsible for a long list of classics including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, It's a Wonderful Life and The Diary of Anne Frank, then polished by Guy Bolton (When the Clouds Roll By, Words and Music) and Sidney Sheldon, it was originally supposed to star Garland and Gene Kelly, who'd both just come off a huge success with The Pirate. But the pre-production was, as they say, troubled. Garland's mental state had started to affect her working relationships and, during filming of The Pirate, she'd become paranoid and jealous of the relationship between Kelly and her husband, director Vincente Minnelli. On advice from her psychiatrist, Garland had her husband taken off Easter Parade and replaced by Charles Walters (Good News, Annie Get Your Gun). Cyd Charisse, set to play Nadine, broke her leg during rehearsals and was replaced by Miller. Then, while playing touch football at home with his family, Kelly broke his ankle. Unwilling to wait for Kelly to recuperate, MGM made a call to Astaire, who had retired from the screen two years earlier. After calling Kelly to make sure that the other actor had no problem with it — and asking if Kelly thought he could learn the dances in time — Astaire accepted the role. Despite all the seeming bad luck and delays, Easter Parade turned out to be a near-perfect musical (and a huge box-office hit for MGM), smart and funny with some of Berlin's most clever songs and a jaw-dropping list of memorable song-and-dance numbers, including Astaire's slo-mo "Steppin' Out with My Baby" and the Garland classic "A Couple of Swells," performed with the stars in hobo attire.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video's two-disc Special Edition release of Easter Parade offers the film in a lovely new full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR), which does justice to all those richly saturated, Technicolor tones. The picture's a little grainy and occasionally seems a tad soft, but overall it's very clean. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio (with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish) is adequate, sounding a bit tinny at times with some distortion and a little crackling — it's not ideal, but it's hardly bad enough to detract from the joys of this title. Disc One also offers a smart, detail-intensive commentary track with Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie and Garland's biographer, John Fricke (although there's considerably more Fricke than McKenzie), and a trailer menu. Disc Two presents a new "making-of" featurette, "Easter Parade: On the Avenue" (34 min.), a nice overview of the business of how the film came to be made, including the rewrite of the original ending that was considered "a downer"; the exemplary, Emmy-winning "American Masters" documentary Judy Garland: By Myself (120 min.), which is in itself a worthy feature, a comprehensive overview of the actress's career with film clips, Garland's own recollections, and newsreel footage. Rounding out the set are 21 minutes of beautifully restored footage covering a never-used musical number by Garland, "Mr. Monotony," as well as a radio promo and a 1951 radio production of Easter Parade starring Garland, Astaire, Lawford, and Monica Lewis.
—Dawn Taylor



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