“That’s Entertainment” (1974)
(Originally posted on May 18, 2014)
“That’s Entertainment” is a compilation of some of the best (many not) musical numbers extracted from the great musicals (many not) from the studio era known by some (many not) as “the Golden Age of Hollywood”.
The all-encompassing intention of the film is entirely self-serving as the films shown are limited to those productions emerging from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which leaves out a great deal of equitable material from companion studios, and also, in several instances, gives attributable mention to performers whose more justly celebrated efforts emanated from artistic rivals, thus the pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is given brief representation with “The Barkleys of Broadway”, their sole collaboration at MGM and certainly their weakest shared vehicle, while there is not a single acknowledgement of their landmark partnership in the 1930’s as those films were produced by RKO. Similarly, there is no reference to Betty Grable ( at 20th Century Fox) or Rita Hayworth (at Columbia), though the inclusion of Deanna Durbin in a short subject, fails to mention the fact that she quickly left the studio to cement her at stardom Universal. Then there is also the strange case of Bing Crosby, questionably chosen as one of the segment hosts despite the on-screen admission that the appreciably formative and successful portion of his screen stardom was outside the purview of Leo the Lion’s domain, though there is (naturally) no nod to his productive years invested at Paramount Pictures.
Thus as a useful historical document, “That’s Entertainment” is an utter failure, though despite the surface trappings, it is not intended as a documentary per se (that would require the participation of experts more impartial than the even different hosts- including Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli (representing the late Judy Garland) , all of whose commentary is limited to scripted business designed more for unquestioned adulation rather than cultural illumination. Nor is there any attempt at a contextual look at the evolution of the film musical form, the reason for the prominence of musical performance in film at the beginning of the sound era nor any thoughts (or on-screen acknowledgement) on the decline of the form. In fact, the film is merely a souvenir scrapbook of musical highlights of three decades of MGM musical production, and though highly entertaining as far as the limited scope of this ambition is able to keep the film chugging along, there are two elements of the film which reduce the gloss of what is shown by several important degrees, the first being the utter absence of context and the second being the continual return to the hosts as they wander the ruined backlots where the studio created these lustrous fantasies. But more about these points in a moment.
The film presents clips of the musical sequences from select MGM musicals produced between 1929 (“The Hollywood Revue of 1929”) and 1958 (“Gigi”) with an emphasis stressed that the chosen sequences are representative of the highest standards of artistic expression within the genre, yet this flies in the face of several curious segments in which the film finds wasteful and unwarranted emphasis on novelty performances- actors unskilled at either singing or dancing but of sufficient box-office clout to justify their being placed in roles ill-suited to their evident lack of musical performance skills (Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, James Stewart), and an extended segment exclusive to the campy aquatic films of Esther Williams, which- especially if the film is limited to MGM -certainly merits mention, but an entire segment as if the actress were at the same level of cinematic artistry of a Gene Kelly, Judy Garland or Fred Astaire? Or that any of her films were of the same caliber as “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Meet Me in St. Louis” or “The Band Wagon”? Why then the disproportionate amount of time spent illustrating this particular performer’s admittedly idiosyncratic but exponentially increasingly kitschy oeuvre? Why spend the time to include almost embarrassing clips from “Idiot’s Delight” and “Suzy”or trivial nonsense like the Debbie Reynolds/Carleton Carpenter duets from “Two Weeks With Love” and “Three Little Words” when a genuine genre masterwork such as “It’s Always Fair Weather” remains unceremoniously absent? This also becomes an occasion where the dearth of background information becomes problematic as the several clips celebrating the contributions of Carpenter are unsatisfying by lack of association with the consideration of the film failing to incorporate corresponding information identifying, to those outside of obsessive fan magazine archivism, just who Carpenter is, how did he become featured in several successive MGM musicals and what then what happened to him? However, the film has no time to address any particulars about its featured performers as its too busy getting to the next soprano trill and high kick. Similarly, there is something wrong with a film celebrating the Hollywood musical (or a large chunk of it) in which the charitably noted non-musical Clark Gable is referred to as much as the immensely talented Cyd Charisse.
