1974. The nation was stinging from the Watergate scandal, and the wounds opened by the conflict in Vietnam were quite a long way from fully healing. Tensions the world over were at a feverish pitch, with bombings becoming increasingly commonplace throughout western Europe. The U.S. was still reeling from the ongoing energy crisis, knee-deep in a crushing oil embargo imposed by OPEC. The box office was bombarded by Irwin Allen's disaster flicks and brilliant but bleak movies like The Exorcist, Magnum Force, and Serpico.
"Boy, do we need it now" went the tagline of That's Entertainment!, compiling more than two hours of highlights from MGM's enormous catalog of glossy, upbeat musicals and celebrating the innocence and exuberance of an era gone by. Punctuating just how far gone the glory day of the Hollywood musical truly was, the aging performers hosting the different segments of That's Entertainment! -- Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, James Stewart, and, in the place of her late mother, Judy Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli -- were filmed on the crumbling MGM backlot. The studio where so many of these classic films had been shot was in a sorry state of disrepair, and it's as depressing a sight as Norma Desmond's once-palatial estate in Sunset Blvd.; it may have been a magical place at one time, but by that point, it was a sad reminder of what once was and will never be again.
Of course, any trace of melancholy is wiped away by the dozens upon dozens of excerpts from MGM's classic musicals, spanning just shy of thirty years as the studio was at its dizzying peak. MGM's most famous productions are highlighted, naturally: "Ol' Man River" from Show Boat, Gene Kelly dancing to "The Worry Song" with an animated Jerry the mouse in Anchors Aweigh, a portion of the extravagant ballet that closes out An American in Paris, and several of the most iconic numbers from The Wizard of Oz and Singin' in the Rain.
That's just a portion of the more than sixty films featured throughout That's Entertainment!, though, and this eclectic, expansive assortment of excerpts is used to illustrate the rich history of the musical at MGM. The performers hosting That's Entertainment! explain how the musical eased the difficult transition away from silent films and how it offered viewers an escape from the spectre of the second World War, both while the conflict was underway and as it was still fresh in the minds of soldiers returning home. The genre's dominance at the box office prompted MGM to shoehorn dramatic actors into musicals they were ill-suited for, something Jimmy Stewart quips about while showing his stab at singing "Easy to Love" with Eleanor Powell in Born to Dance, while other actors would lip sync to recordings by more accomplished singers when necessary.
That's Entertainment! also offers tributes to Esther Williams, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly's trademark and often dizzyingly acrobatic dance numbers, as well as Judy Garland's unauspicious start at the studio and her rise to fame when paired in a series of charmingly formulaic backyard musicals with Mickey Rooney.
This nostalgic, infectiously fun retrospective was a colossal success at the box office, to this day standing strong as one of the 25 highest grossing musicals of all time. With the original film barely chipping away at MGM's enormous library of musicals, That's Entertainment, Part 2 was naturally rushed into production to ride its coattails. The follow-up unfortunately doesn't approach the heights of the original That's Entertainment!, in part because of the relative obscurity of so many of the films featured throughout it and in part because there really isn't a narrative hook. It plays like one random excerpt after another, and the inclusion this time around of snippets from the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy leave the follow-up feeling somewhat unfocused. Annie, Get Your Gun is the most notable musical featured here that wasn't highlighted in the original That's Entertainment!, joined by a steady string of lesser known musical numbers as well as additional excerpts from the likes of High Society, Singin' in the Rain, and Anchors Aweigh.
One unexpected pleasure is how several of That's Entertainment, Part 2's stand-out moments aren't elaborate, meticulously choreographed productions, instead just emphasizing the colossal singing talent of the performers, most memorably Doris Day belting out "Ten Cents a Dance" on-stage in Love Me or Leave Me and Judy Garland at her most drop-dead gorgeous with a heartfelt rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from Meet Me in St. Louis.
