For centuries, great entertainers
Wowed the crowds and made them cheer,
With song and dance, speech, and romance,
Their famous names known far and near.
Yet soon they died, their plays and songs
Preserved in libraries and hearts;
We saved the page, but those on stage
Were soon forgotten from the arts.
Not till the novelty of film
Could actors prove their artistry
And ply their skill to awe and thrill
With hope of immortality.
MPAA rating for both: G
It’s hard enough trying to keep up with all the new releases that pass through the cinemas week after week, but what about the plethora of old classics stretching back to the 1920s? What about the hundreds of musicals that MGM churned out back in the days when contracted actors were assigned roles rather than offered them? Where does one start? Well, That’s Entertainment! is an excellent reference point, a star-studded documentary that also serves as a highlight reel of old musicals, famous and obscure.
Older musicals often seem to have just a thin plot meant solely to string together spectacular song-and-dance numbers, and That’s Entertainment! gets rid of the connective tissue to provide a musical tour of MGM’s forgotten pageantry. The early days of 1929’s The Broadway Melody may not be all that impressive, but within a few years, MGM had the musical extravaganzas down to a science. I’m well familiar with favorites like Singin’ in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz or famous scenes from On the Town (the three sailors singing “New York! New York!”) and Royal Wedding (Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling), but there are boatloads more that I’d never even heard of, such as the series of suspiciously similar small-town romances starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Most of the clips are worth watching just as highlights, but a few have made me curious to check out the films themselves, such as the navy grandeur of Hit the Deck (1955) or the High School Musical forerunner Good News (1947).
Sprinkled throughout the singing and dancing are introductions filmed by a variety of stars in 1974 as they wander the decaying MGM backlot where these musicals were filmed decades earlier. (The sets were torn down shortly after filming.) The star power is incredible, including Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and the late Debbie Reynolds. Each screen legend introduces the work of one of their friends and costars, passing the baton as the film progresses. Old film buffs are sure to recognize the less widely known stars from the old film clips more than casual viewers like myself, but seeing some of these stars in action helped me appreciate the talents of performers whose reputations have waned over the decades. I wasn’t familiar with the incredible tap dancing of Ann Miller, the water-fountain displays of Esther Williams, or the impressive voice of Kathryn Grayson, but I’m glad I am now.
The film also features a few familiar faces in unexpected musical roles. Mainstream musicals may be anomalies these days, but back in the day, they were everywhere, and stars didn’t always have a choice of whether to sing or not. I never thought to see Jimmy Stewart trying to carry a tune, much less Clark Gable dancing to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in 1939’s Idiot’s Delight. Let’s just say, there’s a reason they eventually left the dancing to Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
Speaking of Kelly and Astaire, they actually teamed up to host That’s Entertainment, Part II, proving that there was far too much material in MGM’s vault to fill only one documentary. (There’s also a Part III from 1994, but I didn’t get to see that one.) While it features the same retrospective montage of film clips, Part II feels even less like a documentary, thanks to the more sensational production values and the entertaining interludes of Kelly and Astaire as the sole hosts. In the first That’s Entertainment, Astaire admitted that his favorite dance partner was actually Gene Kelly, whom he had danced with only once in 1946’s Ziegfeld Follies. In Part II, the two reunite to dance together again, which was actually Astaire’s last dance on film, and they reportedly did so just to prove that they hadn’t lost their mojo, even in their sixties and seventies.
As with the first film, the musical moments are plentiful and dazzling, again with a few stunning dance numbers that are undoubtedly the centerpieces of their films. I won’t soon forget the operatic rebellion of New Moon, the athleticism of Kiss Me, Kate, or the amazing extended shot of a young Bobby Van literally hopping across town in Small Town Girl. Plus, the almost disturbing sight of Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray, and Jack Buchanan singing on their knees dressed as babies in The Band Wagon. Plus, I did get to recognize a few familiar scenes, including one for Cabin in the Sky, an all-black older musical I happened to randomly watch last year. In addition, there are more than just musical scenes. Part II also has tributes to screen greats like Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and comedians like the Marx Brothers, including the famous packed stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera.
That’s Entertainment! and its sequel reveal just how much fabulous musical cinema is on the verge of being forgotten, and I’m quite glad that MGM kindly boiled down its heyday into these affectionately repackaged collections. I only knew of these films from my mom, who talks about how they opened her eyes to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, and in some ways, it did the same for me. The tunes are both new and familiar (I had no idea that the music to “Make ‘Em Laugh” predated Singin’ in the Rain and was used in The Pirate), the choreography and star power are staggering, and the whole package is, well, entertaining. I doubt I’ll ever get around to seeing all the films featured, but at least I know I’ve seen all the best parts.
Best line: (Liza Minnelli) “Thank God for film. It can capture a performance and hold it right there forever. And if anyone says to you, ‘Who was he?’ or ‘Who was she?’ or ‘What made them so good?’ I think a piece of film answers that question better than any words I know of.”
Since documentaries are ineligible for my List, it’s the return of the five-star system.
Rank for both: Five Stars out of Five
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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