This whopping collection just about entertained Judge Bryan Byun to death, but he assures us it's a wonderful way to go.
Our review of That's Entertainment! The Complete Collection (Blu-Ray), published January 17th, 2008, is also available.
"Thank God for film—it can capture and hold a performance forever."—Liza Minnelli
To celebrate MGM's 50th anniversary in 1974, producer Jack Haley, Jr. (the son of Jack Haley, who played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz) came up with the idea of cutting together highlights from the great MGM musicals into a compilation film, which would be broadcast on television. Haley and executive producer Daniel Melnick spent months digging through the vast MGM film vaults for clippings from such classics as Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, and Meet Me in St. Louis, as well as less familiar gems. MGM executives liked the compilation so much that they decided to expand it into a feature film. Haley brought Gene Kelly on board as a host, and Kelly in turn was able to entice stars like Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra to introduce and provide narration for the clips.
The final result, That's Entertainment!, was a smash hit, adored by critics and a generation of moviegoers whose only access to the great musicals of the past was the occasional art-house revival or mangled television broadcast. That's Entertainment! not only popularized the retrospective compilation genre but tapped into a nostalgia for Old Hollywood that has been a pop culture staple ever since. The film spawned three sequels—That's Entertainment, Part II in 1976, That's Dancing! in 1985, and That's Entertainment III in 1994.
That's Entertainment: The Complete Collection offers the three That's Entertainment films in a single package, along with a fourth double-sided disc (exclusive to this set) of documentaries and special features, That's Entertainment! Treasures from the Vault. That's a lot of entertainment.
Facts of the Case
That's Entertainment! establishes the basic formula for the series: an old-fashioned orchestral overture, followed by a string of "greatest hits" clips grouped loosely by theme and interspersed with present-day segments featuring Hollywood legends. For the first film, MGM revisited its long-neglected studio back lots, which had fallen into extreme disrepair, and used them as backdrops for the host segments. (It would be the last time that a feature film was shot on the MGM back lots, which were bulldozed immediately after filming ended and turned into housing developments.) MGM was able to corral an impressive roster of guests for the film: Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Peter Lawford, Liza Minnelli, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, and Elizabeth Taylor are all on hand to pay their respects and offer firsthand insights into the golden age of the Hollywood musical.
That's Entertainment, Part II returns to the nostalgia well, this time with Melnick and veteran producer-composer Saul Chaplin at the helm. In place of the previous film's constellation of stars, Part II is hosted by Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Rather than simply standing there and talking between clips, Kelly decided to create song and dance numbers for himself and Astaire—the first (and last) time these two legendary dancers performed together since Ziegfeld Follies in 1946. Thematically, Part II is a looser affair than the first film, casting farther out from the musical genre to include clips from nonmusicals, featuring stars like Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers.
That's Entertainment III was made 18 years after the previous film, by veteran editors Bud Freidgen and Michael J. Sheridan, who had worked on That's Entertainment! After two feature-length films, it's tough to justify yet another compilation of MGM musical highlights, but what keeps this film from being a mere rehash is a focus on never-before-seen material, like deleted scenes, alternate versions (presented in split-screen), and production footage. This installment brings a number of surviving MGM stars out of retirement as hosts, including Gene Kelly (in his last film appearance), June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, and Esther Williams.
That's Entertainment! Treasures from the Vault is a DVD-only feature offered with the gift set and is, as the title suggests, a treasure trove of special features related to the That's Entertainment! series, including an hour-long "making of" documentary on That's Entertainment III that is practically a fourth film in itself; a 1974 TV special, hosted in spectacularly cheesy fashion by George and Alana Hamilton, covering the premiere of That's Entertainment!; a newly produced documentary paying tribute to the behind-the-scenes creative team; a collection of over a dozen deleted scenes presented in their entirety; and several shorter featurettes, mostly from the 1970s.
"Some studios can claim they made the best gangster films, or the greatest horror movies," Sinatra says in That's Entertainment!, "but when it came to musicals, MGM—they were the champions." MGM certainly wasn't the only studio making musicals during the genre's heyday in the 1930s and '40s, but it set the industry standard for the movie musical in terms of lavish production values, star talent, and a team of producers, composers, and choreographers that was second to none. As a showcase for that triumphant golden age, That's Entertainment! delivers the goods, while also providing a sobering reminder of what we've lost in the passing of that era.
