Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that was once claimed to employ “more stars than there are in heaven” in the 1940s, was the largest film-factory in Hollywood, and produced the biggest, most vibrant films of the period. Its backlot was the stuff of legend, stretching over 185 acres, containing standing sets that included whole towns, lakes, bridges, a swimming pool, and a zoo.
The backlot started to be sold off, piecemeal, from the 1970s, as profits fell. The last filming that happened there was in 1974, for the first of MGM’s three film compilations, That’s Entertainment! Aging stars such as Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, and Fred Astaire walking through these run-down locations where they once danced added a poignancy and a level of interest to that first film. It’s not just a collection of clips. It’s a document of a disappearing system.
At the time, a collection of classic clips would have been a rare delight to the moviegoer. Nowadays, you can get hold of all of the films mentioned in That’s Entertainment! without much trouble. It’s so easy to watch clips of the greatest song and dance routines, or find compilations put together by other people on Youtube – is there really a space for the professional compilation film any more? Offering some historical content and interviews with key players has become a staple of the compilation, but it’s about more than that. There’s an underappreciated art to putting together a collection of clips in order to evaluate the history of movies in a fresh light. Films such as Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), and Midnight Movies: From the Morgue to the Mainstream (2005) have been examples of more recent documentary compilation films that have strengthened the idea of a particular genre as worthy of consideration from a social perspective.
The That’s Entertainment! films don’t fit into that category. They’re not analytical, or striving for objectivity about the past. They are, instead, an unashamed revel in the glamour of MGM in its heyday, and there’s a lot of glamour to go around. Musicals take up most of the screen time, and the stress is on two of the biggest dance stars to ever grace the screen – Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Astaire and Kelly only danced together onscreen twice.
The first time was in 1945 for The Ziegfield Follies (they did only one number together to Gershwin’s The Babbit and the Bromide) and the second time was as the presenters of That’s Entertainment! Part II. They also presented, separately, for Part I, along with a host of stars from days gone by. The appeal of this back in 1974 can’t be underestimated. The first film did strong box-office business, perhaps helped by timing. After Watergate and the Oil Crisis, nostalgic escapism proved to be just the ticket for many, and the tagline on the original poster played to this. That’s Entertainment! it said, followed by the phrase – Boy. Do We Need It Now.
So these films are no hard-nosed look at the business of film-making. Instead it’s a ‘greatest hits’ approach to MGM’s contract stars. Truncated excerpts of Singin’ In The Rain, The Wizard of Oz, The Bandwagon, An American in Paris, Gigi, Easter Parade, and many more, are interspersed with homages to Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, and Laurel and Hardy to name a few. Perhaps the most interesting aspects are the previously unreleased performances and forgotten attempts to turn all MGM stars into singers and dancers. You can see Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford take part in dance numbers, and you can listen to Cary Grant sing (and he’s actually pretty good, in his own way).
There’s also the chance to see a collection of clips relating to stars who were absolutely unique. For instance, the swimming extravanganzas of Esther Williams have to be seen to be believed. Williams was a US swimming champion who came to the attention of an MGM scout. The studio decided to create a whole new genre just for her – the Aquamusical. The plots may not have been too interesting, but That’s Entertainment! puts the most incredible sequences together with none of the not-so-great dialogue. Williams swims, dives, and waterskis with a permanent, and frankly quite scary, smile on her face. She was the closest thing cinema had to a real superhero. Having said that, it’s the women who played her team of lovely underwater associates, floating about in uncomfortable outfits and endlessly holding their breaths as she swims past them that really impress me.
Although there’s no dissection of the goings on at MGM, there are occasional moments, particularly in Part III, where a cursory glance is given to the attitudes that dictated studio policy. Part III was released in 1994, and therefore offers more rarities and unseen aspects in order to attract a viewership that had become used to home videos. For instance, the marvellous Lena Horne narrates a segment in which she reflects on the roles that she missed out on and chances that weren’t given to her because of the colour of her skin.
Of course, anything that isn’t owned by MGM simply isn’t mentioned. For instance, if you want to see Fred and Ginger dance together, then you’ve got only one MGM film – the last one they ever made together – The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). That’s not to say that the dance routines aren’t great, but early black and white Astaire and Rogers would always be welcome in a retrospective of his career. Still, you get Astaire with Eleanor Powell instead, so you can’t really complain.
So although there’s no beating the act of sitting down to watch the best musicals of the period all the way through, there’s something hugely appealing about the way That’s Entertainment! shows how sensibilities have changed along with the way the studio systems work. It’s part of the joy of any film that it reflects the period in which it was made, and then becomes a historical document in its own right. That’s Entertainment! shows us both the heyday of Hollywood glamour, and what came afterwards.
The compilation film is more than throwing together our favourite moments from the past. It forms a way to interpret movies within a wider context – all movies, not just what might be thought of as the best ones. Although, in the case of MGM’s biggest musicals, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the productions. If biggest is best, then MGM was, at the top of its game, the very best in the business.
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