Wednesday, January 1, 2014

That's Entertainment! (MGM, 1974)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I first saw That’s Entertainment! on its original theatrical release, and it was a revelation. Many of the MGM musicals excerpted in the film I’d seen previously only on TV, cut up for commercials, frequently reduced in length, and always in black-and-white. Many others I’d never seen at all. To see these sequences on the big screen and in the original bright, vivid three-strip Technicolor gave me an appreciation of these movies I’d never had before — and I think it did that for a lot of people, especially in the age just before the VCR became a mass consumer commodity and allowed ordinary individuals to acquire these movies and see them anytime so as to experience these great numbers in the originally intended contexts. (When my roommate John P. and I went to That’s Entertainment III I reflected that with almost all of these movies available on video the need for a compilation like this has virtually disappeared.) Seen this time around it inspired nostalgia on a number of levels — by now the additional footage added in the 1970’s has itself acquired a patina of nostalgia, especially since four of the celebrity hosts featured in it (Bing Crosby, Peter Lawford, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly) are now dead. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the most genuinely moving portions of That’s Entertainment! are the beautiful, heartfelt tributes Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly narrated to each other — the only times during this movie that the 1974 production rises to the level of the original material — and with most of the movies available on video, the cut-up nature of the clips (many of them were internally edited as well as being excerpted in the first place) is all the more frustrating. The dance between Kelly and Jerry the MGM cartoon mouse is only mildly amusing and entertaining in this film; complete and in context (in the otherwise pretty dull Anchors Aweigh) it’s a dazzling fantasy sequence.

Still, That’s Entertainment! offers a feast of marvelous moviemaking for both eyes and ears. Among the moments I particularly treasure are the early clip from The Broadway Melody (Frank Sinatra, who narrated the segment, couldn’t resist a crack about the rather zaftig appearance of the chorus girls — he should talk! — but the woman who soloed in the clip, though heavy, was also an excellent dancer), Joan Crawford’s song “Got a Feeling for You” from (I think) Hollywood Revue of 1929 (Crawford had a damned good voice, actually — good enough that Brunswick Records signed her to a recording contract in 1936 — though in this clip, from the first musical ever done with all the songs pre-recorded, Crawford is obviously clueless about lip-synching and there are only sporadic moments when she remembers to move her lips on screen as the recording of her voice plays on the soundtrack), the dazzling Esther Williams number from Bathing Beauty (Charles asked, “What dizzy queen thought this up?” — and I answered, “John Murray Anderson, the director of The King of Jazz”), the glimpse of Astaire and Ginger Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway, the Astaire-and-hatrack dance in Royal Wedding (in its original form, sans vacuum cleaner), a gymnastic routine for Kelly in his little-known film Living in a Big Way (the number takes place in a house that’s still under construction, and Kelly manages to fit in some of Buster Keaton’s gags in a similar situation while still maintaining his own individuality), the dazzling routines Kelly did in The Pirate (the best of his three films with Judy Garland), Garland’s dance routine with Buddy Ebsen in Broadway Melody of 1938, the Astaire-Eleanor Powell tap dance in Broadway Melody of 1940, Astaire singing “By Myself” and (with Jack Buchanan) “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans” in The Band Wagon, a snatch of Lena Horne and Benny Carter doing “Honeysuckle Rose” from Thousands Cheer (though without the amazing opening of this scene, in which Horne and Carter emerge from a black background to begin the song) and bits and pieces of the 1951 Show Boat, featuring William Warfield singing “Ol’ Man River” (alas this sequence, too, suffers from being edited — his performance of the whole song in the whole movie is a lot more impactful than this clip). “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” says Sinatra of an impossibly lavish dance number for Eleanor Powell from the 1937 Rosalie — indeed they don’t, and it’s not at all clear if any audience members would come if they tried to, but it’s a wonderful look at a bygone era. — 1/5/98


I settled in and watched my last movie of 2013, the original That’s Entertainment! As sort of a pendant to December 2013’s “Star of the Month” tribute to Fred Astaire, TCM decided to run all the That’s Entertainment! movies in sequence — the numbered ones, the somewhat outlying 1985 film That’s Dancing! and the documentary Musicals, Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM. I’d seen the first That’s Entertainment! in its theatrical run in Marin County in 1974; I’d previously seen some of the classic MGM musicals that went into it, but mostly on an old black-and-white TV, cut up with commercial interruptions and with the rotten picture quality those of us who grew up in the pre-cable “rabbit ears” era remember from the over-the-air TV reception of the day. So getting to see these spectacular musical sequences on the big screen and in color was a revelation! MGM put out That’s Entertainment! in 1974 as a celebration of the studio’s 50th anniversary (even though it was long since past its prime as a producing studio, had dumped many of the sets, costumes and props onto the marketplace or into landfills, and was about to sell off the famous backlot to a real-estate developer) and expected a modest profit over a film that, with only a few bits and pieces of original footage amidst the clips from MGM’s classic (and, in some cases, not-so-classic) musicals, would be very cheap to make. Instead, That’s Entertainment! turned out to be a blockbuster hit, I suspect because it was released during the middle of the Watergate scandal and while the threat of impeachment was hanging over President Nixon’s head. Between that, inflation and the so-called “energy crisis,” the U.S. was in the middle of a tense period not as serious but otherwise not all that different from what the country was going through with the Depression and World War II, when most of MGM’s great musicals were originally made — and the public wanted the same sort of escapist entertainment they’d wanted when the films excerpted in That’s Entertainment! were originally released. The original advertising slogan for That’s Entertainment! made that point with an exactness that was probably unwitting but no doubt helped draw audiences to this film: “Boy, Do We Need It Now!”

