“That’s Entertainment” (1974)
“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Thus as a useful historical document, “That’s Entertainment” is an utter failure, though despite the surface trappings, it is not intended as a documentary per se (that would require the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.
Long time the standard by which all “Golden Age” Hollywood horror films are compared for a sense of shock and gratuitous exploitation (it was released months before the decades long inception of the Production Code), Tod Browning’s 1932 “Freaks”is actually not a film which, despite the negative fuel of its reputation, deliberately seeks to create an entirely horrific image of the circus freaks who are the source of the more startling images distributed and published in magazines and film books throughout the intervening decades in which the film’s reputation, if anything, has grown. Despite the increased availability of access to the film (for years it was almost impossible to see), the prevailing grotesque impression left by these images has skewered a balanced consideration of the film based more on the individual’s own repulsion of the “abnormal” far more than the somewhat injudiciously manufactured implications of its actual content. Divorced of the context of the Robbins’ original story and the decisions made in the adaption process, it is likely the film will be judged solely on the instinctive revulsion by which first-time viewers may enter into the film with preconceived notions that place a malignant aura about the real-life freaks of the film, rather than regarding the film through a more logical prism, as a series of misguided shifts of empathy which inevitably create many unintended transmutations from text to screen.
The source of the film, Tod Robbins’ 1923 short story Spurs tells the story of the heinous revenge of a very small man- both in physical size and psychological timber -the diminutive Jacques who rides the back of his loyal wolfhound St. Eustice, for the amusement of the patrons frequenting the traveling Rollo’s circus. Jacques is bewitched by the bareback rider Jeanne Marie and entices the beauty into betrothal by revealing he has recently become heir to a sizable fortune. Her plans to wait for what she assumes will be a premature death meets with her own impatience, and on during her wedding banquet she abuses Jacques with derisive vocal offenses which inflame Jacques to the point of pathological vengeance. The story skips forwards a year where a knock on the door of Simon Lafleur’s door introduces a haggard woman, who as it turns out is none other than the same Jeanne Marie, who in the intervening year has undergone a shocking transformation, both physical and psychological; suffering an unrelenting and torturous revenge at the hands of Jacques, whose unappeased wrath over her wedding day insult has caused him to devise a punishment by forcing his bride to literally become a person of her word.
It is an uncomplicated, nasty little story that has all of the elements for an interesting film translation, though what resulted at the hands of director Tod Browning and the executive class of MGM under the leadership of Irving Thalberg was an entirely different story than the one penned by Robbins (the opening credits openly announce the film is “suggested” by the story) and it is these differences where the controversy lies, though, as previously stated, the intention by Browning was not to use the real-life freaks in an exploitative manner, and if the film had followed the original story with greater fidelity as far as the characterization of the circus freaks are concerned, it would have remained a potent tale of revenge, while avoiding the existent elements of the collectively monstrous, and limiting any evil inclinations squarely between Jeanne Marie and Jacques.
The greatest and most significant alteration (the script is rife with dramatic changes from the original text, though this is the game changer) is an insistence on an unbroken fidelity between all of the circus freaks (and by implication, all abnormally formed individuals): the so-called Code of the Freaks; a philosophic bent mentioned casually, at first, and later becoming an almost feral and menacing alarum of “ONE OF US!”, a call for mindless solidarity which eschews the rules and laws of “normal” society and enjoins a vengeance-based protectorate agenda exclusive to themselves. It is made clear in Robbins‘ story from the very first, there is as equal a division between Jacques and his fellow freaks- he is despised as an egoist and regarded as selfishly disagreeable – as there is between the midget and characters based in the normal world. The story truly embraces, despite the physical abnormalities, the sameness of the freaks with those who are normal by a resistance to pandering and condescension and instead affording them the luxury of asserting their own individuality. Jacques is an unlikeable, boorish and sadistic character not through any physical affliction, but simply because that is his character. This is a generosity afforded by the author which presumes that if a normal person can be a jerk, so might the same opportunity afford itself to a midget. Equally, the other freaks are given equal opportunity to evoke their own personal pleasures and shortcomings (conceit, pride, jealousy) to complimentary effect which has the effect of minimizing the regarding of the characters solely through their physical appearances while advancing a comforting banal normalcy to their humanity.
