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Fans have been asking for this set for a long time, and Warners has finally given them what they want: all three That's Entertainment! films in a spiffy DVD package, with an extra disc of extras associated with the three releases.
The original 1974 That's Entertainment! caused quite a stir, as the great MGM musicals had for twenty years been see only by people that frequented special screenings at museums, the Academy and bohemian revival theaters. Only a few houses in Los Angeles had the trust of the studio and were given precious original IB Tech prints to screen, places like the Vagabond near MacArthur Park, and the Encore, which was bulldozed to expand the Raleigh studios. Home video was six years away. The only real venue for these pictures were bleary 1970s color television broadcasts that chopped them up and whittled them down.
Many of the classic musicals are remarkably uplifting. You don't have to be a showbiz junkie to appreciate them. Unlike other genres, a bad musical could hide a musical number of great quality. Not all of these pictures are Singin' in the Rain or The Band Wagon, but even the average Esther Williams picture usually had at least one socko dance number or splashy aqua pageant.
So That's Entertainment! made a big splash by introducing a new generation to the fact that there was indeed some great great art produced back in the square pre- Easy Rider studio heyday, featuring talent that dwarfs what passes for a lot of the singing, dancing and songwriting we have today (don't get me started on that subject - I could be a great Moulin Rouge/Chicago dancer with a good editor and lots of angles). Some of the talent reached legendary heights, helped by a studio system that concentrated a lot of potential into production teams itching to outdo themselves with every new film. Yes, they were stars, but musical performers were more like racehorses than today's image spinners - for them it was always honing the craft, finding the step, the note or the arrangement. Sure, a lot of MGM musicals had their Kitsch factor - I find it hard to choke my way through Ziegfeld Follies. But the creativity transcended MGM's glossy production values, the standards that homogenized much of their straight dramatic work into a high-toned sameness. Even when the studio was dying out in the early 50s and contracted talent was released into the insecurity of freelance work, the MGM musical units were turning out impressive and creative pictures, like It's Always Fair Weather.
Although not always credited, the initial creative force behind the That's Entertainment! films was a pair of editors, Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan, who knew the old system, the Metrocolor lab, the vaults and most importantly where the bodies were buried. Their dedication extended to keeping track of unused or discarded musical numbers and oddball film clips from unreleased pictures. They came up with the concept of returning the big stars to the disused MGM backlot to introduce clips and refresh our memories about the greats. The dynamite production numbers from titles like Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris and Meet Me in St. Louis would do the rest. I have to think that Gene Kelly might have inspired the original idea, as he sometimes put on a clip show of his own work, which I saw at the Academy when it was in a bitty theater on Melrose back in 1972. It was the first time I saw pieces of pictures like The Pirate or the dynamic Slaughter on Tenth Avenue number from Words and Music. The audience went nuts, to put it politely.
That's Entertainment! stuck mostly to top-line musical numbers, pausing now and then for a brief montage of Metro's Heavenly Lineup of Golden-Era stars, or to show James Stewart squeak his way through a song in an Eleanor Powell movie. The hosts included Liza Minnelli to talk about her mother, Judy ... ah, you know who. The movie made clever use of moving aspect ratios to display old Academy (1:37) later widescreen (1:66 - 1:85) and CinemaScope material (2:35).
That's Entertainment, part 2 was the inevitable followup. With tons of good material untouched, it didn't have to dip into anything substandard. But it also spread its net wider to show comedy and dramatic clips from older non-musicals, and diluted itself in the process. The stinger was the producers' enticing Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire to co-host a couple of bits, and even do some dance steps together. They were both in retirement or well into other careers, but what could they do, spoil the party?
That's Entertainment III followed much later, after some unrelated attempts like That's Dancin! that met with a lesser response. In this third instalment, Friedgen and Sheridan assembled a clip selection along archival lines instead of featuring showstopping numbers exclusively. viewers were treated to bizarre material and rare outtakes and unused numbers. Three of the lost scenes featured Judy Garland. Even better, rare footage showed the complex stage mechanics behind an Eleanor Powell tap performance, and sychronized alternate versions of a Fred Astaire number to show how exacting his movements were. Two-Faced Woman, a song dropped from The Band Wagon was reused, vocal intact, for a hideous Joan Crawford vehicle called Torch Song, and we are shown those two numbers side by side as well. One irony is the special logo on this 1994 production that touts MGM's 70th anniversary. Well, it's now ten years later, and for this year's 80th anniversary the company's been sold to Sony! That entertainment, folks!