The very format of the film ensures that all of the musical sequences exhibited are divorced from any explanatory nor connective material which might give the performances a contextual basis linking them to an intended emotional core. Presented is this vacuum of context, the clips emerge as merely a succession of jukebox selections: moments that may excite yet still without without the additional intended emotional resonance. The film becomes, in essence, a series of performance crescendos existing for their own sake, a cinematic ‘greatest hits’ album which fairly nullifies (if we are to concede to the film’s myopic perspective) the importance of the individual song or dance as a cumulative effect of the emotional underpinnings of the story rather than (as presented) stylized but hollow exercises in emotive excess. (Quite often the scripts to musicals may seem insipidly simplistic, and this often the case if their level of invention is reduced to the elemental purpose of linking these musical expressions together to form a rudimentary dramatic arc, just how many successive but unrelated scenes does it take to recognize and actively crave the absent emotional connection? If the viewer is familiar with the specific material, it is possible to rekindle the intended resonant catharsis with a nostalgic fondness, but those who are making an initial journey through these colorful waters- without a requisite foreknowledge of context -may find the film more of a curiosity than en enticement to seek out the complete features (why sample the whole steer when you’ve tasted the choicest cuts?). There’s an odd, irrational beauty to a form in which a neo-surrealist method of communication- vocalization and body movement in synchronization to non-source music -which is by its nature entirely artificial in the service of expressing the most elemental of feelings: yet no where in the film is the beauty of the musical form for its own form’s sake given any consideration. There is something quite wondrous in the very concept of the song cue, that most obvious and criticized element in the construction of a musical, that minor yet all important miracle segue between the commonplace and the abstract, the dividing line between modest reality and an art form in which intimacy of thought becomes metaphorically transmogrified by way of theatrical ritual. This is amply demonstrated by the film’s final clip: the ballet from “An American in Paris” which in the context of that feature was meant to build to the ballet as a cathartic climax: the entire film acting as a prelude to this explosive and sensuous finale- a vivid, metaphorical enactment of the evolution of the idealized romantic arc as art form: meeting, longing, seduction, passion, consummation, loss; which explains the seemingly truncated ending to Vincente Minnelli’s film as, with the conclusion of the ballet, there is nothing left to express.
By the end of “That’s Entertainment”, the relentless serving up of these emotive climaxes becomes a bit numbing, though there is little point in arguing that as a collective example of extraordinary talents using those abilities for no other purpose than to dazzle the audience, the film is undeniably entertaining and at times exhilarating, though once the nostalgic glow of this colorful cavalcade subsides, there are unpleasant aftertastes which are inevitably dredged up by the director’s method and by the inevitability of several questions the film raises.
No doubt the intentions of director Jack Haley, Jr. were to create a simple celebration of the talents before and behind the camera during the heyday of the studio produced musical, though the limitation of the film’s scope (as previously stated in the opening paragraph) opens gaps in regard to historical balance and fairness (and is certainly exclusionary of a great many equal talents at rival studios), and the simplistic, fan club level of the scripted commentary (by the director) denies the opportunity for genuinely insightful and spontaneous thoughts by the actual talent?
There is also more than a minor undercurrent of cynicism present in the film and its production. The various hosts wander the scandalously shabby, unkept backlot all the while burbling the script’s lofty platitudes about art and dedication to craft while the audience is given a tour of a studio that (unmentioned in the film) is being sold off to commercial developers while MGM abandons its commitment to motion picture production for the construction of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Waxing nostalgic over the past accomplishments of an art form is one thing, but given the specificity of the film’s attention- the MGM musical -and that the film is a product that same studio, just what is the justification for accepting kudos for these same past accomplishments without addressing the disinterested contemporary mindset of the studio’s filmmaking manifesto? (If the executives at the studio insist in the value of a form which they themselves helped to nurture, why did they stop making such films?) When MGM advertises the film with the phrase ” ‘That’s Entertainment’ ….. Boy, Do We Need It Now”, it’s a shocking admission that they have given up.