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By Rory L. Aronsky | May 3, 2005

As long are there are actresses, there will always be Judy Garland’s legacy. Possessing that eternal sparkle that renders her immortal, her perfection lies within herself and the performances she has put on over the years, giving life to even the trite ones such as Manuela in “The Pirate” with Gene Kelly. It is “Easter Parade” with Fred Astaire that’s the prime example of what made Frances Gumm our Judy Garland.

First and foremost, it is her face and other features. No outfit or hairstyle ever failed her and the tramp outfit in “Easter Parade” merely made her comical. In dancing and singing with Astaire, she’s part of a major pair in musical film. While they did this only once, it’s one time that feels right all over. In the Pygmalion-esque plot, set in 1911-1912 as only master producer Arthur Freed could have it, Astaire’s Don Hewes seeks a replacement for dancer Nadine Hale (Ann Miller), who has given him up soundly for a starring spot in a Ziegfeld show. He finds Hannah Brown (Garland), with the face, that hair, those eyes in which he finds what we’ve already found. Setting about grooming her as a dancer aside from a singer, he commissions the finest outfits and gets her up to his speed. Naturally, love starts to bloom, first with Hannah slowly falling for Don. Peter Lawford also gets involved as Don’s friend, creating an inconsequential love triangle and making his role the most awkward part of the film. Too many times, he slows down the proceedings, though begrudgingly it is necessary to admit that without him with Hannah in a fancy restaurant, Jules Munshin’s comedic food monologue would not have been possible and it is a zany part of the movie.

More than that, Astaire still has his tireless talent in this movie. His elegance, graceful steps, and warm personality never falter here, especially not with Garland. At the beginning, Astaire’s “Drum Crazy” number is loads of fun and only in an Arthur Freed musical production would Astaire spend all that time trying to extract a stuffed Easter bunny from a young boy. Even more delectable is when Don finally has Hannah where he wants her and they set about on their act. Those small numbers are charming, especially “I Love a Piano”. Ann Miller gives it all in her role, as an incorrigible stuck-up Ziegfeld star and Don’s ex-partner, and tap dances across a stage powerfully in “Shakin’ the Blues Away”, in which she spins and spins around; a remarkable dancer. “Easter Parade” will always have that Garland magic, much like her countless other films where the grand and glorious entertainer is always at her best. With Astaire, who could compare?

“Easter Parade” has been honored with a two-disc treatment by Warner Home Video that, like “Gone with the Wind”, “Citizen Kane”, “Casablanca”, “Bringing Up Baby” and so many others, has shown that the company cares passionately about older films and proves its name as a mainstream Criterion Collection. First on disc one is an audio commentary by Ava Astaire McKenzie, Fred Astaire’s daughter, and John Fricke, Judy Garland’s biographer which is rife with gobs of history, such as how Fred Astaire got into this movie (Gene Kelly helped him along), and the numerous people who helped make this happen. McKenzie pipes up when her father’s on screen, but Fricke is the one that really lights up the track because in having what are assumed to be organized notes in front of him at the time of the recording, he breezes right through what he has to say with such a confident tone, much of which deepens the experience of watching “Easter Parade”. There’s even much sympathy for Ann Miller who didn’t refuse the experience of working with Fred Astaire, despite a bad back that required ballet shoes when dancing with him. This is the type of commentary that today’s commentary participants should learn from. There’s also a trailer gallery for twelve of Garland’s films. Most disappointing here is the lack of an original trailer for “The Wizard of Oz”, with a modern-day one in its place, which is somewhat bothersome especially when the trailers before it are originals. Throughout all of these, including “The Harvey Girls”, Garland always shows off her voice, spunk, and spirit and her set of co-stars in all these films are equally impressive (Angela Lansbury as a tart-voiced hussy in “The Harvey Girls”. Who would have thought it besides the chiefs at MGM back then?)

Disc two brings on a heavy load, but one that makes it all Garland, all Astaire, all everybody who participated in this production. And not only them, but dozens of others associated with Garland through her life in a very special, heartrending documentary. First, however, Easter Parade: On the Avenue spends an educated half hour digging through all the different parts of the making of this film. Some of what’s said is mirrored by the audio commentary, but are worth hearing all over again. Jimmy Bates, the young boy in the “Drum Crazy” number with Fred Astaire relates his experience with him, even to the point where he received a bicycle from Astaire long after their number was filmed. Garland was emotionally fragile during the shooting, but none of that appeared. Footage of the film’s premiere caps off a most valuable time, the way making-of documentaries should be.

The utmost treasure of this entire DVD is American Masters: Judy Garland – By Myself, which lets nothing of Garland’s life remain in the shadows and in keeping the focus on her the entire time, takes a noble course. Actors voice the thoughts of George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Isabel Keating voices Judy Garland to the point where she really is Judy Garland. These are her feelings, her words, and within this span of time, it is a life full of everything. Learning how MGM could treat one human being is wrenching because sure they cared for her, but only because there was money to be made off of her and let’s face it, 1930s-40s Hollywood was not rosy as they try to show it in the movies. More stars than there are in the heavens surely, but not in a ratty building on the edge of Hollywood where Garland was forced to go for an abortion at the behest of Louis B. Mayer and her own mother. At 19 years old, it couldn’t happen, not where she was with the studio at this point. Her singing and her acting all shined through forcefully, no matter the circumstance, though it’s an absolute shock to learn that she was booted out of MGM at only 28 and then died at 47. And here, she went through more than most people go through in their entire lives. This is worth every minute, and is a truly masterly look at a woman who endured, even when she was crumbling.

The Mr. Monotony Outtake is not merely one take of a song removed from “Easter Parade”, but 21 minutes worth of takes as Garland hoofs it across the stage, singing to a pre-recorded track, going through all the required moves like a trooper. And she showed that no elaborate set pieces were required for her. She could hold the stage all her own. She was the major set piece, the major star, the major voice. After that, there’s the Audio Vault where a Radio Promo features Fred Astaire with Vic Simmons, promoting “Easter Parade” and going into a little of how he did indeed start at the bottom. Lastly, a March 11, 1951 Screen Guild Playhouse Broadcast stars Garland, Astaire, Peter Lawford, and Monica Lewis in a production of “Easter Parade” which manages to crunch quite a few songs into a short time span and remains entertaining. It’s as if they never left the production, except for Monica Lewis, who does well as Nadine Hale in place of Ann Miller.

In the Astaire pantheon and the Garland museum of great films, “Easter Parade” will last for quite a long time not only by its supreme efforts in not only a fine pairing between both of these actors, but in this DVD set which will hopefully last for a very long time. It is history given further opportunity to live on in this new era of technology. It’s all worth it.

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