That's Entertainment! kicks off with a clip from MGM's very first musical, Broadway Melody of 1929, and although that film looks awkward and unsophisticated to modern eyes, it's not hard to see why audiences of the time went crazy for it. It may not be much more than a stage performance shot on film, but it's like having a front-row-center seat at Radio City Music Hall, for the price of a movie ticket. From there we skip forward to 1937's Rosalie and the spectacle of tap-dancing Eleanor Powell being carried onto an elaborate set on top of what looks like a gigantic birthday cake, accompanied by a small army of attendants, and we see how quickly the genre flowered, from simple vaudeville acts to eye-popping extravaganzas.
These films are a terrific opportunity to rediscover the genius of performers like Fred Astaire, who made his elaborate dance routines look so effortless and carefree that you'd hardly believe that he worked day and night to perfect his technique. Even in his first film appearance, in 1933's Dancing Lady, there's nothing labored or studied about his performance—Astaire seems to spontaneously break out into song and dance, as if moved by sudden joyful inspiration rather than hours of preparation and practice. Perhaps that's part of the escapist appeal of the musical—the complete absence of angst or self-reflection as the cares of the world dissolve into a few fleeting moments of transcendent bliss.
Nearly all of the classic MGM musical numbers are represented in That's Entertainment!, like Gene Kelly's famous pas de deux with the umbrella in Singin' in the Rain, Astaire's wall-crawling routine in Royal Wedding, Judy Garland skipping down the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz, and the brilliant Gene Kelly-Leslie Caron ballet from An American in Paris. But there are also plenty of notable less-familiar scenes, like the Kelly-Astaire number in Ziegfeld Follies—their chemistry is so delightful, it's a shame that they weren't paired together more often—or Debbie Reynolds's charming debut, "singing" (Helen Kane dubbed the vocal) "I Wanna Be Loved By You" in Three Little Words.
Filming the present-day segments on MGM's dilapidated back lot seems like an odd choice—all those crumbling ruins are kind of a downer after the uplifting musical numbers—but it's effective as a visual metaphor of the neglect that the genre and its stars had suffered in the years since MGM's decline. The mighty talents of the golden age hadn't all fallen, but they certainly had faded, and That's Entertainment! can be credited with reviving the nation's love affair with the movie musical and restoring stars like Judy Garland, whose image had been tarnished by the tragic final years of her life, to their proper glory.
Given the massive success of That's Entertainment!, it's no surprise that MGM would serve up another helping, which they did two years later with That's Entertainment, Part II. Unfortunately, the effort to keep things fresh and to dig up classic sequences that hadn't already been used is all too apparent in this follow-up, which makes Part II the weakest installment in the trilogy. On the bright side, however, Part II also has more room for material that we haven't seen a million times, like Lena Horne's wonderful rendition of "The Lady is a Tramp," or Sinatra serenading a luminous Grace Kelly in "You're Sensational." It's also interesting to note (as Robert Osborne does in his introduction) such minor bits of history as Bob Fosse's routine in 1953's Kiss Me, Kate, in which he incorporates the same moves he later made famous as a director-choreographer in Cabaret and Sweet Charity.
The decision to include more nonmusical scenes is a questionable one, albeit justifiable in that it's all included under the "entertainment" banner. Not that it's ever an unwelcome sight to look back on the great performances of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Jack Benny, and Katharine Hepburn, but it does muddy the focus of the film, and underscores the impression that the filmmakers are stretching to fill up screen time.
Not so questionable is the film's gimmick of having Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire singing and dancing together in all-new musical sequences. If nothing else, That's Entertainment, Part II earns its place in cinema history with these final screen performances by two of Hollywood's greatest legends; and far from being merely an echo of their former glory, Kelly (who was 63 at the time) and Astaire (who was 76) show that they still have it, with nimble, engaging routines that, if not as athletically challenging as their classic work, capture all of their grace and charm.
That's Entertainment! touched off a mania for nostalgia that made for a crowded field by the time Part II came around. Unsurprisingly, the second film failed to repeat the success of the first, and the advent of home video and a deluge of "remember when?" programs on television made further installments more or less unnecessary. Which makes it a bit surprising that, nearly two decades later, MGM/UA would produce That's Entertainment III—and even more surprising that it would be nearly as strong an entry as the original.
Lacking the novelty (and the parade of golden-era stars, as most had passed away by 1994) of the first film, That's Entertainment III doesn't so much continue the formula as reinvent it, with more of a historical perspective and less emphasis on sheer nostalgia. For the first time in the series, we get a backstage view of the movie musical, with previously unseen footage of Eleanor Powell's tap dance in "Fascinatin' Rhythm" from Lady Be Good that, in split screen, shows both the scene from the film and footage of the scene being shot, with parts of the stage being moved around by tractors. It's impossible not to come away with a renewed appreciation for these performers' craft, seeing how natural they look, giving no indication of the army of stagehands and machinery working just outside the camera's range.
