From Biblical epics to animated bunnies, Easter and Passover have inspired many popular movies, some of them even good. As most of us celebrate these spring holidays indoors this year, here are a few film classics that may provide a welcome, post-meal diversion.
Any list must start with “Easter Parade” (1948) starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire as a pair of Broadway performers in 1912 New York. Irving Berlin’s music includes some of his best-known songs, such as the irresistible title tune, “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” and “We’re a Couple of Swells,” which Garland performs in her tramp’s outfit and which became one of her signatures.
The movie’s troubled behind-the-scenes beginnings saw director Vincente Minnelli depart just a few days into rehearsal and replaced by former dancer Charles Walters. Star Gene Kelly broke his ankle during rehearsals, making room for Astaire, who’d retired but was, thankfully, lured back to the big screen. Cyd Charisse was to have her first major role as his dancing partner, but she broke her leg, which gave newcomer Ann Miller her first big break.
Despite all this, “Easter Parade” ended up a big hit for MGM and its enduring legacy is as a beloved seasonal classic. It is available on Amazon and will be on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on April 12 at 8 p.m.
There are many Biblical epics to choose from, but since legendary actor Max von Sydow, best known for his work in Ingmar Bergman’s films, died in March, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) is a fitting start. Von Sydow is an austere Jesus in director George Steven’s epic retelling of the life of Christ. Stevens directed classics such as “A Place in the Sun,” “Giant” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but this lavish, big-budget Bible epic isn’t his best.
The huge, all-star cast, definitely a mixed bag, includes Telly Savalas as Pilate; Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene; Charlton Heston as John the Baptist; Shelley Winters as the woman healed by touching Christ’s garment; and John Wayne, woefully miscast as a centurion at the crucifixion. Despite its weaknesses, the three-and-one-half hour film, shot in the Ultra Panavision 70 process, offers some exquisite, rapturous cinematography and Alfred Newman’s ethereal score. It is available for free on Amazon Prime and also airs on TCM on April 12 at 4 p.m.
Director Cecil B. DeMille’s epic “The Ten Commandments” (1956) is the classic Passover movie since it’s about how Moses (Charlton Heston), saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter, turns his back on a life of privilege within the family of the Pharaoh’s son Rameses (Yul Brynner) to set his Hebrew people free. DeMille created the original 1923 silent version and this iconic 1956 “remake” would be the legendary director’s final film.
Unlike “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which was filmed in Culver City, California, “The Ten Commandments” was shot in VistaVision on location in Egypt before finishing on the Paramount lot for eight months. The most expensive film ever made at the time, it won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, notably for the still-impressive illusion of the parting of the Red Sea, which was achieved by filming large tanks flooded with 350,000 gallons of water with gelatin added to thicken it, and wind machines then playing the footage in reverse. The film is available on Amazon.
For the youngsters, “Hop” (2011) is on Netflix, but the movie lost me early on with a completely unnecessary scene of the Easter Bunny-wanna-be arriving in Los Angeles and immediately heading to the Playboy Mansion. Crude humor in a movie aimed at children is a deal-breaker, but Playboy bunny jokes are lazy even in movies for adults.
Far better to check out the British animated anthology television series from the 1990s, “The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends.” Although not available on streaming services, it is available on DVD, and YouTube has a decent version available that’s nearly four hours in length and contains nearly all the episodes.
Faithfully based on the works of Beatrix Potter and featuring beautifully animated recreations of Peter Rabbit and her other animal characters, such as Tom Kitten, Jemima Puddle-duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Samuel Whiskers, and Pigling Bland, each short film opens with a live-action Potter (Niamh Cusack) at her animal-filled, English country home, creating her books and sipping tea at her desk. We’re then whisked into her simple yet sophisticated stories, all lovingly adapted, whimsical and literate.
When was the last time you heard the word “soporific” used casually in a children’s movie? The animation captures Potter’s delicate, detailed watercolors in her books, as well as the timeless stories that unfold gently and entertainingly, without the frenetic pace and quick cuts of most new animated films. The actors supplying the crisp British voices are first-rate and the music, particularly the theme song, is sweetly lyrical and melodic. No doubt Beatrix Potter would have approved of “The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends.”