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Easter Parade (Blu-ray)
Warner Brothers / 1948 / 107 Minutes / Unrated
Street Date: February 19, 2013
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Reviewed by David Krauss
Friday, March 01, 2013
"The happiest musical ever made…" is how MGM's publicity machine marketed 'Easter Parade' upon its initial release in 1948, and despite the passage of 65 years, the tagline still rings true today. As light and airy as a scrumptious soufflé, this joyous Irving Berlin confection features a whopping 17 of the composer's best loved tunes, and showcases the incomparable talents of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in their only screen appearance together. Add a sizzling tap routine by Ann Miller, the charm of Peter Lawford, and an inspired comic turn by Jules Munshin, and it's easy to see why 'Easter Parade' remains a perennial holiday favorite and one of America's most treasured musicals.
Astaire and Garland make a marvelous team, but their dream coupling happened literally by accident, when original leading man Gene Kelly broke his ankle playing touch-football during rehearsals. At Kelly's suggestion, producer Arthur Freed approached Astaire as a replacement, but held out little hope of hiring him. The legendary dancer had been cooling his heels in retirement for two years, and hardly seemed eager to return to work. Yet he jumped at chance to team with Garland, and despite a hefty 23-year age difference, the two enjoy a relaxed rapport during their musical and dramatic scenes that makes their fictional love affair utterly believable.
Kelly, however, wasn't the only casualty that befell the film. A torn ligament forced Cyd Charisse to bow out of 'Easter Parade,' paving the way for Ann Miller to join the MGM ranks, and though Garland's husband at the time, Vincente Minnelli, was initially penciled in as director, marital stresses between the two forced Metro executives to rethink the decision. On advice from Garland's doctors, Freed dismissed Minnelli, and novice Charles Walters nabbed the plum assignment. The switch would prove fortuitous, as Walters' easygoing style better suits the movie's casual nature, allowing it to seamlessly juggle its cavalcade of musical numbers and the plot's substantial romantic complications.
Those complications begin almost at once, as snappy vaudeville dancer Don Hewes (Astaire) is unceremoniously dumped — both professionally and personally - by his ungrateful partner, Nadine Hale (Miller), so she can star solo in a Ziegfeld Follies revue. In a fit of pique, a lovelorn Don randomly selects the unassuming, insecure, yet beguiling Hannah Brown (Garland) from a saloon chorus line to groom as Nadine's replacement, and vows within a year to make her the sensation of both the 1912 Broadway season and New York's famed Easter Parade. But instead of highlighting Hannah's down-to-earth personality and potent pipes, Don insists she mimic Nadine's more refined, sophisticated image. Following a string of disastrous performances (and a comical tête-á-tête with Nadine), Don realizes his mistake, revamps the act, and begins to recognize Hannah's talent, beauty, and spirit.
Most musicals feature a love triangle of some sort, but 'Easter Parade' goes a step further by creating a love square. Hannah silently pines for Don, who still carries a torch for Nadine, who aggressively pursues Don's best friend Johnny (Lawford), who instantly falls for Hannah when they meet by chance during a downpour (and sing the sweet but silly ballad, 'A Fella with an Umbrella'). Amazingly, all the tangled relationships iron themselves out in the end, as the film deftly blends the vagaries of human emotion with the ebullience of musical comedy.
Garland once again combines heartbreaking vulnerability with impeccable comic timing (just watch how she proves to Astaire she's a sexy dish) to create a totally unaffected portrayal. Whether she's confessing her unrequited love for Don, venting her anger over his obsessive attitude toward work ("You're nothing but a pair of dancing shoes!"), or expressing joy at the prospect of Broadway success, Garland is always completely genuine, and that all-too-rare quality — as much as her peerless voice — puts the audience in the palm of her hand. Her readings of the nostalgic 'Michigan,' plaintive 'Better Luck Next Time,' and ebullient title tune are letter-perfect, and although many cite 'A Couple of Swells' (a classic number in which Judy and Fred cavort as lovable tramps) as the picture's musical highlight, in my book, a medley of Berlin standards capped by an exhilarating rendition of 'When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam' displays Garland to even better advantage. Sure, Judy's no Ginger, but she more than holds her own with Astaire, and their dances together possess an infectious enthusiasm that more than compensates for the simplistic steps.
Never fear, Astaire tackles more complex moves during his solo routines, with typically thrilling results. He shows off his trademark agility and dexterity in the opening 'Drum Crazy' number, and creatively employs special effects for 'Steppin' Out with My Baby,' in which he dances in slow motion in the foreground (a gimmick that spotlights his supreme artistry), while the chorus performs at regular speed behind him. He also elegantly partners Miller, who almost steals the film with her deliciously bitchy (yet endearingly comic) portrayal of the haughty Nadine, and her show-stopping interpretation of Berlin's 'Shakin' the Blues Away.'
