Easter Parade, a trifle of a musical revue about how one vaudevillian hoofer has to replace his female costar when she gets too big for her tap pants, has about as much to do with Easter as its sense of directorial personality has to do with a four-pack of pink marshmallow Peeps. It’s a dud, devoid of personality and managing to make such colossal—or, at any rate, such familiar—musical talents as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Ann Miller seem about as kinetic as, well, the titular stroll along 5th Avenue. It’s a film that seems more content to strut its frills and lace and simply “be seen” than to invite its audience into the inner workings of its genre, its characters, its behind-the-scenes Machiavellian maneuverings, its craft service table, its book of Irving Berlin outtakes.
Now, I’m not asking that every musical lift its skirt to show off its roots of self-reflectiveness a la Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, but, my God, at least reflect something! Hastily recruited by producer Arthur Freed (and apparently sent to work with instructions to keep everything simple), Easter Parade‘s director Charles Walters doesn’t have Minnelli’s knack for smuggling cheeky nods of artifice and satire into the trappings that enrich the cinematic experience of the archetypal “let’s put on a show” playbill. Worse yet, the musical numbers don’t even adhere to any sort of emotional narrative (they come in the same slipshod sequence of most Macy’s parades), and the dance choreography seems to comprehend the syntax of movement without being able to string together a coherent sentence, which Astaire is a good enough dancer to compensate for (not unlike Rex Harrison speak-singing in My Fair Lady), but not Garland or Miller—whose would-be showstopper “Shakin’ the Blues Away” showcases what happens when happy feet aren’t given a road map.
All told, the film’s most salient benefit is in its almost accidental reflection of the old Shakespearean maxim that fuels most backstage musicals: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Almost every incidental character has their own song to sing, their moment to define their function in the plot through performance. A strong opening sequence features a—whaddayaknow?— parade of hat-shop girls modeling the latest chapeaux while taking a line of the refrain: “Happy Easter!” And in a spectacularly digressive detour mid-film, an upscale restaurant matire d’ François (Jules Munshin) is allowed a luxurious two minutes (to put that into perspective, nearly as long as the title tune) to demonstrate that even a recipe for a mundane Caesar’s salad can be turned into an orgy of showfolk theatricality through storytelling and pantomime. The hammy bitch even summons tears while mincing the imaginary onions (though the bobbing fist at the bottom of the frame suggests he’s summoning something else entirely): “This gives the salad flavor. It makes it bright, refreshing…and gay.” That’s entertainment.