1940s Film, Holidays in Film, musicals

“Easter Parade”

“Miss Brown, what idiot ever told you you were a dancer?”
“You did!”

In 1948, MGM released a vibrant Technicolor musical called Easter Parade. Originally, Gene Kelly had been cast as Don Hewes, Cyd Charisse was cast as Nadine Hale, and Frank Sinatra was cast as Jonathan Harrow III. Because of various circumstances, the cast was completely switched around. The finished product starred Fred Astaire as Don, Judy Garland as Hannah Brown (as planned), Ann Miller as Nadine, and Peter Lawford as Jonathan Harrow III.

The story, set in 1912 and 1913, begins as a Broadway star named Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) receives the crushing news that his partner Nadine (Ann Miller) is suddenly quitting the act. Nadine tells him that she’s received an offer to go solo and Don tries to persuade her to stay with him. They go into a lovely song and dance number (“It Only Happens When I Dance with You”) and she seems to be persuaded to stay…until Don’s charming and handsome friend, Jonathan Harrow III (Peter Lawford), walks in to the apartment. Nadine has obviously moved on from Don to Jonathan.

Annex - Miller, Ann (Easter Parade)_NRFPT_01
(courtesy of doctormacro.com)

When it looks like Nadine can no longer be persuaded to stay, Don sets out to prove to her that he can find any ordinary chorus girl and turn her into a star. He wants to make her jealous. Enter Hannah Brown (Judy Garland). Hannah is a singer and dancer working at a local bar. She catches Don’s eye, so he grabs her off the stage, tells her to quit her job, and meet him for her first lesson the next day.

As Don tries to model Hannah after Nadine (Hannah has no idea about the scheme), he attempts to teach her how to dance exactly like Nadine, dress like her, and even have her name changed to something similar (Juanita). In one of the scenes, he even tries to teach Hannah how to be “exotic” and extra attractive to men. It really shows off Judy’s underrated comedic gift:

As the story progresses, love triangles unfold and cheery musical numbers ensue. This is one of the most memorable numbers in the film, sung and tapped wonderfully – as always – by Ann Miller:

Easter Parade is one of my personal favorite musicals. I think part of that is because it’s one of the movies I watched a lot when I was little. I often talk about movies that I watched as a child on here because many of them have made a huge impact on me. I love reminiscing about watching movies like this one with a different view of the world. Fortunately, I still watch Easter Parade with the same childlike amusement as I did when I was six. I’m really grateful for that.

However, I will say that as I’ve gotten older, I now think that Hannah should’ve chosen Jonathan instead of Don. As much as it pains me to say that Fred Astaire shouldn’t have been chosen, I’m one of those people that thinks she’d be so much happier with Jonathan. Maybe “Fella with an Umbrella” has something to do with it, but I mean it!

Having said that, I still think the ending is adorable. I can’t easily argue with a happy Judy and Fred. I hope you all have a happy Easter! Go drum crazy, shake the blues away, and sing to someone you love in the rain.

Before you go, here’s a bonus musical number that was cut from the final print of the film. Notice that Judy is wearing the same suit that she’d wear two years later in Summer Stock during the iconic “Get Happy” number.

1940s Film, Films to check out

 “Meet Me in St. Louis”: A Love Letter 15+ Years in the Making

meetmeinstlouis
The VHS I used to watch had this cover. Nostalgia is on high level. Thanks, internet.

I don’t know how many times I’ve talked/made references about Meet Meet_Me_In_St_Louis_PosterMe in St. Louis (1944), but it’s a big, big, big number. I watched it a lot with my Grandma Riggs, who played a big part in introducing me to a handful of classic movies, especially of  the musical genre. It’s a film that, in my eyes, is pure magic–darn near perfect. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve been a Missouri girl all my life, so maybe I’m a bit biased.

Meet Me in St. Louis, a story based on writer Sally Benson’s childhood experiences in turn-of-the-century St. Louis, is divided into four vignettes: Summer 1903, Autumn 1903, Winter 1903, and Spring 1904. It follows the Smiths, an upper-middle class family whose members each looking forward to something in the year of 1903:

The film opens:

Lon (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.), the oldest sibling and only son, is looking forward to attending college at Princeton. The two oldest sisters, Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) are giddily looking forward to the World’s Fair which is to take place in Spring of 1904. The two younger sisters Tootie (brilliant Margaret O’Brien) and Agnes (Joan Carroll) are up to their own shenanigans. Tootie, the youngest of the family, is hilariously morbid. She’s five years old and owns a doll that has “four fatal diseases”.

