Ah, Easter Parade (1948). It’s one of those Arthur Freed musicals that exists as a delivery mechanism for singing, dancing, and Technicolor. Here, narrative becomes the cinematic equivalent of packing peanuts: kinda squishy, cushioning the goodies inside, but totally disposable. We get an abundance of love stories, with Judy Garland pining for Fred Astaire, who’s still tangled up with ex-partner Ann Miller, who’s chasing after charisma vacuum Peter Lawford. But these subplots only get cursory resolutions, because the movie knows why it’s there—i.e., to look and sound pretty.
Thankfully, it succeeds at both, because it’s this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience. When the film heaves aside its obligatory romances, it becomes a pure performance showcase draped in rich purples, yellows, and greens. Just look at the gorgeous image above, from Astaire’s “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” dance. After running through a series of partners, he takes the foreground alone in his gleaming suit and, cane in hand, sways in slow-motion. With anyone else, this might be showing off. With Astaire, the shot plays like a physics experiment, an attempt to figure out how the hell he does it. But he’s not the only one doing magnificent work here, as demonstrated by my favorite shot.
Frivolous as Easter Parade’s backstage story may be, Judy really wrings the pathos out of it with “Better Luck Next Time.” She belts out the whole song in a single two-minute take, passing through false hope and frustration before concluding that “There ain’t gonna be no next time for me,” and breaking into tears. It’s one of the film’s least lavish scenes, but still one of the most effective thanks to the precision of her every plaintive gesture. Her eyes take over the screen, searching for that elusive “next time,” but after the line “That can never be…”, she shuts them for a second.
It’s as if she’s overwhelmed. As if she has to close her eyes to retreat, to gather energy, to brace herself for the last line of the song. As if she’d decided to personally make up for all the emotional intensity that the film’s screenplay lacks. Easter Parade has plenty of spectacular numbers—Astaire’s high-energy performance of the title song, for example, or Miller’s salacious “Shakin’ the Blues Away”—but I’m a sucker for a confessional solo. She may think there ain’t gonna be a next time, but I’ll watch her sing it again and again and again.