Friday, 23 March 2007

In My Easter Bonnet With All The Frills Upon It - Column Entry

In My Easter Bonnet With All The Frills Upon It

When asked what place Irving Berlin had in American popular music, Jerome Kern (composer of Showboat) simply stated Irving Berlin is American popular music. From early compositions such as Alexander’s Ragtime Band to the best of his Broadway shows, Annie Get Your Gun, the Russian immigrant Isaiah Baline (as he was born) was and remains one of the great exponents of popular song both on and off Broadway. Highly regarded by his contemporaries, both for his song writing prowess as well as championing the rights of composers and lyricists, Berlin was equally loved by the public – therefore it was inevitable that Hollywood would show some interest in his work.

Berlin maintained a great deal of control on his work, and was involved with many movie projects over the years – some of which reached fruition, others of which vanished without trace. Without a doubt the most successful of Berlin’s film projects was the 1948 Easter Parade, which included songs from his early career along with some specially written for the movie. As Easter is just around the corner it seems an opportune time to look at this musical. It was Irving Berlin himself who had the idea for “Easter Parade” and went to Twentieth Century Fox offering them the project for $600,000 and a percentage. Fox wasn’t impressed with the financial deal but Louis B.Mayer (head of MGM) instructed producer Arthur Freed to snap up the deal before anyone else got their hands on it.

The movie was originally slated to star Judy Garland and Gene Kelly with Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson in supporting roles. Before long it became clear that the Sinatra role would only require minimal singing so this was passed on to Peter Lawford. When Graysons role became essentially a dance number , the operatic soprano also bowed out to be replaced by Cyd Charrisse, and then in turn she was replaced by Ann Miller. The biggest change in casting was when Gene Kelly broke his leg while indulging in an extra curricular ball game and , at his own suggestion, was replaced by Fred Astaire who, despite retiring two years previously, was eager to get back to Film making. In the directors chair was Charles Walters, another replacement – this time for Vincente Minnelli.

As with many of these old movie musicals the plot is simple. Don Hewes (Astaire), one half of acclaimed Vaudeville song and dance team Nadine and Hewes is thrown into turmoil when Nadine leaves the act to star in a Broadway show. A desolate Don drowns his sorrows at a café, where he vows that he can turn any of the café’s chorus girls into a star. As he leaves he offers Nadine’s job to Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) – although Hannah doesn’t believe him for a minute. It’s only after he has gone that she is made aware of who Don is, and that this could be her big chance.

The next morning Don begins trying to transform Hannah into a rival for Nadine and is determined that at the next Easter Parade all eyes will be on her. First step is to change the poor girls name to Juanita, and then they set off on a casual stroll to see how much of an impact she makes on passers by. Initially the impact is little or none, until Hannah starts making faces at all the men she sees who then can’t help but give her a second glance. Their act is not successful, and its decided that imitating Nadine is not the way to go – so they revamp the act focussing on Hannah’s real skills, and around this time she meets Johnny Harrow (Peter Lawford) and is immediately smitten. Hannah and Hewes become so successful that a producer wants to build a Broadway show around their talents, and their opening night on Easter Saturday 1913 is an unparalleled triumph, culminating in what became a signature number for Astaire and Garland – A Couple Of Swells, performed as a couple of tramps! As always seems to happen, at the eleventh hour, a misunderstanding arises and Hannah flees to the café where she first met Don as she is convinced he wants to re-team with Nadine. Don’s attempts to reconcile with Hannah fall on deaf ears, until the next morning – Easter Sunday, when Hannah surprises him with flowers, candy and even a bunny rabbit in a hat! Then needless to say its time for the Easter Parade of the title, and as all eyes are indeed on Hannah, the ever suave Don slips an engagement ring on her finger.

Ok, so the plot is kind of simple but that’s not to take away from a stunning set of musical numbers. Contractually Berlin was to provide eight songs from his back catalogue and another eight original compositions. Many of his earlier works are perfect for the vaudeville scenes – such as I Love A Piano and When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam’ . However, it’s in the songs written specially for the film that it really does begin to soar! Drum Crazy is a typical prop laden Fred Astaire dance number as he uses all the merchandise in a toy store to attempt to distract a young boy from the last Easter bunny! It Only Happens When I Dance With You is a lovely romantic song that, although written specially for Garland, is first sung by Astaire in the movie as he attempts to woo Nadine. Steppin’ Out With My Baby is another big dance routine by Fred along with the chorus and is a real showstopper. Ann Miller gets to perform one of her most memorable numbers Shaking The Blues Away. This energetic dance number is remarkable in that Ann was actually suffering from back problems at the time and spent each night in traction during the movies production. Undoubtedly the films highlight is A Couple Of Swells, performed as a couple of tramps with outsized dirty clothes and blackened teeth, this is one of the most memorable musical performances ever committed to film. Fred’s costume is an absolute antithesis to his usual urbane screen image. One of the highlights of the film for Garland was her rendition of Mr Monotony however, for an unrecorded reason, this scene was cut from the picture and did not see the light of day until That’s Entertainment III was released in 1994. The song had a similarly beleagured history on stage where it was cut from both Call Me Madam and Miss Liberty before finally finding a home in 1989’s Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.

The film was a huge hit, and continues to make money almost sixty years after it’s initial release. Sadly this was to be the only screen pairing for Astaire and Garland, a second movie should have been The Berkeleys Of Broadway however, owing to Garland being ill, Astaire’s erstwhile dance partner, Ginger Rogers, stepped into the breach. In private it is said that Astaire found Garland to be his best dancing partner. This was no doubt partly due to Garland being a very quick study. At the time Fred said She’s just great! I go through these very intricate dance steps. She asks me to go through them again. That’s all the instruction she needs, she picks it up so quickly. And she could do things – anything – without rehearsing and come off perfectly. She could learn faster, do everything better than most people. Factor into this Garland’s admiration for Astaire and it’s easy to see why this pairing made such magic in this movie. Then of course there was Miller, who came onto the film after a miscarriage and serious back injuries, and admired both of her co-stars greatly – I was in excruciating pain with my back all during the shooting: I couldn’t dance in the steel brace (I was supposed to be wearing), so I had to be taped up each day….Each night my mother strapped me back into the harness and the traction bed. But it was all worth it to be in a picture with Fred and Judy. But I mustn’t finish without once again mentioning Irving Berlin. A true giant of the musical theatre scene, Berlin went on to live to over a hundred years old and was still composing in his seventies. Only recently he was back on Broadway with Annie Get Your Gun and there are no signs of his work disappearing from the musical theatre canon anytime soon.

So there we go! Stuck for something to do over Easter? Well step back in time to this wonderful 1948 movie and be the smartest fella in the Easter Parade!

There is a great re-mastered edition on the Turner Classic Movies label, and the movie is also out on DVD. Irving Berlins songs figure on many, many albums – not least in Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook, and an early album from Michael Feinstein – Remember. I suspect that any collection of standards is likely to include at least one Berlin tune anyway, so keep your eyes open for his name in the composing credits!

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