This week’s episode of Nathaniel’s ‘Best Shot‘ features Easter Parade with songs written by Irving Berlin wrote between 1914 and 1948, the latter being the year the movie came out. The movie is set in between 1911 and 1912, a time of pre-war gaiety, when characters like Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) strolled on Fifth Avenue, the American version of Parisian boulevards, and greets his fellow Manhattanites ‘Happy Easter’ on that holiday’s eve, which is known in my part of the woods as Black Saturday. And apparently Black Saturday is when secular Protestant Gilded age New Yorkers bought gifts to each other when all we got were eggs and dried up palm leaves. God being Catholic sucks.
This is an access to a culture, a 103-minute extension of the ridiculous silhouettes in the fashion show in Cukor’s The Women, shown in a technicolour version of traditional Golden Age film making. And I don’t care if it didn’t really exist because it brought us a fluffy movie like this, with its avenues of shops and restaurants where people on the up-and-up flashed what they had while people of all classes mimed what they wish they had to offer. A field where the exotic shape shifter – embodied within Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) – battled and arguably lost against the all-American – Nadine’s simpler and thus better replacement Hanna ‘Juanita’ Brown (Judy Garland).’ A routine in the Ziegfeld Follies about fashion magazines and being surprised when some of the rags featured are still running. Stages where Miller can make her heels click without moving and Astaire slows down so that we’ll notice that he’s on black face. A place where, just like “Revenge,” dinners are replaced by scandals or in typical musical fashion, a song and dance routine.
In obvious ways, this is Judy’s movie, about her discoveries and rediscoveries. The movie reminds us the audience of the qualities that made us love her, that middle American-ness can be qualities that can still make a star survive amidst the countless dangerous sexpots of the 1940s. In one scene she makes funny faces when posing doesn’t turn men’s heads. She’s at her best when she performs with the girly quality with which she’s made relative peace in her adulthood. But despite holding on to the true self that might be buried under misguided mentoring, she doesn’t succumb but gets integrated into the glamourous Broadway lifestyle within which she must play. The best shots featured in this post are MGM’s clean versions of Manhattan’s avenues, leading up to the last gratifying moment of Judy/Hanna’s stardom, where character and actress takes it all on in good humour.
Oh, Joan Fontaine. She tells a character’s story like it’s her own. For less than a decade in her career she’s been playing little girls who grow up. Her performance is Max Ophuls’ “Letter from an Unknown Woman” made me remember “Rebecca” and start my ‘Best Female Performances’ list, but that’s still too big a task for me. She’s like the precursor to actresses like Kirsten Dunst, the latter having played teenagers for 15 years in her career.
Lisa Berndle (Fontaine) experiences an unrequited love with an egotistic pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan). Her earlier mannerisms are waif-y and awkward but she grows into a poised but nonetheless oblivious and idealist of a woman. Her voice is more full and thus distracting this time around. That also means she puts just as much sympathy and maturity to her character the same way that Jourdan does with Stefan.
The characters are still placed within the constraints of a melodrama. I love melodramas but I can’t find a place in my heart for this one. Lisa’s still a stalker. She must have known how Stefan would treat her knowing that he goes through women. She feels no anger for him despite his forgetfulness and how he has not supported their child. Also, despite of how bad his actions look on paper, the film doesn’t blatantly show a streak of meanness on Stefan. However, if the audience had a bigger hint of that, they might have walked out in droves.
What I also appreciate in “Letter” is Ophuls’ auteur-like touch on the film. There’s the long take camerawork that follows its subjects like a carousel. There’s diamonds and glitz and trumpets and music. There’s also the little freedom that the he allows female characters, like he does in parts of “The Earrings of Madame de…”. I’m not an expert on classic melodrama, but I can’t imagine any early female characters allowed to have a second marriage or a marriage after a second child, or the social mobility involving with a 19th century model marrying a general. With Ophuls’ worldview and Fontaine’s performance, it also seems like the movie is more about the fun Lisa had along the way instead of the tragedy that befalls her, and both feel refreshing.