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Esther (Judy Garland) wears a beautiful tennis dress in the first scene of the film. I’ve always loved it.
The second oldest daughter, Esther, is introduced as she arrives home one lovely summer afternoon after finishing a match of tennis with her friends. She runs up the porch steps, enters the house, and promptly tells Rose to accompany her to sit on the porch, as she has sighted the boy next door — AKA the boy of her dreams. Here’s the catch: Esther has never even spoken to John Truett (Tom Drake), the neighbor in question.

The scene in which Esther and Rose glide onto the porch is, for some reason, one that I really adore. And this brings me to one aspect of the film which enriches it so much: the rich, vibrant Technicolor.

In this scene, John is standing casually in his front yard smoking a pipe. Esther and Rose sit down on the edge of the porch and pretend not to notice John, but at the same time get him to notice them. The camera does a sudden close-up on Esther’s face in one brief shot, showing her beaming face set against the blooming flowers on the porch, a soft-shot focus, and swelling music. It’s absolutely lovely. Vincente Minnelli–who directed this film–really was creating his own art.

After they return indoors, Rose brushes off Esther’s crush on her way upstairs and reassures her that “…When you get to be my age, you’ll find out there are more important things in life than boys.”

Esther responds accordingly:


I love every little detail in this film: how the four season title cards begin with a beautiful photo, pretty music, and goes right into motion; the absolutely gorgeous use of Technicolor and the costuming/sets which amplified the color; the occasional off-color/morbid humor exhibited by little Tootie…

OH. Tootie, oh, Tootie. Where do I begin with her?

In the Halloween scene, Tootie becomes the heralded daredevil of the neighborhood when she single-handedly marches to the door of “the meanest” man on the block, rings his door bell, and lobs a clump of flour in his face. The hit signifies a “kill”, the object of the game played on Halloween. Very Tootie. She is praised as the bravest of the group.

After that, a group – including Tootie and Agnes – (off camera at this point) stage a prank on the trolley car. They dress up a doll that looks like a person and place it on the tracks hoping that the trolley will derail. Fortunately, the trolley is kept safe and Tootie escapes the law after John Truett pulls her away from the scene and hides her in a shed. Well, Tootie – being Tootie – decides to glitz the story up to something that it’s not:

And who could forget the cakewalk number at Lon’s going away party?

I love how many classic film fans enjoy watching Meet Me in St. Louis during the holidays. I never thought of it as a Christmas movie until seeing people talk about it online over the past few years.

Probably because of the fact that I watched it all the time when I was kid, it never dawned on me that it worked really well as a Christmas movie. Now I can’t resist curling up late at night in late December to watch this and all of the other amazing classic films that pop up during the season.

One of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time was created specifically for this film and one of the best snowman-decapitating scenes follows (but for real, this scene…): 


When it was released in 1944, the majority of the public and critics sang praises. TIME Magazine called it “one of the year’s prettiest pictures” and gave little Margaret O’Brien a rave review: “[Her] song and her cakewalk done in a nightgown at a grown-up party are entrancing acts. Her self-terrified Halloween adventures richly set against firelight, dark streets, and the rusty confabulations of fallen leaves, bring this section of the film very near the first-rate.”


As a bonus, here’s a deleted song that was written not by the film’s musical composer Hugh Martin but Rodgers & Hammerstein. It’s really lovely and it was meant to be sung in a scene between Esther and John when they visit the fairground construction site. Better yet, this is a raw recording, so you can hear Judy talk a little bit in between recording. Producer Arthur Freed said that the musical number slowed down the movie too much. I’ll let you decide for yourselves:

The musical number you can’t miss: “The Trolley Song

Do you have any special memories of watching Meet Me in St. Louis? Please share them with me!

Films to check out, Star Profiles

Harold Russell: Hero and Screen Legend

As much as I could say about The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and all of the wonderful performances in it, I want to zone in mainly on one of the cast members: Harold Russell, a man who should be more well-known than he is today.

In a publicity still for "The Best Years of Our Lives", 1946 (courtesy of commons.wikimedia.com
In a publicity still for “The Best Years of Our Lives”, 1946 (courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org)

Harold Russell was born in North Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1914 and moved with his remaining family to Cambridge, MA after his father died when Harold was a young boy. He started working odd jobs before he was a teenager.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7th, 1941 Russell–in his own words– “made a rush to the recruiting office” apparently because he felt that he was a failure. He volunteered to become a paratrooper after basic training was completed. After he learned to be a paratrooper and learned demolition, the United States Army decided to make him an instructor. It was after he became an instructor that his life would be changed forever.

