A haunted nostalgia, often of the sticky and sentimental kind, has underlined American mass entertainment over the last several decades. Unlike English movies that “look back in anger” to the days of the British Empire, Hollywood movies often cast yearning looks to their innocent and naive past, the 'good ol' days' that may have never existed except as myth.
An argument can be made that of all film genres, musicals possess the greatest license and technology for creating magical dreams, collective fantasies, worlds of make-believe through song-and-dance. Here is a form that doesn't have to obey the dictates of realism and verisimilitude.
That said, it's also apparent that of all American genres, musicals have suffered the most. While crime-gangster, science-fiction, and Western pictures periodically go in and out of style, they have managed to survive and have demonstrated remarkable durability. In case you doubt my contention, here's an exercise for you. Answer quickly: what was the last musical you saw in a movie house
Exactly twenty years ago, the first That's Entertainment proved there was extensive footage to be treasured in the MGM vaults, buried somewhere in the studio's basement. Surprisingly, this movie grossed over 50 million dollars, an impressive figure even by today's standards. Two years later, the second installment, That's Entertainment! Part 2, was made and it was also successful.
And now filmmakers Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan have come up with a third anthology of the Golden Era musical highlights that while not holding its own with its predecessors, still has much to offer. Audiences who have experienced the excerpted films at the original time of their release have probably diminished in the intervening two decades, and I doubt if the MTV generation would rush to see this mishmash.
The format of the new compilation is similar to that of the previous ones: Familiar stars from MGM's musical heyday introduce different segments of the saga. You will have a chance to see Lena Horne, June Allyson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Cyd Charisse, and Esther Williams, all reminiscing about life on the MGM lot in the glory days. It's only appropriate that Gene Kelly, hoofer/actor and director/choreographer, begins and closes the movie.
The new movie is replete with ironies. One irony is that the old MGM lot, on which the veteran stars proudly stand, is now owned by the Japanese conglomerate, Sony Pictures Entertainment. But MGM was reportedly one of the few studios that had a policy of saving its outtakes. The anthology contains some musical gems that were cut, for one reason or another, but surprisingly outshine the sequences that ended up on screen.
The scale is admittedly massive: That's Entertainment III encompasses 62 musical numbers, taken from more than 100 movies. In the opening sequence, which is skimpy, the first years of the sound era are chronicled, discreetly disguising the fact that the MGM musical didn't hit its stride until the late l930s, lagging behind other studios, most notably Warners and RKO.
The first exciting sequence features the dazzling hoofer Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of l938, then in “Fascinating Rhythm” in Lady Be Good. Here the filmmakers provide a revealing split-screen look at the polished number and the behind-the-scenes, showing how the elaborate number was rehearsed and executed.
Having edited the first two That's Entertainment anthologies, Friedgen and Sheridan know how to pace and balance what basically amounts to two hours of clips. Their strategy is to alternate some classic material with comic relief, as for example the forgotten Ross Sisters, who perform a grotesque contortionist number from Broadway Rhythm.
The filmmakers manage to maintain some chronological order while still juggling solos and production numbers, color and black-and-white, fresh and familiar material. Esther Williams, you may recall, couldn't sing well, but she was great in–and under–the water. The movie shows a number of astounding water ballets that today can be appreciated as high camp.
Movie buffs will particularly appreciate the outtakes of Debbie Reynolds. Her rendition of “You Are My Lucky Star” was cut from Singin' in the Rain, a musical considered by some critics to be the best of MGM. The other is an alternate version of “A Lady Loves” from I Love Mervin.
Lena Horne, whose career suffered because of her ethnic origins (her skin was too light to be cast in black roles and too dark to be cast in white roles), is represented by a deleted tune, “Ain't It the Truth,” which she sang in a bubble bath in Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky, a musical specifically made for black audiences.
Judy Garland's “I'm an Indian Too,” which she rehearsed and sang before getting dismissed from Annie Get Your Gun is not very good. But her “March of the Doagies” from the female-dominated Western The Harvey Girls looks like a big production number that was dropped.
One of the most remarkable sequences is the contrast of two versions of the song “Two Faced Woman” (not to be confused with Garbo's last film, directed by George Cukor in l942). The one seen by the public was sung by Joan Crawford in Torch Song, a campy atrocity, with the aging star (then in her fifties) looking ridiculous in her tacky tropical makeup. The other version, which features the long-legged and dazzling dancer Cyd Charisse, is shown for the first time. But even though it's much better, the number was ruthlessly cut from The Band Wagon. As hostess Debbie Reynolds says, “it's been suggested that they may have used the wrong version.”
The last movies that are excerpted are Elvis Presley's l957 Jailhouse Rock and Vincente Minnelli's Gigi, which swept all the l958 Oscar Awards. A turning point, Gigi points to the end of the great MGM musical era as it had been ruled by the Arthur Freed Unit.
The premise of all three That's Entertainment movies is that MGM made “the greatest movie musicals of all time,” which is debatable. I, for one, much prefer the Fred Astaire of RKO, before he moved to MGM, when he was making landmark black-and-white musicals with Ginger Rogers, his best dancing partner.
The new movie was made in conjunction with MGM's celebration of its 70th anniversary, which is a sad reminder of the studio's glorious days and its quite wretched present. I am not sure that That's Entertainment III needs to be seen on the big-screen, but I recommend that you see it–it will enjoy a long life on video. I also wonder if some of the enchanting moments with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland will arouse the curiosity of younger viewers to check their movies.
For those of you who have seen the original movies, a visit to yesteryear and a recollection of when and how you watched these movie would be part of the joy. Growing up in Israel in the l950s, I watched some of these musicals with my parents, often sitting on their lap in crowded and noisy movie houses. Times have changed!