Sunday, April 3, 2016

Easter Parade: A star’s tragedy and triumph

Publicity photo of Ann Miller
for Easter Parade (1948)
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
This Easter Sunday*, as we celebrate with full-throated “Hallelujahs!” our precious Savior’s glorious triumph over death, many of us will also mark the joyous occasion by watching Easter Parade (1948), starring Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Peter Lawford and Ann Miller.

For many it’s an Easter tradition.

But, what few know is that, while Miller beams as she dances her way through this Easter classic, just before filming, she lost her unborn child and nearly died, herself, at the hands of an abusive husband. She was still suffering the after-effects of this tragedy during filming, about which I write in Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, along with the rest of Ann’s story.

Miller had had success in Hollywood initially, landing a key role in the Oscar-winning You Can’t Take It With You (1938) at age 15. Albeit, she rose the hard way.  As she wrote, “I became a Hollywood star on my talent, not on casting couches. If I had gone that route, I could have been a bigger star. That’s the name of the game in Filmlandia.”

But, while she avoided such pitfalls in her professional life, in her personal life, she was not so discriminating. When she was just 21, she began dating a wealthy oilman and steel heir, Reese Milner, whom she met through friends at the Mocambo nightclub. Milner was a tragic choice. Rare in the annals of Hollywood, Ann was a virgin at the time of her marriage, which lasted just one year, February 16, 1946 to January 22, 1947.

After marrying the Texas charmer, she soon became pregnant. One night in a drunken rage, Milner kicked his wife, now eight-months’ pregnant, down the stairs, causing her to go into premature labor. Ann gave birth to a baby girl, Mary Milner, on November 12, 1946, now buried, alongside her mother, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

While still healing from broken ribs sustained in the fall, Miller landed her starring role in Easter Parade after Cyd Charisse bowed out. It was a painful but rewarding experience—Darvon pills getting her through the dance numbers, while her rib cage was taped up.

Afterwards, Ann signed with MGM, making several more musicals including On the Town (1949) and Kiss Me, Kate (1953), but continued to make tragic choices in men. Through it all she found Jesus and shortly before she died was baptized into the Catholic Church.

Mary Claire Kendall, a Washington-based writer, is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends featuring John Wayne and Susan Hayward, among other legends. 

* This piece was originally published on March 27, 2016 in The American Catholic blog, a week before the Divine Mercy Sunday feast we celebrate today.

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