Watching something at Easter is a centuries-old tradition, dating back to Middle Ages Christendom, when a liturgical Easter Drama opened up the Catholic mass to poetry, music, and performance. The 20th century transition from Christian pageant to secular spectacle is exemplified by EASTER PARADE, MGM’s Oscar-winning 1948 musical and dance film, which opens and closes with New York’s longstanding tradition of strolling while dressed in Easter finery, focused especially on ladies in their Easter hats.
While EASTER PARADE is about people-watching in New York, its real job is to replace that live, one-day event with a sustained cinematic run of a big-budget musical utilizing Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s contract players, including Fred Astaire, Ann Miller, and Judy Garland. MGM reigned as Hollywood’s glamour film studio for the decade prior to EASTER PARADE’s, but the studio had cut back on lavish musicals by June 1948 as the American economy’s postwar boil slowed down. In 1948, all of Hollywood’s major studios were forced to sell off their movie theaters because of the recent Supreme Court decision to separate film production from its distribution.
Watching the film through a 21st century lens, we found Judy Garland’s role to be the most interesting, for her character Hannah Brown begins as a nobody who doesn’t even dance well. Astaire’s character takes on as a challenge when his regular partner, Ann Miller, dumps him; in spite, he vows to remake Hannah Brown the way he had once fashioned Miller’s character-- and thus we have yet another patriarchal Pygmalion myth under its perky Easter bonnet. However, Astaire realizes after his initial failures that he needs to let Hannah be herself and not remake her in the form of Nadine. Garland dances flawlessly and with tremendous humor in these light-hearted sequences. It’s hard to remember that Garland had already suffered a breakdown and suicide attempt before this role.
While Don Hewes can be credited at the end with successfully remaking Hannah into a star, there are two gender reversals that end EASTER PARADE. When Don and Hannah finally get their big Broadway break, they dance as two hobos, both stubble-sporting males, a far cry from Nadine’s ultra-feminine (and suddenly old-fashioned) flowing gowns and feathers. It’s not hard to read these competing sequences as evidence that postwar femininity was changing. And in the final scene, when Hannah realizes she must tell Don she loves him, she confounds him by taking on the masculine role of sending him flowers, gifting him with a bunny (a real rabbit), and buying him a top hat before taking him on parade. The Hollywood narrative of boy gets girl has a somewhat subversive ending in EASTER PARADE (even though Garland was 23 years younger than Astaire at the time).
Other things to watch for in this week’s email are the more traditional Easter fare of biblical stories; we have the newly released animated film, THE LION OF JUDAH, and the 1961 epic, KING OF KINGS (1961), directed by the unlikely Nicholas Ray and featuring a unique narration by Orson Welles. We also thought families might enjoy the time-honored animated film, IT’S THE EASTER BEAGLE, CHARLIE BROWN (1974), or the charming documentary, BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY, about Kevin Clash’s creation of Elmo, one of Sesame Street’s most beloved characters. But we’ve also got some decidedly grown-up films this week with THE DOUBLE HOUR, an Italian noir romance, and GET THRASHED: THE STORY OF THRASH METAL, a good documentary about tough music.
Our César Chávez sale will go on for another week. To celebrate last week’s birthday of the late labor pioneer, we’ve discounted three great films honoring Chicano contributions. The 1954 neorealist classic, SALT OF THE EARTH, gives a rare glimpse of a woman’s side of an extended labor dispute, based on real events in New Mexico. The lowrider film BOULEVARD NIGHTS has a fascinating history, for it was boycotted in 1979 by Chicano students angered by its depiction of East L.A. gang life; today, subsequent generations know nothing of that boycott and herald the film as a story of Mexican American life. LA BAMBA has been a hit film ever since it came out in 1987, honoring the contributions of rock ‘n roll musician Ritchie Valens, with music by Valens and Los Lobos.