One of the most enjoyable musicals ever made, 'Easter Parade' is a full-bodied experience, integrating songs, comedy, romance, and heartache with such panache it's no wonder it was MGM's top-grossing movie of the year and a crowning achievement for the Arthur Freed Unit. The studio, of course, quickly tried to duplicate the magic by re-teaming Judy and Fred on two subsequent occasions, but, sadly, illness prevented Garland from completing either 'The Barkleys of Broadway' or 'Royal Wedding.' Although it's impossible not to rue such missed opportunities, they make us doubly appreciate the pair's appearance in 'Easter Parade,' and the energy, style, and expertise Garland and Astaire bring to this enduring musical classic.
A couple of swells, indeed.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Easter Parade' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. After the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Easter is all about color — pastels in particular — and with a sparkling, beautifully modulated 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, 'Easter Parade' looks as bright and lush as a freshly decorated holiday egg. The costumes (designed by Irene) sport a plethora of plumes, but the richly saturated hues never bleed. The yellow gloves and skirt Miller wears during 'Shakin' the Blues Away,' and the blazing red feather boa she brandishes throughout 'The Girl on the Magazine Cover' possess exceptional vibrancy, and such subtle accents as Astaire's colorful socks grab our attention like never before. Although primary hues burst forth, the more muted pinks, lavenders, and pale greens possess equal depth and richness, making this a stellar representation of three-strip Technicolor.
'Easter Parade' first arrived on DVD in 2005 as one of Warner's flagship ultra-resolution offerings, and the results were largely fantastic. This Blu-ray edition seems to be a recycled version of that transfer, with slightly heightened resolution and more intense contrast upping the ante just a bit. Background elements are even more distinct this time around, especially the toys in the opening 'Drum Crazy' number, and accessories, like the aforementioned feathers and furs, possess striking levels of detail. The texture of fabrics is also more visible, as is the clarity of the rain in the 'Fella With an Umbrella' sequence, lending the image additional presence and impact. Black levels are strong and inky, white variations in the gowns are easy to discern, and fleshtones, while leaning a smidge toward the rosy side, are generally true.
Like the DVD, faint grain provides a lovely film-like appearance, and only a couple of errant specks dot the pristine print. A few shots seem slightly overexposed, but such instances are few and far between. Typical of Warner classic releases, no digital enhancements disrupt the picture's purity, nor do imperfections such as banding, noise, or artifacting rear their ugly heads. Though it's not perfect (it doesn't quite match 'Singin' in the Rain' or 'An American in Paris'), this rendering of 'Easter Parade' still ranks as the best yet, and it's tough to imagine this classic musical looking any better than it does here. Musicals fans should be pleased as punch.
Because none of the 'Easter Parade' pre-recordings survive, Warner was unable to fashion an authentic 5.1 remaster at the time of the film's 2005 DVD release. That also means no 5.1 mix for the 2013 Blu-ray, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track that is included provides well-scrubbed, distortion-free audio with plenty of tonal depth. A faint bit of hiss can be detected occasionally, but for the most part the sound is clean and pure. Subtle accents such as street noise, footsteps, and rain are crisper here than on the previous lossy track, and more musical nuances in the underscoring can be detected.
Dialogue remains clear and comprehendible throughout, and song lyrics are always easy to understand, too. The musical sequences benefit from solid fidelity, from the strings on 'Ragtime Violin' to the heavy brass that permeates 'Steppin' Out With My Baby.' The percussion on 'Drum Crazy' possesses fine resonance and some palpable bits of boomy bass, while Miller's taps are snappily distinct and Garland's powerhouse vocals enjoy marvelous dynamic range and exude lush tonal depth. Whether singing a simple ballad, such as 'Michigan,' or letting loose on 'I Love a Piano' and 'When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam,' the vocal purity and engaging warmth that distinguish Garland's performances come through beautifully here.
The 'Easter Parade' track doesn't possess as much oomph and zing as those accompanying more modern musicals, but it more than suffices, and allows us to savor the magic of Garland and Astaire.
Warner, do I have a bone to pick with you! This Blu-ray edition of 'Easter Parade' was supposed to port over all the extras from the 2005 double-disc DVD set with the exception of a 12-film Judy Garland trailer gallery. Although I was sad to see the trailers dropped (I'm a movie preview fanatic, especially where classic musicals are concerned), the supplement about which I cared the most - the exceptional 115-minute 'American Masters' documentary, 'Judy Garland: By Myself' - was slated to be included on the disc. Yet somewhere between the production of the Blu-ray packaging and promotional materials and the pressing of the discs, the documentary was also axed, much to my supreme disappointment and disgust. Though the insightful and moving profile is still listed as one of the special features on the back of the Blu-ray case, it's nowhere to be found on the disc's menu. And that's such a shame! So any fans who planned to get rid of their old 'Easter Parade' DVD after purchasing this Blu-ray will most certainly want to hang on to it, especially if they're a Garland aficionado. The other disc supplements - especially the 'Mr. Monotony' outtake and dailies - are quite good, covering all aspects of this classic musical, but the omission of 'By Myself' really takes the wind out of this release's sails.