To its credit, the 1976 sequel takes full advantage of having Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly host. The legendary dancers are paired together on-screen for the first time since Ziegfeld Follies thirty long years earlier, and yes, they do sing and dance throughout, including an ode to the days of black and white cinema and even a partially animated routine. Kelly also seizes the opportunity to give the audience a tour of Paris, by far his favorite place in the world, while introducing excerpts from classic musicals set in the City of Lights. The list of tributes in That's Entertainment, Part 2 include Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's memorable work together, the ease with which the cast of musicals are supposedly able to write infectiously catchy songs, Marlene Dietrich wanting to be left alone, and the final pairing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway.
The middling box office take of That's Entertainment, Part 2 left a third installment quite a long time in coming. That's Entertainment III wouldn't make its bow until 1994, twenty years after the original film roared into theaters, and it is a true return to form. Once again, a steady stream of MGM's top talent from the glory days of the movie musical returned to host: June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Esther Williams, and, making his final appearance in front of a film camera, Gene Kelly. Each performer hosts his or her own segment, once again illustrating the history and majesty of MGM's musicals through an expansive assortment of excerpts.
The hook this time is the use of dance numbers that had been trimmed out of the original films, just a portion of the some 135 unused routines that MGM was reported to have kept on tap for later use. Among them are three Judy Garland numbers, including the aborted debut of her iconic half-tuxedo outfit in a rendition of "Mr. Monotony" several years before audiences would see it in Summer Stock as well as two routines that had been filmed during her brief time with Annie, Get Your Gun. A surprisingly racy number with dancers stripteasing in a shower is used to lead into the studios' skittishness as they were shamed into adopting the Hayes Code, which would lead to Lena Horne's thoroughly tame performance of "Ain't It the Truth" in a bubble bath being yanked out of Cabin in the Sky and losing the romantic lead in Show Boat to her friend Ava Gardner purely because of her race.
Alternate performances of some memorable musical moments are also offered. Fred Astaire was unhappy with his untraditionally informal costuming in The Belle of New York, and his original performance is placed alongside the reshot version, showcasing his perfectionism as a dancer by how seamlessly the two match up. Cyd Charisse's performance of "Two-Faced Woman" had been trimmed out of The Band Wagon, but just months later, the same song and even the same vocal track would be recycled for Joan Crawford's Torch Song, and these two are again placed side by side.
Also included is some long unseen footage showing that it's not just the performers in front of the camera that have to fret with elaborate choreography, following the 'mules' moving cameras and chunks of the stage around to keep up with Eleanor Powell's tapdancing during the filming of Lady Be Good. Among the other gems unearthed from the vaults at MGM include Kathryn Grayson's screentest for Anchors Aweigh, an unobscured view of Astaire and Rogers' dancing in the opening sequence from The Barkleys of Broadway without the titles getting in the way, and a routine in a prison from a never-completed musical with the Dodge Twins that's eerily reminiscent from the iconic number that'd follow in Jailhouse Rock more than a quarter-century later.
That's Entertainment III pays tribute to MGM's sprawling roster of musical talent, including Esther Williams (with America's mermaid even shown swimming with Tom and Jerry as well as ethereally floating through a living room), Cyd Charisse, June Allyson, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne, and, in a particularly fantastic routine with drums in a toy store, Fred Astaire. Judy Garland lands the movie's most elaborate homage, both as a performer in her own right and her immensely popular films as a teenager with Mickey Rooney. Other highlights include a montage of the glamour of the MGM musical as well as the full performance of "Stereophonic Sound", Silk Stockings' particularly witty ode to some of the gimmickry that Hollywood was leaning on to try to bring audiences distracted by television back into theaters.
That's Entertainment! and its two sequels celebrate a wide-eyed sense of fun and awe that Hollywood is unlikely to ever fully recapture, and for fans of classic cinema and the mighty MGM musical, this collection is essential viewing. It's worth noting that the overtures in all three films are fully intact, and That's Entertainment! is presented in full, including "True Love" from High Society and closing with its proper exit music intact. That's Entertainment III includes the additional material not shown in its theatrical release, such as Judy Garland's performance of "Doin' What Comes Naturally".