This is a truly democratic perspective toward the characters which Browning undermines with his forced attempts at eliciting sympathy for the freaks (while constructing an entirely unconvincing explanation for their collective revenge), by first emphasizing their timidity in social environs while simultaneously exploiting a core of coarseness through many, though- importantly -not most of the film’s principle characters. (With the exception of Cleopatra and Hercules, there seems to be no inclinations expressed to bring harm to any of the freaks, and any negativity seems to assert itself in the form of workplace taunting- though often at the provocation of Hercules.) Those who treat the freaks with kindness are summarily forgotten at the end of the film (How the maternal and protective Madame Tetrallini [Rose Dione]– whose character also seems fated with suspicious narrative abbreviation -reacts during the climactic assault is never addressed.) and the developing relationships between all but Hans, Hercules and Cleopatra are also incomprehensibly severed from any completion of their narrative threads. Browning cannot possibly intend a last minute resuscitation of audience empathy toward the duplicitous lovers, who in the entire film have demonstrated not a note of humanity (and are served up with individual examples of performance gracelessness by Olga Baclanova and Henry Victor that border on the felonious) yet with the collective revenge of the freaks (none of whom thinks to tell of Cleopatra’s scheme to either a friendly ear within the circus community nor the authorities) become the titular figures of injustice, at whom the entire freak community feels compelled to put aside its asserted humanity and descend into barbarous violence. It is important to recall- though the film completely fails to address this point -that Cleopatra and Hercules’ plot to kill Hans is greed driven and has no bearing on Hans’ being a midget; a fact not considered by the film, but become another issue of inconsistency in the adaptation process. When the freaks scream their mantra of “One of us!” in celebratory delight during the wedding feast Hans and Cleopatra, we are witness to the extension of the Code to now include the “normal” trapeze artist as she has agreed to legal union with the midget provocateur, but we are not apprised as to whether this dispensation has been granted for the first time, or if this is standard operating procedure, with Roscoe also being considered “one of us” (as perhaps in the film’s pendulous view of abnormality, his stutter may alone qualify him a citizen’s spot in the land of freakdom), nor if the sympathetic treatment given the sideshow attractions by Madame Tertallini, Venus and Phroso is only a partial protection against the unbridled frenzy of the freaks unleashed; a tacked-on final sequence in which Venus and Phroso reunite Frieda with the stinking rich but now guilt ridden Hans swings the film again in an opposite direction of sympathy as Hans is now supposed to be considered the grief stricken cuckold, the film entirely dismissing the fact that he is the one who initiated the night of revenge in the first place. Nor does this bizarre finale explain why Frieda would still be romantically loyal to someone who so ill used her (And does not Hans’ initial betrayal of Frieda for Cleopatra not count as a breach of the Code of the Freaks, or does one have to be “normal” to enjoy violent retaliation?) nor why the previously sensible Phroso and Venus would be complicit in this morally gamey “happy” ending? (As if the fact that Frieda and Hans are portrayed by real-life siblings Daisy and Harry Earle weren’t uncomfortable enough- though this circumstance could explain the peculiar reticence sometimes present during scenes of Frieda’s romantic longing for Hans) Finally, if the carnival barker bookending the drama acknowledges the freaks’ complicity in the fates of Hercules and Cleopatra, what was the response of lawful authority?
To fairly judge the film, even in the forced state of alteration from Tod Browning’s original intentions, before the studio caved to the whims of panicked and ignorant test marketing traditions, the film initially sought to turn the freaks into the victims of the piece, yet, ironically, due to the calculated but morally inconsistent shifts in empathy taken in the adaptive process, this is the antithesis what occurs. Browning, whose supposed mastery and ease with macabre elements in his silent features is belied by his tepid handling of his most famous production, 1930’s “Dracula” (which is one of the American cinema’s most unjustly praised “classics”, outside of the presence of Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, and an effective and atmospheric opening reel which suggests a greater fidelity to the source novel than the turgid stage adaptation which was used as the basis for the rest of the film’s limp drawing room non-action), though in “Freaks”, once the initial clutter and confused introduction of characters has been established (this may be a result of one third of the film being removed, and may also explain the existing staggering gaps in exposition) Browning appears to settle into a purposeful, surprisingly nuanced (considering the flamboyant material and backdrop) evocation of society within the circus personnel- most of whom, in outside “normal” society would themselves probably be considered “freakish”; the first two-thirds of the film unfolding in a complex but unhurried manner in which several thematically interwoven parallel story lines progress, all concerning the development of budding romance amid the often lurid atmosphere of the traveling circus, though the casual pace at which the narrative unfolds betrays later serious truncations of character and incident. However, at this stage, Browning is carefully building his narratives as differing angles of the same mirror: the first with a pair who are normal- both physically and psychologically -the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) whose wisdom and emotional support of the lovely Venus (Leila Hyams) satisfyingly blossoms into an initially shyly tentative and later open show of love (a rare moment of genuine humanity expressed in the giddy moment of their spontaneous first kiss); a second pair who blend the worlds of the physically normal and that of the freaks, in the witty and bizarre romantic triangle that asserts itself with circus performer Roscoe (Roscoe Ates) and his paramour, the charming Daisy (Daisy Hilton), one-half of a pair of conjoined pair of Siamese twins, with other half represented by Violet (Violet Hilton) with whom Roscoe is engaged in a continuous amusing,familial bickering; and then there is the central triangular relationship of the film: between Hans, Cleopatra and Hercules. The film version of this entanglement presents a greater subterfuge on the part of the two “normal” characters, as the scheme to poison the midget in order to obtain his wealth, is is are which do not feature the sideshow freaks, which- until the set piece wedding celebration and climactic revengeful comeuppance -are used mainly as exotically decorous props in a rather crudely reconceived narrative of backstage carnival melodrama, which fails to engage in any meaningfully dramatic way, when it is apparent the film is just waiting to unleash its malformed cast in the infamous finale.
