From the late '20s until the mid-1940s, MGM ruled Hollywood. The studio produced fifty pictures a year, and is credited for creating "The Studio System." The studios "owned" the stars, directors, writers, costume designers, cameramen--as one might own a stable of horses--paying all of them weekly salaries, while deciding which pictures they would (and wouldn't) work on, arranging and often fabricating publicity to ensure the world's appetite for celebrity was satiated. By the '30s, MGM had built the finest "stable" of them all, and throughout the Great Depression it was the only Hollywood studio that managed to turn a profit and pay a dividend every single year.
After World War II, however, the cracks began to show at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. America's taste in film had changed, preferring more gritty and real-life fare over Louis B. Mayer's fondness for light, wholesome, often silly entertainment. MGM began to bleed talent, usually through contract disputes between stars who'd grown tired of life at the stable. Also, the studio faced increasingly shrinking profits and sought to cut costs, so it fired some of its biggest and most expensive stars. Gone with the wind were Gable, Garbo, Crawford, and Shearer. A new crop of quarter horses had to be found.
Mayer had an idea. America still loved musicals, and for twenty years MGM had produced the best of them. So why not increase the number of musicals the studio made each year--big, lavish and expensive productions--and fill the stables with bright, bankable musical talent? So bright new stars like Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra went to work at MGM, joining two of the studio's hardest-working (and most successful) song-and-dance stars: Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, the stars of 1948's Easter Parade.
Easter Parade is the story of Don Hewes (Astaire), a Broadway song-and-dance star. He's in love with his dance partner Nadine (Ann Miller), and as the film opens, he's buying a hat for Nadine to wear in the annual Easter parade. When he arrives at her apartment, however, Nadine tells Don that not only will she not be joining him on the tour he's already signed a contract for, she's also signed her own contract--to star in Ziegfeld Follies. Hurt, Don informs Nadine that she's not the only dancer in the business...and will make a bigger star than she ever was out of the next dancer he meets.
The next dancer Don meets is Hannah Brown (Judy Garland), and he does his best to make her into a new version of Nadine. Unfortunately for both of them, Hannah is no Nadine and their first show together is a flop. On her way to rehearsal, Hannah is caught in a rainstorm and meets Don's friend Johnny (Peter Lawford), who--this is an MGM picture, after all--falls in love with her. And unfortunately for Johnny, she's already falling in love...with Don.
Don realizes his mistake with Hannah and they re-work the act, tailoring it to Hannah's strength, which is her vocal prowess, and not her dancing. The new act is a great success, and they're invited to audition for Ziegfeld Follies. When Hannah meets Nadine, and discovers that not only was she Don's old partner but that he was also in love with her, Hannah runs out of the audition.
Don finds Hannah, and tells her that he's turned down an offer for Ziegfeld, that Hannah and Nadine don't belong in the same show. And indeed, while Ziegfeld is always a great success, the act of "Hannah and Hewes" becomes the toast of the town. This becomes even more apparent when, at Nadine's after-show dinner show, Hannah and Don receive a warm ovation when they walk in. Nadine is enraged, and all hell--nice, clean, MGM-musical hell--breaks loose.
Director Charles Walters (Gigi, High Society) brings his choreographer's eye to the picture, and the musical numbers sparkle. This is also thanks to songs from one of America's greatest songwriters, Irving Berlin. The songs in this picture are legendary: from the title song, to "A Fella With an Umbrella," "Steppin' Out With My Baby," and "I Want to Go Back to Michigan." Berlin had a way with a lyric, and it's clearly evident in Easter Parade.
But the real stars of Easter Parade are its stars, and for different reasons. Fred Astaire was a so-so singer, but he's the yardstick by which all dancing, at least on film, is measured. When Astaire dances, one forgets everything else that might be wrong with the film, with any film. Even Gene Kelly, and he admitted this himself, learned everything he knew about dancing from Fred Astaire.
Judy Garland was a fairly good dancer, but no one could sing, and interpret a song, like she could. She's often relegated to camp: people remember the marriages, the pills, the very public fights with MGM, the alcoholic rantings, and sadly, her death at an all-to-young 47. Many only know her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (which plays in Modesto next month). But watching Easter Parade, and listening to her remarkable ability to wrap her voice in both the happiest joy and the deepest sorrow in the same song (and often in the same phrase), one sees why Garland was MGM's biggest money-maker, and for so long. And one of the main reasons why Easter Parade succeeds. (A-)