That's Entertainment III offers up a wealth of scenes retrieved from the cutting room floor that are a revelation for any fan of the classic musicals. Judy Garland shines in two previously unseen numbers, "March of the Doagies" from The Harvey Girls and a leg-baring performance of "Mr. Monotony" from Easter Parade that was deemed (with some justification) too sexy for 1940s audiences. Another entry in the "too sexy" category is a suggestive bathtub scene featuring Lena Horne that was cut from Cabin in the Sky.
Also of interest for film buffs: a couple of alternate-version comparisons, presented in split screen. One shows Fred Astaire performing the same routine twice (in "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man" from Belle of New York), because the studio didn't like Astaire's casual dress in the original take. It's amazing to witness Astaire's professionalism at work, as he captures the exact performance twice, down to the smallest gestures, seeming just as spontaneous each time.
Equally captivating, in a very different way, is seeing "Two-Faced Woman" performed twice by two different actresses—by a campy-looking Joan Crawford in tropical makeup in Torch Song, and again by an impossibly leggy Cyd Charisse in a deleted scene from The Band Wagon—using the same vocal track by India Adams. The two scenes are presented both in split-screen and alternating shots, and as narrator Debbie Reynolds suggests, the studio dropped the wrong version.
It's material like this that makes That's Entertainment III a worthy addition to the series. While the slick, modern editing style makes for a blander presentation overall, there's a clear-eyed approach to the era that the more heavily sentimental earlier installments didn't have. The difference is most apparent in the 1994 segments featuring Lena Horne, who reflects upon her career at MGM—at which, as an African American, she endured the racist attitudes typical of the time—with a mixture of affection and gratitude for the opportunities she was given and undisguised disappointment at her poor treatment.
Warner Bros. has left musical fans wanting very little with this splendid DVD presentation of the That's Entertainment! series. Each of the films (available individually as well as in this gift set) comes with its original theatrical trailer and an informative introduction by Robert Osborne, the host of Turner Classic Movies. Each sports an "all-new digital transfer" and remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The transfers are generally excellent, given the age and condition of the source materials, with a cleaned-up image that's a vast improvement over the VHS versions that most of us remember. The only disappointment here is that footage from restored versions of musicals wasn't used for these DVDs; scenes from Singin' in the Rain, for instance, look all the worse when we've already seen that film brilliantly restored for its special edition release. Also, the varying aspect ratios, ranging from full frame to widescreen Cinemascope, means that viewers without widescreen TVs will end up watching some scenes in a tiny box within the screen. (For once, I'm actually glad that there's a fullscreen version of the film on each disc.)
In terms of bonus features, the real meat of the collection is in the fourth volume, That's Entertainment! Treasures from the Vault, a double-sided disc of goodies that is exclusive to the Complete Collection. The best of the lot is That's Entertainment III: Behind the Screen, a 53-minute documentary on the making of That's Entertainment III. It's an absolutely essential supplement, focusing not just on the production of the film but on the series itself, and offering additional interviews with the hosts that add a great deal of insight and perspective. As wonderful as it is to see the surviving MGM stars onscreen in the feature, it's even more of a treat to see them in unscripted, backstage moments when they're a little more casual and candid.
The other hour-long feature on the disc is "That's Entertainment: 50 Years of MGM" (1:06), a 1974 TV special covering the gala premiere of That's Entertainment! and hosted by the unnervingly mannequin-like George Hamilton, along with his similarly plastic then-wife, Alana. After the classic style and grace evoked by the films, it's a little difficult to watch this special, with its '70s network TV production values and unremitting cheesiness (courtesy of George and Alana's vapid screen presence and awkward attempts at intelligent conversation), with a straight face. I get the impression that George and Alana, who hold court on a makeshift set and interview a succession of stars from Fred Astaire to Johnny Weissmuller, were meant to symbolize the new Hollywood royalty honoring the old guard, but they succeed only in underscoring how degraded Hollywood has become with the loss of the glamour and elegance of the golden age. Unfortunately, the guests, for the most part, don't fare that much better; the seventies were not a great time for fashion or hairstyles, let's put it that way. The whole thing feels rushed and sloppy, but it's still a fascinating time capsule and one of our final glimpses of the greatest generation of Hollywood legends.
The other feature in the That's Entertainment! section of the disc is "Just One More Time" (:08), a 1974 press release for That's Entertainment! It's mostly promotional fluff, but notable for some behind-the-scenes snippets of stars like Bing Crosby hanging out on the set.
