Meet Me in St. Louis
One of the finest American musicals, this 1944 film by Vincente Minnelli is an intentionally self-contained story set in 1903. A happy St. Louis family is shaken to their roots by the prospect of moving to New York, where the father has a better job pending. Judy Garland heads the cast in what amounts to a splendid, end-of-an-era story that nicely rhymes with the onset of the 20th century. The film is extraordinarily alive, the characters strong, and the musical numbers are so splendidly part of the storytelling that you don't feel the film has stopped for an interlude. --Tom Keogh
The Harvey Girls
Sometimes lively, sometimes pokey, this Technicolor MGM musical inspires mixed feelings in aficionados of the form--except on one point. No viewer will question why "On the Atchison, Topeka, & the Santa Fe" won the best song Oscar for 1946. This is a brilliant, inventive song given an epic staging. Director George Sidney pulls out all the stops for this wowser--even Marjorie Main sings, an eardrum-testing sound. The real-life Harvey Girls were waitresses imported to the far-flung Fred Harvey Hotels, civilizing oases along the railroad lines out west. The fictional Harvey Girls is set in Sandrock, where the traveling waitresses are joined by a sort of mail-order bride (Judy Garland) whose prospective husband is a bust--he's a roughhewn rancher played by Chill Wills. Garland is in fine spunky form; unfortunately, her romance is with John Hodiak (as the owner of a dance hall), that uninspiring World War II-era lead. The film's other great Johnny Mercer-Harry Warren song is the unexpectedly melancholy "It's a Great Big World," performed in a lovely trio by Garland, Virginia O'Brien, and the young Cyd Charisse. The tall, deadpan O'Brien also does a comic take on "The Wild, Wild West" while shoeing a horse. With kewpie-faced Angela Lansbury as a bespangled dance-hall gal and Ray Bolger high-stepping through a dance solo, there are enough good people on board to keep the wheels a-turning "all the way to Californ-eye-yay." --Robert Horton
Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) is devastated when his longtime dancing partner, Nadine Hale (Ann Miller), breaks up the team to set out on her own. Determined to prove that he can succeed without her, Astaire vows that he can pick any random chorus girl and make her a star. Fortunately for him, the chorus girl he picks happens to be one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century, Judy Garland (playing Hannah Brown). Easter Parade turned out to be the first and only collaboration between the two screen legends. Garland made the 1948 film despite ongoing health problems, then had to pull out of a planned follow-up, The Barkleys of Broadway (Ginger Rogers replaced her). Astaire had retired following Blue Skies in 1946 but was brought in for this film as an emergency replacement after Gene Kelly broke his ankle playing touch football. Fortunately, Easter Parade always feels like an Astaire film rather than a Kelly film, from its Pygmalion-esque plot (which helps explain the principals' 23-year age disparity) to its score of Irving Berlin standards (some new, some recycled from earlier films). The film capitalizes on the strengths of both stars, Astaire in dance solos, including "Drum Crazy" and "Steppin' Out with My Baby" (MGM's take on Astaire's earlier, persona-defining "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails"), and Garland in vocal solos, including the torchy "Better Luck Next Time." The stars especially shine, however, when they perform together in their vaudeville numbers, most notably the persona-defying hobo routine "We're a Couple of Swells." Watch this classic every Easter. --David Horiuchi
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