Another turn on the "MGM musical carousel" (no, not THAT Carousel -- that one was made by Fox) brings us to this colorful, tuneful, ever-popular crowd-pleaser starring Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, a whole rack full of Irving Berlin tunes, and... uh... Peter Lawford. (Do you hear the strains of a certain Sesame Street song running through your head at this point? Me, I can only think of this and mull on just how far Lawford ultimately fell during his career.)
Easter Parade was a big box-office success in a year when MGM suffered the first net loss in its history. It can therefore be regarded as something of a "last stand" for the traditional, lavish, L. B. Mayer approach to movie-making before the new broom, wielded by newly-appointed head of production Dore Schary, swept in a whole set of very different film-making values. MGM would make many extremely successful musicals in the future, but the unity of tone and style that had defined MGM for so many years had broken apart by that time, never to be put back together.
We immediately realize that plot is an afterthought here when the movie opens with a lengthy routine featuring Fred Astaire walking jauntily down the street, visiting a dress shop, and then whiling away the minutes playing drums in a toy store. The story, such as it is, begins when hoofer Don Hewes' (Astaire) glamorous partner, Nadine Hale (Miller), decides to strike out on her own. An affronted Hewes plucks chorus girl Hannah Brown (Garland) out of the lineup at a local bar and vows to turn her into a dancin' fool/glamour gal before next Easter rolls around. The "year-long cycle" conceit (not to mention the use of Berlin songs) gives the plot a suspicious resemblance to that of Holiday Inn (1942), but Easter Parade is, if possible, even "scrappier" than that earlier effort, with the songs used (augmented by several that Berlin wrote for the occasion) lacking even the slightest hint of any throughline. The movie is similarly casual, shading to careless, with the falling-in-love theme; it's no surprise that Hewes and Hannah get together by the time of the next Easter Parade (other than to those who really pay attention to the huge age difference between Astaire and Garland), but whatever became of Nadine and Hewes' best buddy Johnny (Lawford)? Did they become an item, or not? Even if they did, we hardly ever saw the two together, so there's little impact in either a positive or a negative sense. The movie's attitude towards tying up this annoying little plot thread can be gauged by the amount of time we spend enjoying waiter Jules Munshin's comical turn at pretend salad-making (which reminded me not a little of an Italian restaurateur in Wilmington who's been performing similar shenanigans with real ingredients for half a century).
But leave us not worry too much about the wafer-thin storyline; let's instead enjoy the singing and dancing talents of some of Hollywood's greatest entertainers. Both Astaire and Garland are in excellent form, and Miller makes a sensational MGM debut after coming over to the studio from Columbia. Miller's "Shakin' the Blues Away" tap-dancing and twirling routine is such a sizzler -- if a little anachronistic for 1911-12, when the film is supposedly taking place and even ragtime had just barely managed a reluctant acceptance in pop culture -- that you almost have to think twice about Don Hewes' ultimate choice. Miller and Astaire were last-minute replacements for Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly, and movie fans have been chewing over the what-ifs ever since. Personally, I think that Astaire was the better fit for a movie set in this time period -- even one with numerous anachronisms -- while Miller was the better fit as a likable but essentially antagonistic "female rival" character.
The DVD we got from Netflix had relatively little in the way of extras: a series of trailers from Judy Garland movies and a commentary by Fred Astaire's daughter. The two-disc special edition packs more of an historical wallop, with the extra DVD including a Judy Garland bio from A&E, a "Making of..." documentary, radio promos, and a cut Garland number ("Mr. Monotony") that sounds, if anything, even more anachronistic than "Shakin' the Blues Away." Sorry to say, no apparent attempt was made to duplicate the presentation in the Ziegfeld Follies DVD and give us a full-fledged "MGM Night at the Movies" experience. It's hard to say why; Easter Parade, with its patchy nature, certainly seems as appropriate a backdrop for such an approach as did Follies.