Watching a nostalgia compilation like That’s Entertainment! this long (40 years) after its initial release is a weird experience in double nostalgia, since with most of the “live” participants in That’s Entertainment! having passed on since then (of the 11 “presenters” shown on camera introducing the clips — Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Peter Lawford, Liza Minnelli, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart and Elizabeth Taylor — Minnelli, Reynolds and Rooney are the only ones still alive) it’s not only become a tribute to nostalgia but a nostalgia item itself. (I remember watching the Robert Youngson silent-comedy compilations The Golden Age of Comedy and When Comedy Was King in the early 2000’s and reflecting that more time had elapsed since Youngson put them together than had passed between the making of the original films Youngson excerpted and the making of his compilations.) That’s Entertainment! remains a superb film despite some flaws — notably the severe internal edits of some of the numbers (the sequence of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dancing together to “The Babbitt and the Bromide” from Ziegfeld Follies makes almost no sense with the parts where they’re singing taken out; the dance between Kelly and Jerry, MGM’s famous cartoon mouse, in Anchors Aweigh is far more effective with the long, creatively animated buildup to it in the original film; and despite Frank Sinatra’s hagiographic comment about the ballet scene from An American in Paris as the high point of MGM’s musicals in general and the careers of producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli and star Gene Kelly in particular, we only get about five minutes of this 18 ½-minute sequence) and the restriction of the clips to films MGM produced itself and not musicals made by other studios to which MGM later bought the rights (like the 1935 Astaire-Rogers Roberta and the 1936 Universal Show Boat). Using Roberta would have at least allowed writer-director Jack Haley, Jr. (son of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and briefly the husband of Liza Minnelli, whose mom Judy Garland had co-starred with Haley’s dad in Wizard) to show a glimpse of Fred and Ginger in their prime instead of a nice but far less interesting dance from their last film together (and only MGM production), The Barkleys of Broadway. And using the 1936 Show Boat would have allowed Haley to include Paul Robeson’s spectacular performance of “Ol’ Man River” instead of William Warfield’s good but comparatively studied rendition of the same song from MGM’s 1951 remake — a disappointing movie on a lot of fronts, mainly the use of a hack director, George Sidney, instead of the brilliant James Whale (Warfield may sing the song almost as well as Robeson did, but Robeson got a lot more help from his director; the 1936 “Ol’ Man River” is a series of intense, quick-cut images looking more like a 1980’s or 1990’s music video than a production number from 1936, while the 1951 version is simply Warfield shot straightforwardly against picturesque “riverboat” sets lit with a nostalgic, burnished glow that undercuts the message of the song).

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to like in That’s Entertainment!, and for me the most moving part of the film was Haley’s decision to have Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly narrate each other’s sequences. Astaire and Kelly, between them, created a unique entertainment niche — there were plenty of other song-and-dance men in movies but Astaire and Kelly tower over them, mainly because though they were both excellent dancers they never coasted on their dance talents alone. Astaire and Kelly — and virtually no other dancer of either gender who made movies — used dance to create characters that touched us emotionally (even though a lot of their roles, Astaire’s in particular, were surprisingly unsympathetic — I’ve noted before in these pages that I find the 1942 film Holiday Inn virtually unwatchable between the big musical numbers because of the sheer nastiness with which Astaire’s and Bing Crosby’s characters treat each other to try to get into Marjorie Reynolds’ pants). They also had surprisingly good singing voices and enough of a sense of music to phrase the songs eloquently. It’s clear that both Astaire and Kelly knew they were each other’s only peers, and their genuine affection and respect for each other’s talents come through quite strongly in this movie; in the next film in the cycle, That’s Entertainment II, Haley actually staged a new dance sequence between Astaire and Kelly to the song “A Couple of Song-and-Dance Men” (written for Astaire and Crosby by Irving Berlin for the 1946 film Blue Skies). Seen today, That’s Entertainment! hardly seems as necessary as it did in 1974 — not with the original movies readily available on DVD and cable, allowing us to see the key sequences the way they were meant to be seen, complete and in context (never mind that the plots of these musicals were often pretty lame and served only to set up the songs) — but it’s still a nice exercise in nostalgia and a reasonably well-done tribute to a truly golden age in American mass culture, when films could have wit and sophistication and still succeed as box-office blockbusters. — 1/1/14