Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With the Academy Awards right around the corner, we’re suggesting the perfect pairings for this year’s Best Picture nominees—movies to watch with, or instead of, each of them.
The rags-to-riches story is Hollywood canon, from Lana Turner reportedly getting discovered in Schwab’s drugstore to “you’re going there a nobody, but you’re coming back a star” in 42nd Street. The plucky ingenue discovered by an established star, who she eventually falls in love with, is a very familiar version of this particular tale. It’s the plot of Easter Parade, which can be seen as the sunnier flip side to A Star Is Born’s tragedy.
In the history of Hollywood musicals, particularly the golden era of MGM, Easter Parade is treasured for a variety of reasons. It was the sole pairing of the troubled but gifted Judy Garland and perfectionist Fred Astaire, marking a high point for both. Gene Kelly had been slated to star with Garland in a follow-up to their poorly received The Pirate. But when Kelly suffered a sports injury, he suggested Astaire as a replacement. Astaire had been in a bit of a slump after his phenomenally successful 1930s screen partnership with Ginger Rogers had run its course. Easter Parade ushered in his own era of MGM musicals, becoming one of the handful of classics he filmed in color (like The Band Wagon and Funny Face).
Bolstered by a collection of superlative tunes by Irving Berlin, the two legendary stars have a tangible screen chemistry, vaulting over their more than 20-year age difference. As with most musicals, the plot is just a thin excuse to string some wonderful songs together—but Garland’s winning performance makes us more invested in her romance than we likely would be otherwise. In an early 20th-century period piece, Easter Parade casts her as Hannah Brown, a dance-hall girl who Astaire’s Don Hewes randomly chooses as his new dance partner after his former partner and paramour, Nadine (a never-better Ann Miller), walks out on him. Naturally, Hannah falls for him.
Don annoyingly tries to mold Hannah into “Juanita,” a carbon-copy of Nadine—pre-Vertigo, he even picks her clothes and accessories. But Hannah’s, and Garland’s, effervescent personality soon forces him to realize that she has a much better chance at stardom as Hannah Brown than Juanita. Much like A Star Is Born’s Ally attempts to rebel against high-concept dance numbers (that ignore, as she puts it, “what makes me talented”) or suggestions that she go blond, Hannah looks ridiculous in Nadine’s high-class getups (at one point parodying Astaire and Rogers’ own “Cheek To Cheek” number from 1935’s Top Hat). Don trying to teach Hannah to dance pulls back the curtain on Astaire’s own astonishing method, showing how difficult it actually was to do something that he made look so effortless. But in the pair’s first numbers, Garland’s not even singing, completely bypassing her greatest talent. When Hannah finally shows Don what she can do in Berlin’s charming ditty “I Love A Piano,” she’s a revelation, cementing a “star is born” moment as much as “Shallow,” and ensuring that Hannah & Hewes will be a smashing success.
At this point, audiences likely felt lucky just to watch Astaire do anything, and he gets many chances here, opening the film by dancing his way through a toy store in “Drum Crazy” and eventually headlining his own solo extravaganza in the iconic “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” But what’s interesting in Easter Parade is the way the two stars manage to elevate each other—Astaire doing vocal-only performances, pairing with Garland on “Snooky Ookums,” while Garland’s own dancing, never her strongest suit, reaches its highest point here, paired with the greatest screen dancer ever.
In the end, Hannah manages to overcome her jealousy of Nadine so much that she sweeps Don off his feet, in a refreshingly feminist move for 1948. This happens just in time for Easter Parade’s best song, the title track that closes the picture. It’s too bad the two stars never worked together again (despite several attempts, Garland’s volatility made a re-pairing impossible), and even sadder that Garland made only a few more musicals after this one until her death at age 47.
In a way, that just makes Easter Parade even more valuable. We can’t help but identify with Garland, who was in fact terrified to walk on set the first day, as she’d never before met the legendary Astaire. Many of us—most of us—are not glamorous, confident Nadines, much as we’d like to be. Garland’s Hannah, and Lady Gaga’s Ally, show us how foolish it is to try to be something you’re not. Sometimes you can be the brightest star in the sky just by being yourself.
Availability: Easter Parade is available to rent or purchase from iTunes, VUDU, and many of the other major digital services. It can also be obtained on DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.