Easter in the old movies comes to us in fashion, flowers, and songs. The two films, “Easter Parade” and “My Dream is Yours” give us plenty of these, along with colors of the rainbow like so much Easter egg dye.
Though Cecil B. DeMille may have tackled both the story of Christ and the story of Moses, a holiday like Easter was usually presented its most secular clothing. But, Hollywood did not create this new Easter, it merely exploited it.
As far back as the mid-1900s, Easter began a new secular role when New York City’s Fifth Avenue became the site of the so-called “Easter Parade,” when the wealthy classes strolled home from church in the latest European fashions, watched with fascination by the working class people who hovered on the edges of society. This is the world Judy Garland gets a glimpse of as a young, awkward hoofer in “Easter Parade.”
As the 20th Century dawned, other cities picked up this craze, and after World War I, when the boom of the 1920s put more money in the working man’s pockets, the idea of springtime fashions became possible for everyone. Amid the frenzied commercial cult of the 1920s, new clothes were requisite for the entire family. Milliners were as important to life then as the milkman. One didn’t leave home without a hat, and if a holiday required new clothes, then it also required new hats. The Easter bonnet was born.
The holiday spending spread to candy, flowers, and small toys in the shape of rabbits and chicks. In some cities, the biggest shopping day of the year, right through the Depression, was not the day after Thanksgiving as it is now, but Holy Saturday.
By 1948-49, which gave us “Easter Parade” and “My Dream is Yours” there were more families, more kiddies, and more money. Freddie, the little boy of single mom Doris Day in “My Dream is Yours” gets showered with presents of toy rabbits by all the adults.
The song Fred Astaire sings while chapeau shopping in “Easter Parade” is called “Happy Easter,” and on his radio show on April 17, 1949, Easter Sunday, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone sing this song while they take their listeners on an imaginary Easter parade up Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, touting the movie. One of the passers by they “meet,” incidentally, is played by Sheldon Leonard, who has a minor role in “My Dream is Yours,” and also a character played by Mel Blanc, who does the voice of Bugs Bunny in the animated sequence in “My Dream is Yours.” Before we get into playing Six Degrees of Sheldon Leonard, let’s note that by the following year, 1950, Gene Autry released his hit, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” and the American suburban Easter was firmly in place, planted by Hollywood. The “bunny trail” was the back yard.
The whole family may not get new Easter clothes anymore, but the candy makers still do a brisk business, and these two movies remain to tell us a lot about how things used to be.
More tomorrow on “Easter Parade” and “My Dream is Yours.”