For this week’s edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has selected the seasonally-minded Easter Parade, a 1948 musical produced by MGM’s legendary Freed Unit during their “drunk on Technicolor” years. It’s a period costume romance set right before World War I, it’s the only onscreen pairing of Fred Astaire and Judy Garland (they’re both in Ziegfeld Follies, but not together), and it’s by a commanding margin the most visually interesting film directed by Charles Walters, a workhorse at MGM whose work was never, outside of this one movie, anywhere near the league of a Vincente Minnelli or Gene Kelly or Stanley Donen.
But still, for this one movie, everything clicked: it is, along with Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the most color-driven films MGM made in the ’40s, particularly in regard to its cavalcade of stunning gowns, which do double duty as both eye candy and visual codex to following along the characters’ psychological journeys.
I could go on and on, but I shall restrain myself; this isn’t a review, just a Best Shot essay. And for my favorite shot, I picked this one from about 15 minutes into the movie:
Doesn’t look like much, yet, I know. At this point, Astaire’s Don Hewes is drowning his sorrows at having been thrown over by his long-term dancing partner, Nadine Hale (Ann Miller). He’s in a gray sort of mood, as you can tell just from looking at the shot.
But soft! what pink through yonder curtain breaks?
In that mess of chorus girls is Garland’s Hannah Brown, who is about to revive Don’s low spirits both professionally and romantically, because this is exactly the kind of movie that it is. In just a few seconds, the frame is absolutely lousy with pink, though Don is still too wrapped up in himself to notice it.
Indeed, the only time he notices about the girls is to nastily suggest to his buddy that he could turn any one of them into the next Nadine Hale. And this is what he does, snatching Hannah more or less at random.
And that’s the other thing that’s so amazing about this shot, and the real reason I picked it: this is the first shot in which Judy Garland appears in the whole movie. Customarily, the top-billed star – one of MGM’s biggest names at the time – would be given an introductory shot that focuses on her face with all the loving attention that could be lavished on the human skull; here, she’s undifferentiated from five other women, out-of-focus, and never once positioned such that the eye is drawn to here as more than just part of that pink mass.
It violates our expectations of how a star of Garland’s stature “ought” to be treated, and underlines the stakes of Don’s boast: for at this point, the actress really is just any random woman. In this respect, the film even plays into the evergreen Hollywood trope that the stars are just normal folks, especially in Garland’s case; alongside Astaire, she’s one of the oddest-looking A-listers MGM ever had, and if not for her outstanding voice, she perhaps would have been just a normal person. A cozy myth, that the stars are human beings, but one that MGM did a great job of perpetuating, and this film does it as well as anything this side of Singin’ in the Rain itself.