“Easter Parade” the classic 1948 musical, is on today, Sunday, April 5, 2015, on TCM at 8 p.m. ET, 5 p.m. PT, uncut and with no commercial interruptions.You can also currently stream it using Amazon Instant Prime.
The hoopla started early, in the fall of 1947. MGM announced a major musical for 1948: “Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade” starring Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.
Not too long thereafter the public was told that Kelly had broken his ankle in rehearsal, and that the studio had talked Fred Astaire, 48, out of his two year retirement to replace Kelly.
The playwright Arthur Laurents tells the real story, according to John Fricke in his informative 2011 biography “Judy: A Legendary Film Career:” “Gene Kelly was known as a highly competitive man….On Sunday, Oct. 12, 1947, during one of the regular volleyball matches at the Kelly home, he took verbal umbrage at the lack of concentration of some of his players. One of them of them was playwright/scenarist Arthur Laurents, who later summarized: ‘Roaring at the top of his high tenor [Gene] thrashed his way back to the house, flung open the kitchen door, and swiveled for one final curse. He shrieked and, like Rumpelstilskin, stamped down so hard on the doorsill that he broke his ankle. And that, dear cineastes, was why Fred Astaire replaced Gene Kelly in ‘Easter Parade.’”
The major co-stars of the film were to be Peter Lawford and Cyd Charisse. Alas, Charisse also got injured – I don’t know how – and she was replaced by Ann Miller. And another co-star, Jules Munshin, almost steals the picture in his few comic turns in a restaurant. Astaire thought the idea of working with Garland for the first time would be excellent for his comeback out of retirement.
“Easter Parade” isn’t a great musical, but it’s a fun one. Astaire, as always, is terrific. And I think it’s one of Garland’s best adult musicals. The movie was filmed between “late November, 1947 to mid-February, 1948,” according to “Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance,” an excellent biography of a director who I think is under-appreciated, by Brent Phillips. It was published last year.
Garland, only 25, was coming off an incredibly tough time being directed by her then husband, Vincente Minnelli, in “The Pirate,” which also starred Kelly.
Writes Phillips, “Unfortunately, Garland’s participation in ‘The Pirate’ was marred by weeks of absenteeism as marital strife, the pressures of first-time motherhood (with baby Liza), and overmedication collided. Phillips then quotes Fricke’s bio of Garland, which says that in July, 1947 Garland “made a quiet, unpublicized attempt at suicide.” She then spent time at “two psychiatric treatment facilities,” writes Phillips.
Originally, Arthur Freed, who ran the MGM unit that produced musicals, was going to have Minnelli also direct “Easter Parade.” Says Charles Walters, quoted in Fricke’s book, “The reason I got [to direct] ‘Easter Parade’ was not because of my great talent. But Judy and Minnelli had just finished ‘The Pirate,’ and their psychiatrist said ‘I don’t think it’s advisable for [them] to do another picture together right away. [That] means all day together and all night together; I just don’t think it’s a good idea….[Meanwhile] ‘Good News’ [which Walters had recently directed] had been a success, and Arthur [Freed] called me in and said ‘I think I’m going to give you ‘Easter Parade.’”
Walters was thrilled to be given the opportunity, especially he said, because “Easter Parade” was budgeted at about $2.5 million, which was twice the budget of his previous musical, “Good News.”
Irving Berlin, who was 59 when “Easter Parade” was filmed, was delighted by Garland’s performance in the movie, according to Fricke’s Garland biography. Said Berlin, “’Easter Parade’ is the best picture the little Garland has had so far. She thinks so too….That child has more talent in that little body of hers than anybody that’s been around a long time. She’s a songwriter’s dream: I’ll go on record saying that. A songwriter couldn’t wish for a better break than to have Judy introduce his tunes.”
By most accounts, the period of filming “Easter Parade” was a good one for Garland. She seemed happy and the filming went smoothly, unlike what had happened on her previous picture, “The Pirate.”
According to Fricke’s Garland bio, Judy said about the “Parade” experience, “Fred put me completely at ease. He’s a gentleman—and lots of fun to work with.”
And Fricke quotes Ann Miller as saying, “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, it’s always a happy union, because they like to work and work hard. And they did.”
Wrote Astaire himself in his 1959 autobiography “Steps in Time,” his dances in “Easter Parade” with Garland “remain with me as high spots of enjoyment in my career. Judy’s uncanny knowledge of showmanship impressed me more than ever as I worked with her. She was of course, wonderful in the picture and I was elated when Arthur Freed told me he had already started work on another one, ‘The Barkleys of Broadway,’ to follow ‘Parade.’”
Walters’ biographer Phillips writes “With earnings of $6.8 million, ‘Easter Parade’ was MGM’s top-grossing picture [of 1948], in an otherwise troubled fiscal year.”
Astaire continued in his book, “‘Parade’ was a big hit picture and drew plus reactions all over the world. It was a lucky break for me just when I wanted it. My comeback had been completed.”
And Fricke notes that Gene Kelly said of the best number in “Parade,” “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.”
Unfortunately, Judy Garland never made “The Barkleys of Broadway.” As Astaire tells it, “When it came time to start ‘Barkley’s of Broadway,’ at MGM, I was disappointed to find that Judy Garland could not make it on account of illness. Although we decided to wait as long as possible in hopes that she might recover, we were bitterly disappointed as she advised the studio to go ahead and replace her.” Garland was replaced on “Barkleys” by Astaire’s former longtime movie dance partner Ginger Rogers.
Garland told the story slightly differently, according to the Fricke bio: “By now, I was just a mechanical hoop they were rolling around. I was sure I wasn’t going to make it, but it didn’t matter. The rehearsals began and my migraine headaches got worse. I took any kind of pill to stop them, but they didn’t stop. I went for days with no sleep…but I kept on. I started to be late…and started to miss days. Finally, I was fired…they sent a telegram.”
Garland recovered, of course, and delivered some stunningly superb work as her career continued. Ultimately, though, her demons got the best of her, and she succumbed to an overdose of the barbiturate Seconal soon after her 47th birthday.
But “Easter Parade” remains a highlight in the Garland canon. It’s a wonderful glimpse of a star on the way up, and it’s a joy to watch.