Synopsis: The movies, the magic, the memories. The greatest moments, the brightest stars. The incomparable Golden Era of MGM Musicals shines forever in a timeless production that wowed critics and public alike, became a surprise box-office smash, and remains today the best compilation movie ever made.
The studio was “home to more stars than there are in the heavens” and some 125 of them in scenes from nearly 100 films enliven this joyfest. Judy, Ol’ Blue Eyes (and James Stewart!) sing. Astaire, Kelly (and Gable!) dance. From Anchors Aweigh to Ziedfeld Follies, from splashy razzmatazz to splashing in puddles, filmmaker Jack Haley, Jr’s affectionate celebration more than lives up to its name. If you had to choose one movie musical to take with you for a long stay on a deserted isle, you couldn’t go wrong with this one.
eyelights: the incredible star power. the showmanship of some numbers.
eyesores: it consists of musical numbers.
“Over the years, under the leadership of Louis B. Mayer and others, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has produced a series of musical films whose success and artistic merit remain unsurpassed in motion picture history. There were literally thousands of people… artists, craftsmen and technicians… who poured their talents into the creation of the great MGM musicals. This film is dedicated to them.”
‘That’s Entertainment!’ is a 1974 documentary designed to celebrate MGM’s 50th anniversary. It is hosted by a number of past MGM performers, starting with Frank Sinatra, followed by Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, James Stewart, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire, Liza Minelli, Bing Crosby, and back to Sinatra to close the film. Each has a relatively short segment in this 2-hour film.
For many years, MGM was considered the biggest showman of all the studios: they had most of the key stars under contract, and they were renowned for the huge musicals. By 1974, like most studios, MGM was ailing. After the success of ‘Hollywood: The Dream Factory’ a television documentary, they planned to make ‘That’s Entertainment!’ for television. That is, until the execs saw it and realized that they had a winner on their hands.
It became a sensation at the box office!
Aside from the celebrity host, ‘That’s Entertainment!’ consists mostly of snippets from some of MGM’s show-stopping musicals. It also includes some historical facts, but it is primarily a highlights reel of their best moments through the years. It’s not even chronological, although it sometimes focuses on some of their most notable talent, including the duo of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, Esther Williams and Gene Kelly.
The film is meant to be grandiose – it even starts with an overture and ends with exit music, something that usually only happens in those massive historical epics. Then it introduces us to our subject with ‘Hollywood Revue’, the first all-talking and singing film. I was surprised to find out that it featured “Singin’ in the Rain”, which would be reused by MGM a few times through the years – most notably in the classic of the same name.
I’m not a fan of musicals. In fact, it’s probably one of the genres I loathe the most. But I like to expand my horizons, and felt that this documentary would be the best way to explore musicals. After all, how could you go wrong with watching the best of the best? Well, it turns out that still I really don’t like musicals; while I didn’t cringe, even the big classics left me unmoved; I just hate the artifice of it all, in the performances, sets, settings, …etc.
Still, ‘That’s Entertainment!’ did entertain me in a few instances. There were even moments when I was rather impressed:
- “Rosalie”, from ‘Rosalie’: Wow… what a huge ensemble they put together for this number! And the lead dancer does one spin after the other while moving through these cloth-covered hoops. The timing is impeccable, and her skill is remarkable.
- “The Varsity Drag”, from ‘Good News’: It features a massive cast and elaborate choreography. But it’s not especially exceptional technically. Or proficient: some of the camera work is actually shaky.
- “Got a Feelin’ for You”, from ‘The Hollywood Revue of 1929’: Wow… Joan Crawford could actually sing and dance? I always thought of her as a diva dramatic actress, but I was impressed with what I saw. Stewart, who introduced the bit, was suggesting that she wasn’t any good. Well, what the heck do I know?
- “Sunday Jump”, from ‘Royal Wedding’: Fred Astaire’s dancing with a hat rack and, as ridiculous as it might seem on paper, it was really something to see; it was so smooth, so slick.
- “You’re All the World to Me”, from ‘Royal Wedding’: Fred Astaire’s dance up the walls and ceilings was awesome to watch, not so much for the dancing but for the technical side of it, to try to figure out how they did it so seamlessly. They must have had a rotating set. That must be it.
- “Dancing in the Dark”, from ‘The Band Wagon’: Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse are so elegant in this nighttime dance in the park. It’s not technically awe-inspiring, it’s just a beautiful number.
- The water ballet from ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’: As extravagant as all of Esther Williams’ water sequences are, there’s this bit when she swims underwater and there’s a dozen women standing underwater on pedestals, holding their breaths. I have no idea how long there were waiting there, but that’s so nuts! All to make a impression on the audience!
- “I Gotta Hear That Beat”, from ‘Small Town Girl’: I’m not a big fan of the musical number, but, Jiminy Crispy, Anne Miller is H-O-T!
- “Make ‘Em Laugh”, from “Singin’ in the Rain’: It’s a really corny bit, but the comic timing is so amazing to watch. Wow! Strangely, O’Connor made me think of a really good Martin Short.
- “Singin’ in the Rain”, from ‘Singin’ in the Rain’: I’m not much of a fan of the sequence, but I have to admit that Kelly’s performance is incredibly smooth.
Out of countless excerpts, these were the only bits that really caught my eye. Even the finale, “An American in Paris Ballet” (from ‘An American in Paris’), the one that Sinatra claimed was by far the best of the bunch, failed to impress me. I recognize the skill involved (let’s face it, some of the things they used to do was crazy – they didn’t have CGI and made it happen anyway!), but it’s pretty meaningless to me.
Still, I did discover a number of things along the way:
- Sinatra could be a dick. I always had that impression, based on what I’d heard through the years, but his comments about the dancers’ weight were off-putting – especially since they were average-sized women (they just weren’t models or athletes). Douche. Plus which he was otherwise vacuous in his comments.
- Taylor might have been one of the greats once, but by 1974, she could barely utter her lines with conviction. I might be biased due to all the stories of substance abuse, but she was glassy-eyed and utterly fake.
- Judy Garland is technically good, but by her teens she was performing without any soul; her eyes were vacant, without passion or conviction.
- Esther Williams may have be pigeon-holed, but what she did she did exceptionally well and to the nth degree. I had never heard of her before, but was amazed with her physique and ability. Could she act? I have no idea, but who cares? MGM clearly didn’t because they merely showed her in one water clip after another; it would have been farcical if not for her unbelievable skill.
- Gene Kelly insisted on doing his own stunts. They showed him doing the most impressive stuff – continuous takes that required him to do all sorts of physically demanding acts that would usually have been cobbled together from multiple takes. He was very capable. I don’t like his style, but I respect his tremendous skill.
- MGM had so many stars on their roster that, when they decided to hold a 25th anniversary dinner celebration, they basically had to build a make-shift restaurant on one of their soundstages. The sheer number of people there is astounding. you almost have to see it to believe it.
- The dancers all had their own style even when they performed the same moves together. For instance, Astaire was the model of perfection, the slickest, Gene Kelly was exuberant, very physical, and Sinatra was more subdued in his approach.
You know what? ‘That’s Entertainment!’ may not have converted me to the genre, but I’m really glad to have seen it anyway. I learned a few things, and was impressed by some bits along the way. It wasn’t a waste of time at all. And I can only imagine how amazing this film must be to fans of musicals. Oh, sure, MGM wasn’t the only one to make them, but they were the biggest and the best of them all back then.
They sure knew how to entertain!
Date of viewing: April 19, 2014