The visual style of the film changes in these final minutes, with the horrific nature of the freaks now assured through a skillful manipulation of a full director’s bag of tricks: dramatic shifts in framing perspectives, lighting and editing. The nocturnal thunderstorm in which the freak’s attack takes place is in direct contrast with the quietude in which the rest of the film unfolds; a curious circumstance given the almost chaotic atmosphere almost guaranteed by the operation of a traveling circus. (The film is also underwhelmingly populated- where are the spectators? -as if the intrusion of “outsiders” might break the spell of the fantastique were the normal world given too great a presence.) During the stormy assault, the film takes a heavily gothic route consistent with the horror style developed at Universal just prior to and concurrent with the production of “Freaks”; certainly a commercial influence (along with Browning’s participation) that initiated Thalberg’s attraction to getting his own piece of the horror market masterminded by Universal’s Carl Laemmle Jr.
But by having his objects of sympathy reverting to a collective homicidal presence, Browning completely undermines the entirety of his film’s content up to that point, and its pointed pleas for empathetic acceptance of his sideshow denizens, especially an early scene in which Madame Tetrallini and her charges finding sympathy with a landowner on whose property they are frolicking, made significant by her reference to her wards as “children”. Certainly the audience is given fair warning as to the Code of the Freaks in a rather perfunctory opening scene which act as the first half of a wraparound structure imposed on the film after its initial screenings. It is here where a sideshow guide initially advises “their code is a law unto themselves… offend one and you offend them all.” This is a message entirely at odds with Robbins’ source material in which the freaks are depicted as socially independent of one another’s concerns as much as would be a group of “normal” people. By placing all of the antagonistic eggs in one basket, Browning backs his story up against an intractable narrative wall in which there is no action possible except as a collective response.
However, to reach the point where thematically contrary violent retaliation becomes necessary, it is also essential for Hans- who at the start of the film is shown to attuned to insult which he reacts to with practiced intolerance -to become oblivious to everything taking place around him; a convenient shift in character that is both unbelievable (again, why the earlier examples of anger, if he later absorbs greater insults?) and patently convenient to allow the extended poisoning of the midget by Cleopatra (an occurrence which was intended but thwarted by a far cannier Jacques in the source story). For Hans to ignore every warning sign as to the devious intentions in Cleopatra marrying him, not only destroys the character’s credibility, but actually makes him an even greater heel, by his rebuffing of his original fiancee, the equally diminutive Frieda who is treated indifferently by Hans and thus becomes an unsympathetic character who uses Cleopatra for his own personal ascension (as he sees it) to the world of the “normal”. The impractical tug and pull between Robbins’ clean narrative and the film’s entirely confused moral view opens a simple piece of storytelling into an abyss of labyrinthine contradictions and unexplainable loose threads.
All things considered, if there were any sincere intention to make “Freaks” a film sympathetic to his featured sideshow attractions, then Browning displays an uncanny misunderstanding of thematic constancy. Regardless of the forced exclusions, alternations and and revision done to the film after its now legendary disastrous pre-release public viewings, revisions that reduced the film by a full third of its intended running time, it is clear from the resulting film that Browning’s intentions of sympathetic treatment toward the freaks was in direct contravention to the need for a more visually sensational climax than the creeping dread of progressive and unceasing enforced agonies as featured in the original story. Ironically, for the sake of immediate visceral jolts, the makers of “Freaks” sacrificed a far more horrifying and classically structured tale than the muddled, confused and inconsistent quilt of a film left after initial false “artistic” courage was abnegated by later “commercial” cowardice. In “Freaks”, it is not the midgets who are small as much as the film maker’s vision.
To read the original Tod Robbins story Spurs on which “Freaks is based, simply click the following link to: http://www.olgabaclanova.com/spurs.htm