Jack Haley Jr.
USA, 1974, 1976, 1994
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 14 October 2004
Source Warner Bros. DVD
In the days before cable television and home video, the opportunity to see the great MGM musicals came along rarely. If you got really lucky, you might be able to catch one on a weekend afternoon, otherwise you usually had to stay up until the wee hours of the morning to watch them on the late, late show. Those who were extremely lucky lived in a city large enough to support a repertory cinema where the occasional musical would be programmed among all of the films deemed much cooler by the hipster who ran the joint. Movie musicals were not exactly hot stuff in the early 1970s as American seemed more concerned with gritty crime dramas and gangster epics. Nevertheless, in the midst of all this, producers Daniel Melnick (the same guy who produced Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs) and Jack Haley, Jr. (son of the Tin Man and husband #2 of Liza Minnelli), put together, in honor of MGM’s fiftieth anniversary, an assembly of clips from nearly 100 MGM musicals and linked them together with new vignettes of reminiscences by MGM stars Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Peter Lawford (looking more like a desiccated Peter Fonda than the louchely handsome figure of the 1950s), Liza, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, and Elizabeth Taylor (in a ghastly array of turquoise jewelry).
The film starts, as it should, at the beginning. The first clip is from 1929’s The Hollywood Revue, MGM’s first all-sound movie. The song being performed is “Singin’ in the Rain,” a tune composed by Arthur Freed that most people know from the 1952 musical of the same name that was a tribute to Freed, who had become the producer of most of MGM’s musical spectaculars. The clips that follow are in roughly chronological order until certain of the biggest stars (Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Esther Williams) are under discussion. It’s then that we get mini-retrospectives of their careers.
Even though there are clips from dozens of films, the film can in no way be representative of all the musicals of MGM. They are, after all, only clipsÑtaken out of the context of their original films, truncated, talked over, and intercut with other footage. That’s Entertainment! cannot and is not a substitute for seeing the musicals themselves, in their entirety. It is perhaps best viewed as an introduction to the great musicals (a sort of primer for the uninitiated) or as a hits-only collection to be used much like a fan of a certain band would a greatest hits CD, even though he has all of the albums the band ever released.
In 1976, after the original That’s Entertainment! had become a surprise success, a second film, That’s Entertainment, Part 2, was created. While another film of more of the same from the first film might have been just as successful, the producers of the sequel decided to expand the scope to include not just clips from musicals but from all of MGM’s great films of the classic era. Thus, alongside musical numbers from some of the same films that were in the first installment (though no clips are repeated) as well as from films not covered there, we have clips from the films of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Clark Gable, and Greta Garbo. This time around, the hosts are limited to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who perform in new musical numbers created specifically for the film. These are a little embarrassing as Fred and Gene are well past it by this point. Astaire looks as if he has just rolled out of his tomb, and Kelly sports a toupee that looks borrowed from Howard Cosell for the occasion.
While Part 2 is just about as good as the original (after all, it rests on the strength of the considerable power of its clips), it is clear that MGM would have suffered diminishing returns with a third installment. It did come along years later, however, in 1994. The third time around was a little different from the first two since home video and cable had made all of the MGM musicals readily available. In That’s Entertainment! III, the clips all come from famous films featuring famous stars, but most are musical numbers that were cut from the finished film. In some ways, it is not a third installment in the series as much as it is a parallel history of the MGM musical. Gene Kelly is back for a third time in his hosting duties, but is joined by stars just as important to the MGM musical, but overlooked in the first two films including Lena Horne, Howard Keel, June Allyson, and Cyd Charisse (still a knockout at 73).
As a huge fan of the original musicals, it can almost be frustrating to watch these compilations (one really can’t call them documentaries). The extremely brief clip from The Pirate in That’s Entertainment! is thrilling, but the full numberÑas well as the entire filmÑremains, sadly, unavailable on DVD. The same pertains to many of the films featured in these three movies, so the clips are the only existent footage of them on home video, save for rare airings on Turner Classic Movies. Even if I were a more casual fan of MGM’s musicals, I doubt I would watch That’s Entertainment! (or its sequels) more than a few times. The experience of watching it is akin to gorging on exquisite candyÑhighly enjoyable and very sweet, but ultimately unsatisfying and sorely lacking in substance.