- Audio Commentary – A delightful audio commentary by affable and supremely knowledgable Garland historian John Fricke and Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, is chock-full of fascinating information. At its best (which is pretty often), the informal, free-flowing track makes one feel like a fly on the wall at a cocktail party, eavesdropping on John and Ava (pronounced Ah-va) as they swap stories about Garland and Astaire. Some of the charming anecdotes include how the two stars devised their wardrobe for the immortal 'A Couple of Swells' number; what happened when Irving Berlin tried to gently coach Garland on how to perform one of his songs; and how Astaire's reputation as a stern taskmaster initially intimidated Garland. McKenzie recalls her father's perfectionism, explains the evolution of the Astaire name, and shares her early memories of Berlin phoning her home, while Fricke provides a comprehensive overview of the film's production intertwined with biographies of the cast and crew. He divulges that Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, and Red Skelton were once considered for 'Easter Parade' supporting roles, details the excruciating back pain Ann Miller endured during the shooting of her dance numbers, and often quotes from the much darker and melodramatic original script that was wisely overhauled. Both Fricke and McKenzie have pleasant speaking voices, and their relaxed conversation and insightful observations make the track fly by.
- Documentary: "'Easter Parade': On the Avenue" (SD, 34 minutes) – This slickly produced, informative feature chronicles the film's production history through clips, photos, studio logs, and interviews. Writer Sidney Sheldon (yes, that Sidney Sheldon) discusses his extensive contributions to the script and how he successfully lightened the original screenplay's tone, while Ann Miller matter-of-factly recalls how an abusive husband kicked her down a flight of stairs when she was nine months pregnant, resulting in a stillbirth and causing the horrible back injury that plagued her throughout filming. In addition, John Fricke and Ava Astaire McKenzie offer their perspective on the movie, but the documentary's biggest surprise is the appearance of Jimmy Bates, who, as a child, clutched the stuffed rabbit Astaire so desperately covets in the 'Drum Crazy' number. Now an esteemed choreographer, Bates remembers his awestruck impressions of Astaire, Garland, and filmmaking in general, and the special gift Astaire gave him at the conclusion of shooting. Other great anecdotes from Sheldon, Fricke, and McKenzie spice up this typically fine Warner documentary.
- Musical Outtake: 'Mr. Monotony' (SD, 3 minutes) – First seen in 'That's Entertainment III,' this simple yet potent Garland performance finds the star dressed in the identical outfit she donned for her iconic 'Get Happy' number in 'Summer Stock' two years later. With her patented magnetism, Garland sexily struts her stuff to Berlin's odd but infectious melody, building to a thrilling climax. Trust me, it's anything but monotonous!
- 'Mr. Monotony' Dailies (SD, 18 minutes) – 'Mr. Monotony' was quite a find when it was discovered in the MGM vaults, but an equally wondrous treasure is the extensive collection of dailies from which the finished product was culled. These alternate takes provide a fascinating look at the filmmaking process and the incredible effort that goes into performing and documenting a seemingly simple song and dance. An array of long shots, medium shots, and close-ups from various sections of the song, as well as Garland's numerous curtain call attempts, are included. Watching Judy clown around while she waits for the playback, then chime in on cue, and muster the same energy level and pitch-perfect execution in take after take after take makes one appreciate her talent, professionalism, and vivacious personality all the more. As icing on the cake, both the completed number and all the dailies have been magnificently restored, so they look and sound terrific.
- Radio Promo (SD, 5 minutes) – Dick Simmons conducts an obviously scripted interview with Astaire, in which the classy hoofer talks about his retirement, how the charms of 'Easter Parade' lured him back to the screen, his early vaudeville days with his sister Adele, and the importance of dance in everyone's daily lives.
- Vintage Radio Adaptation (54 minutes) – This 1951 radio adaptation of 'Easter Parade' allows Garland, Astaire, and Lawford the chance to reprise their film roles, while Monica Lewis fills in for Ann Miller. Lawford narrates this truncated version, which deletes a few songs ('A Couple of Swells' among them), shifts the order of others, and substitutes 'How Deep Is the Ocean' for 'Shakin' the Blues Away.' The story's essence, however, remains intact, and it's fun to hear how Judy and Fred interpret the slightly different script. Unfortunately, the audio quality is just a hair above atrocious, yet we're lucky the 54-minute adaptation exists at all, and Warner deserves kudos for including it, despite its compromised quality.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) – The re-release preview for 'Easter Parade' rounds out the disc supplements.
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'Easter Parade' isn't just for Easter; it's a year-round celebration of the movie musical and the incomparable talents of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. With a cavalcade of fine Irving Berlin tunes, top-flight vocals, elegant dancing, a breezy plot, and sumptuous Technicolor, this captivating Arthur Freed production remains one of MGM's crown jewels in the musical realm. Excellent video and audio transfers spruce up the release, and despite the omission of an Emmy Award-winning Garland documentary, a fine array of rare and entertaining supplements enhance our appreciation of this timeless classic. Though its reputation may not be as lofty as some of MGM's iconic musicals, in its own way, it's every bit as good. Highly recommended.
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