One highlight of the extras is the newsreel from MGM's 25th-anniversary celebration in 1949 (:10), a huge luncheon at which virtually every star at MGM at the time was "invited" to appear. The event is about as awkward and forced as one might expect, with the actors trying gamely to look like they're enjoying themselves as they're herded like cattle to long rows of tables and made to eat with a camera panning over their faces. The only star who makes the most of the opportunity is Buster Keaton—who had good reason not to show up at all, given that MGM wrecked his career—mugging amusingly (and silently, of course) for the camera during the brief moments he's onscreen.
There are two featurettes covering That's Entertainment, Part II. The first is "The Lion Roars Again" (:17), a 1976 promotional film touting MGM's (short-lived) resurgence. Although there's some footage relating to Part II, much of the promo is taken up with hyping films like Logan's Run and The Sunshine Boys. More relevant is a 20-minute selection of excerpts from a special episode of The Mike Douglas Show that has Douglas taking the audience on a tour of the MGM studios and interviewing many of the stars—including Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Nanette Fabray, Jane Powell, Janis Paige, and choreographer Hermes Pan—who have been gathered for a party celebrating the premiere of Part II. It's a pretty interesting interview, especially when a mini-debate springs up over the differences between old and new Hollywood, with a somewhat bitter-sounding Powell shrugging off the not-so-good old days of the studio system and Miller bemoaning the absence of old-fashioned glamour in the new generation of actors.
Side two of the disc offers up two terrific bonus features. One is a "Musical Outtake Jukebox" collecting nearly an hour's worth of deleted musical numbers, preserved in their entirety, with both text and narrated introductions giving some background on the clips. The other is a half-hour featurette, "The Masters Behind the Musicals," a tribute to the behind-the-screen creative team of producers, songwriters, and choreographers who made the classic musicals possible. Most prominent in this featurette is a segment on the three great MGM musical producers, Arthur Freed, Joe Pasternak, and Jack Cummings; it's a worthwhile and informative documentary that sheds valuable light on the production process.
The best—and most poignant—aspect of these featurettes and documentaries is the way they chart the succession of the generations of Hollywood royalty. From the 1930s and '40s, when silent film legends like Buster Keaton gave way to the new crop of stars—Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn—to the 1970s, when those stars were succeeded by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman, we see the evolution of stardom and Hollywood's continuous renewal, each shift bringing with it a wave of veneration for the preceding generation. It's amusing to note that each of the sets of featurettes, from the '40s to the present day, includes some kind of proclamation that this is the last time we will ever see this revival of Old Hollywood, even while dishing up many of the same names and faces. And yet it's true every time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Two things—both completely understandable—keep the That's Entertainment! series from being a definitive overview of the movie musical. The first is the necessarily limited scope of the series, given that it's a celebration of the MGM musical. Watching these films, it's easy to forget that MGM wasn't the only studio making quality musicals: There was also Warner Bros., with Yankee Doodle Dandy and the Doris Day films; Paramount, with the "Road" movies starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour, as well as classics like Holiday Inn, White Christmas, and Going My Way; and 20th Century Fox, with the Shirley Temple films, as well as the great '50s musicals Oklahoma, The King and I, and South Pacific, not to mention 1965's The Sound of Music. In fact, Fred Astaire, who's featured so prominently in the series, did most of his best work with Ginger Rogers at RKO, with such gems as Flying Down to Rio, Top Hat, and Swing Time, just to name a few. So, while MGM may have been the industry leader, it had anything but a monopoly on the genre.
The other limitation of the series is its unabashed nostalgia, which tends to downplay (or outright ignore) the darker side of MGM's musical production machine. For instance, the studio that helped make Judy Garland a superstar was also instrumental in her destruction; Garland was a huge moneymaker for MGM, which worked her like a pack animal, feeding her pills to keep her awake through grueling production schedules, and more pills to make her sleep during her off hours. When the exhausted Garland finally broke down under the strain and attempted suicide, MGM promptly severed her contract, exercising a "moral clause." There were also numerous personal conflicts and rivalries throughout the company, almost none of which (except for Gene Kelly's admitted dislike of Louis B. Mayer) are mentioned in these sunny, celebratory retrospectives. Like the musicals themselves, the That's Entertainment! series gives us all the smiles and none of the pain, which makes for a pleasant trip down memory lane, but not much in the way of revelation or deep insight.
That's Entertainment! was released in 1974 with the tagline "Boy…Do We Need It Now," offering an uplifting ray of sunshine to a nation weary from Vietnam and Watergate. Thirty years later, that slogan is as applicable as ever. The That's Entertainment! series is pure, concentrated delight, appealing equally to the diehard musical fan and the casual viewer, as both a fond remembrance and a crash course in an era of Hollywood filmmaking that we're not likely to ever see again.
I've got a glorious feeling that That's Entertainment: The Complete Collection will be declared not guilty.
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