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That’s Entertainment (1974)

by on 2010/03/07

I never expected to write this review.  On one hand, my reaction to That’s Entertainment was unsurprising.  While few would call me romantic, my sentimentality knows no bounds; a hopeless nostalgic, I’ll idealize the times I never even knew.  On the other hand, I’m no fan of the all singing, all dancing musical.  While I enjoy certain exceptions like The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, and Grease, I have no stomach for most, including such popular favourites as West Side Story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and pretty much anything by Disney.  What were the odds I’d find a winner here?

That’s Entertainment is essentially a feature-length clip show distilling dozens of famous movie musicals, spanning roughly thirty years between 1929 and 1958.  Singing and dancing, small and spectacular, even a smattering of animation, all make an appearance here.  Source clips vary in colour, grain, and aspect ratio to form as broad a representation as could be expected in a project limited to a single studio, in this case MGM.

Between clips, and occasionally narrating over them, we meet a succession of stars, all of whom worked with MGM in the course of their careers, whether as singers, dancers, or “just” actors:  Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, and Elizabeth Taylor, among others.  Each has a piece of the story to tell, and they punctuate the over-arching history lesson with their own related anecdotes, comic or tragic, embarrassing or inspiring.

The documentary fan in me emerged early on.  Aside from song and dance routines, the framing material includes then-recent commentary by the surviving participants and a wealth of vintage footage from MGM’s past.  Even when the more theatrical flashbacks began in earnest, I found myself rapt, with no desire to stab the remote control’s “next” button.  I’d studied Gold Diggers of 1933 in university; how had I overlooked Busby Berkeley’s hypnotic choreography?  I can appreciate the relationship between music and math but, here, dance became geometry, symmetry, fractals.

Excerpted from their original contexts, the featured performances no longer broke my notion of a fictional reality.  Here they served to highlight the pure talent of their participants.  A tap-danced rendition of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” from Broadway Melody of 1940 won me over in particular.  (Until that point Fred Astaire was little more to me than “that unscrupulous back-stabber” of Holiday Inn.)  Not only do these selections prove the performers’ incredible gifts, but they demonstrate a breadth of talent now virtually unknown.  Compare their past with our present, when we routinely employ technology to prop up even a single skill.  These multi-threats were able to entertain in a variety of ways, in real time, and often in a single, unbroken take!

Throughout, I saw familiar faces in a new light.  After all, who knew that Jimmy Stewart could sing?  But to see the latter-day Stewart introducing his own clip was an extra-cool surprise, the old dog showing off a new — or at least heretofore unknown — trick.  I felt an undeniable sense of poignancy at seeing Hollywood’s classic icons, transported from their celluloid stases, suddenly frail with age and humanity.  As if to recognize this aspect of the feature, many of the performers deliver their lines as if in elegy, from the very backlot sets they once energized, now abandoned, ramshackled.

In some cases, the new guard stands in for the old.  Liza Minnelli participates in place of her mother, Judy Garland.  She shares some details regarding Garland’s life and death, and reassures us last century’s extravaganza “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.”

For me, Minnelli’s words ring true.  In fact, they make a good argument in support of the preservation of film itself.  While I may not appreciate every work saved for posterity, I do appreciate having the chance to make my choice.  And in the case of works like That’s Entertainment, the chance to find an all singing, all dancing, against-all-odds surprise.

* * * *

Rated G

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