Video: The musicals featured throughout the That's Entertainment! collection span thirty years, from the Vaudeville-inspired short subject The Five Locust Sisters from 1928 all the way to 1958's Gigi. It follows that the quality and presentation of the many excerpts from such a wide array of films vary wildly. Since widescreen filmmaking arrived fairly late in the lifespan of the Hollywood musical, the image is frequently pillarboxed to 1.37:1 and generally presented at 1.78:1 otherwise, with a small handful of excerpts offered at 2.39:1 and even as colossally wide as 2.55:1.
I get the sneaking suspicion that Warner wisely replaced some of the footage from That's Entertainment!'s original film elements with more recent restorations of the musicals it features. The candy-colored dance between Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly in the Broadway Melody sequence in Singin' in the Rain is absolutely breathtaking, for instance. Some of the other immediately striking clips include the excerpts from The Wizard of Oz (particularly the take on "We're Off to See the Wizard" in That's Entertainment III), the Cinescope splendor of It's Always Fair Weather, Jimmy Durante leading around an elephant in Billy Rose's Jumbo, and Judy Garland belting out "The Trolley Song" in Meet Me in St. Louis. The moments culled from High Society generally look fantastic as well -- it's a distinct pleasure to gaze at Grace Kelly's incandescent beauty in high definition -- although the fine pattern of Frank Sinatra's suit results in some nasty moire artifacts as he serenades the future Serene Highness.
I was struck by how wonderful so many of the vintage black and white clips look as well. The majority of them are extremely grainy, yes, but that film grain is rendered crisply and cleanly, a dramatic improvement over anything I'd expect to see on DVD. Somewhat strangely, these black and white clips often look better than the glossy Technicolor productions. The excerpts from Thousands Cheer with Lena Horne look overly smoothened out, to name one, and I'd imagine a number of these color excerpts offer at best a modest improvement over an upconverted DVD. When That's Entertainment! is at its best, these lavish musicals are absolutely jaw-dropping, but those are the exception, with most of the excerpts falling anywhere between "pretty nice" and "okay, I guess".
The overall quality seems to improve with each successive entry in the series, both in terms of the excerpts shown and the newly-filmed wraparounds with the legendary performers. A handful of the Technicolor films exhibit some light color shift, but it's not dramatic, and speckling and visible wear are modest, given the limitations of the source material. As is the norm for Warner's Blu-ray releases, it goes without saying that all three movies have been encoded using the studio's preferred VC-1 codec.
Audio: Each film in the That's Entertainment! series is accompanied by a 16-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, although these Blu-ray discs don't take full advantage of the lossless audio. The quality is erratic, particularly throughout the first two volumes. Some background hiss is occasionally audible, along with infrequent flickers of distortion. The hosts' voiceovers in the original That's Entertainment! suffer the worst, along with particularly old segments such as Jack Benny's appearance in 1929's The Song Writers' Revue. Dynamic range tends to be rather flat; don't expect the crystalline highs or tight, punchy lows you'd hope to hear from a lavish restoration of a classic musical. The surround channels are used sparsely as well, in keeping with the monaural origins of so many of these films. The clips featured throughout That's Entertainment III have a much more polished sound to them, likely because the state of audio restoration was so much more advanced when it was produced compared to the limited hardware available when the first films were compiled in the mid-'70s. I'm not disappointed with the work Warner has invested into this collection, but viewers should go in with reasonable expectations.
All three movies are also accompanied by Dolby Digital tracks in English and French, and the first two films in the series have been dubbed into Spanish as well. The selection of subtitles includes streams in French, Spanish, and English (traditional and SDH).
Extras: Each of the three volumes of That's Entertainment! comes packaged in its own separate case, collected in a thin cardboard sleeve. Tucked inside each case is a booklet listing the musical numbers featured throughout each chapter stop. Disappointingly, neither the performers nor the films' titles are provided, making it tougher at a glance to spot where a particular movie is featured.
The three discs in this collection each include their own sets of extras, with insightful introductions by Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne and theatrical trailers being the common thread between them.
