Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) is in a sunny mood as Easter approaches, and strolls down the street wishing everyone a cheery hello. He goes into a milliner's to buy a hat for his dancing partner Nadine Hale (Ann Miller), then a toyshop for a fluffy bunny, although he has to persuade a kid there who has his eye on it that it will be going to the right home. Once he has purchased these gifts, he heads over to Nadine's apartment only to find that she may be charmed by his generosity, but she has some bad news for him: she is breaking up their partnership. No amount of coaxing will get her to change her mind, so should Don be looking for someone new?
Yes, he should, and the girl he ends up choosing is barroom singer Hannah Brown, played by Judy Garland. But there was some partner-swapping going on behind the scenes as well, as this was meant to be another pairing with Garland and Gene Kelly, and would have been except that he injured his ankle a couple of days before filming began. A replacement was sought, and Astaire was suggested, but nobody knew if he wanted to return to the screen as he had retired a couple of years before; as luck would have it, he was a fan of Judy's and was pleased to make a comeback, wisely as it turned out as Easter Parade was a huge hit.
Much of this could be put down to the high quality of the musical numbers, combined with the star wattage of Astaire and Garland, because as a story, this was strictly uninspired backstage melodrama stuff. It actually detailed not a love triangle, but a love quadrangle (or square, if you like) as along with Don's pining after Nadine, and Hannah's longing for Don, Peter Lawford appeared as his best friend "Professor" Jonathan, caught between both Nadine, who likes him and Hannah, who has to let him down gently. Lawford was not a heavyweight talent like his co-stars, but ironically he makes heavy weather of his scenes whereas they come across as if they're dancing on air.
Offering Lawford his own song was a mistake, for example, but he only gets the one and then we can get back to seeing and hearing those better suited for the Irving Berlin tunes strut their stuff. In a neat development, Don and Hannah don't start dancing up a storm right away, as he has to teach her what to do, turning her into his protégée to replace Nadine, which is precisely what she does both professionally and romantically. The drama here is mildly engaging but you do find yourself wondering when the next song is going to happen along, as the comedy isn't top notch either - although Hannah's trick to get passing males to look at her as Don walks behind her, willing her to be impressive, is a fun joke.
But you won't recall the bits in between so vividly as you will the occasions where the stars, three of them anyway, show us what they're made of in the way of the Terpsichorean arts. Miller gets to rat-a-tat her way through Shakin' the Blues Away (all the more stirring when you know the physical pain she was in at the time - she keeps beaming all the while), and Astaire has his own showstopper when he twirls his way through Steppin' Out with My Baby, most memorable for the part where he dances in slow motion while everyone else continues to perform at full speed. Garland keeps up with him in their duets, and the most celebrated scene in the film, A Couple of Swells, is rightly lauded, and besides, she was the best singer in the film anyway. A better frame to hang these on might have made an all-time classic; as it is the production lifts it well above the ordinary.