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Husband-and-wife writing team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett came to Easter Parade (1948) with impeccable credentials. Not only had they written one of the definitive screen expressions of Americana, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but they had most recently penned another musical for Judy Garland - The Pirate (1948). That didn't stop MGM from putting another writer on the script after they had finished it, but then, they were hardly the only people to be replaced on one of the studio's greatest musicals.
Easter Parade was inspired by the success of Paramount's 1946 hit Blue Skies, a combination of new and vintage songs by Irving Berlin that had starred Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. Convinced that he'd written enough songs for a dozen other musicals, Berlin decided to shop around another idea based on his song catalogue, Easter Parade, and MGM was eager to pick up the project.
Initially, the film was to re-team the people behind The Pirate, writers Goodrich and Hackett, director Vincente Minnelli and stars Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. And that's when the trouble started.
Garland's nervous breakdown, which would eventually end her career at MGM, had started during work on The Pirate, when she grew jealous of the close working relationship between Kelly and her director husband. She'd even suspected a sexual relationship that wasn't there. After she completed the film, her psychiatrist suggested that she associated her problems at MGM with Minnelli. So five days into rehearsal for Easter Parade, he was replaced by former dancer Charles Walters.
Meanwhile Berlin had been working closely with the Hacketts to create a script built on his own memories of vaudeville. He was happy, but Walters took one look at the material and decided it was too harsh and mean-spirited. He got Kelly and Garland to call Freed, asking for someone to add a lighter touch to the script, so Freed hired Sidney Sheldon, who'd just won an Oscar for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947). Sheldon, who would go on to create the hit sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, would later claim to have done a complete overhaul on the script, while the Hacketts would insist he only added one scene.
Back at the rehearsal hall, the cast was having a few problems. Cyd Charisse, who was to have her first major role as the dancing partner who dumps Kelly in the first reel, broke her leg. So Mayer asked Freed to give the role to his protegee, Ann Miller, who had just signed with the studio. Then Kelly broke his ankle. At the time, he told the studio it happened during rehearsals. Years later, however, he admitted that he'd done it playing touch football.
Unable to hold the production up for five months waiting for Kelly's ankle to heal, Freed briefly considered casting the young Gene Nelson. Then he decided he needed a bigger name to work with Garland, so he called Fred Astaire, who had retired from the screen two years earlier. Before he would accept the role, however, Astaire called Kelly and asked him three questions: "Will this hurt your career?," "Do you think I can learn the dances?," and "Is there any chance you could do the picture?" When Kelly assured him this was the only way Easter Parade could get made, Astaire enthusiastically agreed.
Astaire and Garland got along beautifully, and with all the right people in place, the picture came together like a charm. Easter Parade opened in July 1948 (the delays had made it impossible to have the film ready for Easter) and became one of MGM's top-grossing films of the year, taking in over $6.8 million on an investment of $2.5 million. The film's success brought Astaire back into movies as an MGM star and gave Garland one of her signature tunes - the tramp's duet, "A Couple of Swells." Starting with her smash appearance at the Palace in 1951, in which she performed the duet with Easter Parade director Charles Walters, the number became a part of her repertoire, often followed by a poignant rendition of "Over the Rainbow," still in tramp costume.
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Charles Walters
Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Sidney Sheldon
Based on a story by Francis Goodrich & Albert Hackett Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Irving Berlin
Principal Cast: Judy Garland (Hannah Brown), Fred Astaire (Don Hewes), Peter Lawford (Jonathan Harrow III), Ann Miller (Nadine Hale), Jules Munshin (Francois), Clinton Sundberg (Mike the Bartender).
C-104m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Frank Miller
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