The extras for That's Entertainment! are headed by a vintage TV special promoting the film. The 66 minute special, hosted by George and Alana Hamilton, offers a look at the star-studded premiere for That's Entertainment! along with brief chats with some of the performers featured throughout the movie. It's really just meant to pique viewers' interest and get them to rush into theaters, but "That's Entertainment!: 50 Years of MGM" still has its charms, particularly when Fred Astaire explains just how he danced on the walls and ceiling in Royal Wedding. The disc also includes two other short featurettes. "Just One More Time" is a nine minute promotional featurette from 1974, touching on the work that went into scouring through two hundred MGM films and offering a quick look at the shooting of the wraparounds with the performers on the MGM backlot. Last up is "MGM's 25th Anniversary", documenting the luncheon held on one of the studio's biggest stages to celebrate the milestone. While it's difficult to sit through all eleven minutes from start to finish -- a lengthy set of introductions and a slow pan as the talent munches on their lunch make up the overwhelming majority of its runtime -- it's at least worth a quick skim.
That's Entertainment, Part 2 also includes its share of vintage promotional material. "The Lion Roars Again" spends 17 minutes during a press tour at the studio, plugging the likes of Logan's Run, The Sunshine Boys, Hearts of the West, and, of course, That's Entertainment, Part 2. Some of the talent involved with each of those films, including Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, are featured throughout. The two dancers also take center stage in an excerpt from a 1976 episode of "The Mike Douglas Show" as the host strolls around the MGM lot, chatting with the producers and a gaggle of female performers, with Debbie Reynolds among them. There's plenty of light chatter about what goes into making a musical and how the studio system has so unrecognizably changed since its heyday in the '40s and '50s. Finally, "That's Entertainment!: The Masters Behind the Musicals" (38 min.) breaks down the hierarchy of putting together a lavish studio musical, discussing some of the most notable producers, vocal coaches, arrangers, musicians, choreographers, and directors responsible for MGM's titanic success at the box office.
In keeping with the other two films in the collection, That's Entertainment III has its own lengthy promotional featurette. "Behind the Screen" (53 min.) does mix some substance in with the plugs, though, featuring comments from its director and producers along with the nine legendary hosts. On the more technical end of things, the producers discuss why each performer was selected to host his or her particular segment and note how excerpts from the some 135 unused musical numbers in MGM's vaults were initially eyed for earlier installments in the series. There's also a look at the recording of the orchestral overture. The nine hosts, meanwhile, reminisce about their early days at MGM, and these candid interviews -- interspersed throughout behind-the-scenes footage of the shooting of their wraparounds -- are what really make "Behind the Screen" worth setting aside the time to watch.
The highlight of the entire set is the collection of musical outtakes accompanying That's Entertainment III. There are 16 sets of additional numbers, lifted from Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Good News, I Love Melvin, In the Good Old Summertime, This Time for Keeps, The March of Time, Rose Marie, Easter Parade, The Harvey Girls, That Midnight Kiss, Duchess of Idaho, Pagan Love Song, Holiday in Mexico, Sombrero, and Meet Me in Las Vegas. Several of these are excerpted in That's Entertainment III, such as Judy Garland's performance of "Mr. Monotony" from Easter Parade, but are presented in full here. A handful of them also feature brief introductions explaining why they had been trimmed out of the final film. The long list of performers in these scenes includes Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, June Allyson, Esther Williams, Jimmy Durante, Mel Torme, Yvonne De Carlo, Jane Powell, Vittorio Gassman, Betty Garrett, Patricia Marshall, Sharon McManus, the Dodge Twins, Bert Lahr, Marjorie Main, John Hodiak, and (whew!) Kathryn Grayson.
All of the extras in this collection are presented in standard definition.
Conclusion: The That's Entertainment! collection isn't consistently the sort of revelation in high definition that musical completists might've hoped for, but each of the three films does have its share of outstanding looking moments. Considering how unlikely it is that more than the tiniest handful of the classic musicals featured throughout the trilogy will bow on Blu-ray anytime in the foreseeable future, That's Entertainment! is well worth a look for fans who missed out on the series on DVD and are eager to sample their favorite genre in high-def. Recommended.