On June 6th, 1944 Russell was at a camp in North Carolina teaching demolition to a group when a defective fuse caused TNT that he was holding in his hands to explode. As a result, the remaining parts of his hands were amputated three inches above his wrists. He was given two choices for prosthetic hands: steel hooks or plastic hands. He chose the hooks. Proving to be a fast learner, he adapted to using the hooks quite well and he was featured in a short training film in 1945 called Diary of a Sergeant for soldiers like him, showing his various struggles and how he had re-learned everyday tasks using his hooks.

His work in this short film caught the attention of director William Wyler, who was set to direct The Best Years of Our Lives, a drama centered around three men who return to civilian life from World War II and come home to their loved ones. It’s a movie filled with many dramatic, tear-inducing scenes but it also has romantic and hopeful moments. Wyler asked Samuel Goldwyn to hire Russell, and after some reluctance, Russell finally agreed to join the cast as the character Homer Parrish, a recently disabled sailor. The film also starred Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo. According to IMDb, his total salary for the film was roughly $10,000. Russell had never had any training in acting. Watching him onscreen shows that he had tremendous natural talent. He was that good. The fact that he had lost both hands in real life made his performance as a young man returning home from World War II to his family and girlfriend (Cathy O’Donnell-who plays the part with beautiful sensitivity) with a new disability that much more emotional.

Harold Russell proved to be a great actor in The Best Years of Our Lives. All of the actors in the movie were top-notch and gave phenomenal performances, but Harold Russell really stood out to me. There were several scenes that really hit me emotionally and most, if not all of them, were scenes in which he appeared. After I watched this movie all the way through for the first time, I was drawn to him; I wanted to learn his back-story. He went on to win two Oscars for his performance: the first for Best Supporting Actor and his second was an honorary Oscar given to him for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”. According to his page on Wikipedia, the Board of Governors decided to create this award in honor of Harold Russell because they wanted to salute him for his heroism. As he was a non-professional actor, they believed there was little chance of him winning the competitive Oscar. But he did, making him the only person in the history of the Academy Awards to win two Oscars for a single performance. And it was very well deserved.

The Best Years of Our Lives won a total of eight Oscars, including Russell’s honorary Oscar. It was a smash hit for 1946, beating out It’s a Wonderful Life, among others, as the winner of Best Picture. Not only is the acting top-notch; the writing, directing, musical score, and every other aspect are fantastic. I personally love the score, which was composed by Hugo Friedhofer, and won the Oscar for Best Original Score. It’s emotionally charged in a subtle but powerful and haunting style. It fully elevates the emotions viewers feel while watching the story unfold. You can find the score on YouTube.

Harold Russell (standing on the left side with his back facing the camera) in a scene from "The Best Years of Our Lives" with Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews (photo courtesy of doctormacro.com)
Harold Russell (far right) in a scene from “The Best Years of Our Lives” with (counterclockwise) Hoagy Carmichael, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, & Dana Andrews (courtesy of doctormacro.com) *click on photo to view full sized & high quality*
Promotional poster for "The Best Years of Our Lives", 1946 (courtesy of flickr.com/newhousedesign)
Promotional poster for “The Best Years of Our Lives”, 1946 (courtesy of flickr.com/newhousedesign)

Harold Russell acted very little after the film, with occasional roles on television and in just a couple of films later on in his life. He decided to dedicate a lot of his time to organizations dedicated to war veterans by the late 1940s. He became active in organizations for veterans, including AMVETS and World Veterans Foundation, which he helped establish in 1950. In 1961 he was appointed vice chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped by President Kennedy. In 1964 President Johnson made him the chairman and President Nixon reappointed him. He wrote two autobiographies in his lifetime. The first was Victory in My Hands, published in 1949 and The Best Years of My Life, published in 1981. Upon learning that he had written these autobiographies, I searched online to see if I could find copies of them. I was fortunate to find copies of both books on an online library that I can access through school. So naturally, I ordered both. I can’t wait to read them.

In 1992 he auctioned off his Best Supporting Actor Oscar (met with objections from the Academy) and it was sold to an anonymous fan for $60,500. He said that financial security and his wife’s health and well-being was most important to him. He still kept his cherished honorary Oscar.

Harold Russell died on January 29th, 2002 just after he turned 88. I hope his legacy is remembered many years from now because he was not only an amazing actor; he was a humble, strong, and kindhearted human, most importantly. I wish I could have had the chance to meet him or write to him. I was pretty young when he died and had no idea who he was before his death. I wish I could have thanked him for being so inspirational and I wish I could have just talked to him about life. But this is the closest that I can get to doing that. I’d like to write more about Harold Russell and this movie in the future and I plan on doing so. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is a movie that I believe everyone should watch at least once. It’s just that powerful. Just be sure to bring a box of tissues to place beside you. You’ll need them.