That’s Entertainment! III

That's Entertainment 3Synopsis: Lena Horne luxuriates in a bath during Cabin in the Sky. Cyd Charisse vamps through The Band Wagon’s Two-Faced Woman. Judy garland leads a street-swelling March of the Doagies in The Harvey Girls. unforgettable scenes all – and all but forgotten because they were cut from their respective films.

Remarkable moments you couldn’t see until now make up much of this star-studded salute to the golden era of musicals. Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney, Esther Williams and six more luminaries host the eye-filling dream-factory clips. Other highlights: Stage hands scrambling to move sets and stay ahead of dancer Eleanor Powell’s Fascinatin’ Rhythm, the Ross Sisters contorting like soft pretzels and Garland and Rooney redefining pizzazz. “What a time it was,” Kelly says. In this marvelous treat, what a time it still is.

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That’s Entertainment! III 7.5

eyelights: the behind-the-scenes footage. the many outtakes.
eyesores: seeing the state of some of these aging legends.

After the phenomenal success of ‘That’s Entertainment!‘, MGM greenlit a second installment, which was released just two years later. It wasn’t nearly as successful, making a fraction of its predecessor’s box office grosses. The series stalled there. It would take 18 years before it was resurrected and a proper follow-up was released.

The year was 1994, and MGM was celebrating its 70th anniversary. In conjunction with this, MGM put together a third and (thus far) final installment in the series. To entice audiences to go to the movies (home video had become popular by then), they brought back many of their screen legends to co-host the picture and dug up a few surprises.

Book-ended by an unrecognizable Gene Kelly, who, at 81, was looking and sounding worn (it was disheartening to see), the film begins by providing a context and history of the musical – especially the MGM brand, naturally. This first part of the film is discussed in chronological order, which was helpful to situate the audience.

Then came Esther Williams, talking about her performances over a montage of clips from her films. She looked really good for her age – she would have been in her early 70s. Her clips, however, were less fascinating than in previous installments – or maybe it was seeing an abundance of them that made the corniness stand out.

June Allyson talked about the MGM talent searching process. Aside from a  few of her own numbers, which were okay, she also introduced some behind-the-scenes footage and even a screen test for Kathryn Grayson, a soprano. For some reason, Allyson barely got any screen time compared to the other stars on hand.

Cyd Charisse introduced a massive backdrop that was used on an MGM classic; the soundstage was sizeable. She was rather lovely for a septuagenarian: classy, tall, lithe, graceful. She then introduced a Gene Kelly montage. It was alright. Even her favourite duo with him, from ‘Brigadoon’, didn’t do much for me; it was beautiful but unmoving.

Debbie Reynolds talked about being discovered and the experience of going through the star-making process at MGM. Then there was a montage of some of the glamourous ladies of MGM. After a latin montage, Lena Horn talked about the racial barriers of the time, how she couldn’t get a leading role – overtop a montage of her performances, naturally.

Mickey Rooney talked about Judy Garland for a while (there’s a lot of Judy Garland in this one, before and after Rooney shows up). Then Ann Miller discussed Fred Astaire; she was a total pro. But who was Howard Keel? I guess he’s familiar to fans of musicals (and ‘Dallas’, apparently), but I had no idea who he was until now. Only one clip of his is shown.

Although the hosts talked over some of the bits being presented in order to introduce them, they left the bulk of them intact; unlike ‘That’s Entertainment, Part II’, no significant dialogues or solos were affected. In effect, their narration made the film seem more like a retrospective documentary than the last ones did, somehow.

What’s amazing is that, bereft of any of the true classic silver screen moments, having all been used in the previous two iterations of the series, there are still a number of moments that were worth seeing in ‘That’s Entrainment! III’:

  • “Singin’ in the Rain”, from ‘The Hollywood Revue of 1929’: I was surprised to see that there was yet another version of the song “Singin’ in the Rain”? I mean, it had been established in the first film that there were 3 or 4 versions, but… there were more? Whoah… MGM really tried to make a hit out of it! I guess only Gene Kelly could make it happen.
  • “Clean as a Whistle”, from ‘Meet the Baron’: I enjoyed this number in a bathhouse, with all the lovely ladies taking showers on this extravagant set. There’s not much skin, obviously (it’s pretty much all shoulders up, even if it was pre-code), but it’s still a nice sight.
  • “Follow in my Footsteps”, from ‘Broadway Melody of 1938’: the ever-fabulous Eleanor Powell dons a top hat and tails for this number, which involves dozens of men and a massive set. But she stands out anyway. Boy, can she move!
  • “Fascinating Rhythm”, from ‘Lady Be Good’:  Très cool!: They showed behind-the scenes footage in split screen with Powell performing her number. The number is merely okay, but what’s fascinating is watching the sets being disassembled off-screen so that the camera can move in. Now, that’s choreography!
  • A short clip from ‘Andy Hardy’s Double Life’: This is Esther Williams’ first feature. Wow… she was absolutely gorgeous…
  • Clip from ‘Jupiter’s Darling’: There’s a nice underwater set with a Roman theme, complete with columns and dancing “statues”. The routine is only okay but the set is worth seeing.
  • A couple of outtakes from Debbie Reynolds pictures. While neither are exceptional, it was nice to show something that audiences had never seen before.
  • “Two-Faced Woman”, from ‘The Band Wagon’ and ‘Torch Song’: This was really cool. Using split screen, they showed a comparison of two entirely different performances using the same audio track. The former number, featuring Cyd Charisse, was cut from the final film, so the track was reused for the Joan Crawford film. Ironically, the Charisse one is far superior.
  • “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, from ‘Show Boat’: Ava Gardner sang the track originally, but was later overdubbed by another vocalist. Here, for the first time, her original vocal can be heard. Neat. I’m no  fan of the song or the performance (although Gardner was quite something), but this is a major treat for fans.
  • Judy Garland’s outtakes from ‘Annie Get your Gun’: Garland was due to star in the picture but dropped out after filming those two scenes. They were reshot with new leading lady Betty Hutton. I hated the numbers themselves, but it’s cool that they showed this archival material.
  • “Swing Mr. Mendelssohn”, from ‘Everybody Sing’: One Garland’s first roles at MGM, it was nice to see because she was fresh and vibrant – she’s not the vacant performer we saw in the previous films.
  • “Minnie from Trinidad”, from ‘Ziegfeld Girl’: Not only is Garland convincing, and her voice is phenomenal, but she looks lovely.
  • “Mr. Monotony”, from ‘Easter Parade’: This is an outtake, but it’s surprisingly good – memorable, even. I like it not just because of her performance, but also for her look, wearing the top half of a tux. Hey, Garland had her moments, after all.
  • “Drum Crazy”, from ‘Easter Parade’: Fred Astaire did this fantastic percussion number with drums, but using his feet, sticks, …etc. It was corny in bits, but his timing was impressive.
  • “Swing Trot”, form ‘The Barkleys of Broadway’: Featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the number itself isn’t anything super special, but it was nice that they removed the credits from overtop the number so that it could finally be seen – it was Astaire and Rogers, after all!
  • “I Wanna be a Dancin’ Man”, from ‘The Belle of New York’: Featuring Fred Astaire, here they showed two different versions of Astaire’s performance in split screen. He was in completely different outfits and they were obviously filmed at completely different times. It shows how well-rehearsed he was; the performances weren’t exactly the same, but they were very comparable. Nice.
  • “Jailhouse Rock”: A classic, although it’s not as good as ‘The Blues Brothers‘ version. But it’s not bad. I never expected Elvis, truth be told. It didn’t fit with the rest, but the filmmakers wanted to highlight that the era of the MGM musical was at an end. This makes it clear that audience were starting to seek something vastly different by then.

At its peak, ‘That’s Entertainment! III’ was rolled out in a paltry six cinemas (after an opening night on only two screens!). Needless to say, it wasn’t a huge success. In fact, it made 100 times less money than the original (not even adjusting for inflation). Personally, I don’t know why: this one matches the original or even bests it for its overall quality.

But what do I know? I don’t even like musicals. Still, as an overall package, it’s a really good one. And I can hardly fathom fans of musicals or the golden age of cinema not lapping up every moment of this massive cavalcade of stars and extravagance. Gene Kelly (in his final screen appearance) closed off the movie with the perfect send-off:

“MGM’s dream factory created a rich, romantic, compelling world of illusion. And although we may not see anything like it again, we’re blessed with memories and miles and miles of film. In the words of Irving Berlin, “The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.”

The ‘That’s Entertainment!’ series encapsulates this perfectly.

Date of viewing: April 22, 2014

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