Reviving the That's Entertainment! franchise one more time was actually the brainchild of an MGM executive named George Feltenstein, the force behind deluxe restorations of the MGM musicals, by that time actually owned by Turner. Feltenstein encouraged Freidgen, Sheridan and his own engineers to find ways of taking the discarded film elements from the vault and synching them with 78rpm reference discs and tapes of rehearsal recordings, etc. Although Feltenstein didn't pioneer the practice, he made good use of original optical recordings of musical numbers that were multi-miked for balance, not stereo; modern engineering techniques could reprocess these tracks into true stereo (as opposed to the fake stereo we often hear extracted from mono recordings).
Warners' That's Entertainment! The Complete Collection puts each film onto a separate disc in two transfers, one a widescreen format that retains the original multi-aspect ratio formats of individual clips, and a second Luddite transfer for 4x3 conservatives. A fourth disc is also double sided, and contains just about every known promo film for the pictures, including BTS featurettes on the filming of the stars' return to MGM (which had to be depressing for some of them) and a lengthy Mike Douglas show where he hob-nobs and hub-bubs with Kelly and Astaire while asking MGM historical questions nobody knows the answers to.
The most elaborate new item on the fourth 'treasures from the vault' disc is a truly informative docu on the talent in the MGM musical units. Divided into sections devoted to producers, directors, musical arrangers, choreographers, composers, it covers all the names we see in credits but may not know much about, from Pasternak to Salinger, Roger Edens, Charles Walters, Michael Kidd, and so forth. The docu makes good use of Turner's priceless oral history interviews, the filmed interview material seen from time to time in filler sketches on the TCM channel. And the topics discussed are fairly candid, with one big producer being described as courting safe mediocrity. Actor Russ Tamblyn describes the same man as a great producer - "He never came on the set!"
There's a lengthy docu on That's Entertainment III that Savant edited while at MGM; that's where I met the film's MGM-savvy executive producer Peter Fitzgerald and began cutting special material for laserdisc supplements. There is also a full selection of outtake musical numbers, some found intact and others pieced together from dailies and rehearsal tracks. I helped Peter (now an accomplished editor himself) put some of those together. A couple only needed a cut or two, but a few were synch nightmares. Were things not falling together because the music speed didn't match the film speed, or was I just rhythm-challenged? Peter ended up solving all the problems.
The last bit is something I've always wanted to see uncut in a supplement, Louis Mayer's 25th anniversary all-star luncheon on a big MGM soundstage (1949?), where everyone under contract or currentlyfilming a movie on the lot was arm-twisted to show up to schmooze with exhibitors. They all do, and Mayer's galaxy of talent was arranged on long tables while newsreel cameras cruised up and down. Some stars cooperate and others don't, and we're given the full set of takes that's usually only excerpted in docus like When the Lion Roared. Even better are the formal entrances of the stars, paged by MGM emcee George Murphy and filmed by a camera that has a bad power supply - there are a bunch of unplanned camera stops that had to be edited out. An inside story I was told is that bad boy Errol Flynn, then playing in a movie with Greer Garson, was asked not to show up. He does so anyway and purposely gums up the entrance lineup. When the camera passes him on the lunch table he makes sure he looks unhappy among the other jubilant actors.
The range of faces is thrilling - besides the many greats paying homage to big boss Mayer, there are a number of fresh faces like Janet Leigh and Claude Jarman Jr., and even character actors like J. Carroll Naish and Thomas Gomez (filming That Midnight Kiss,thanks Dick Dinman and Avie Hern) helping to fill out the stands. Mayer has his last hurrah, addressing the crowd from a dais filled with executives who look like they wish some eager Brutus would stand up and start stabbing. It's a great extra and I hope I haven't oversold it - you get to see what a lot of famous personalities do when put on the spot. Who can eat with a newsreel camera pointed at them? Buster Keaton does some great schtick with a piece of celery, perfectly timed, of course.
The movies are all remastered and presented with 5.1 audio. They're a great way to experience MGM musical highlights, even if the original films themselves are slowly coming out on amazingly good-looking DVDs. Some people like to skim the cream off the top.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
That's Entertainment! The Complete Collection
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