Upon its release, Variety – the showbiz Bible – astutely eulogized Jack Haley Jr.’s That’s Entertainment! with a glowing review, adding “It’s more than a movie…it’s a celebration! Well many may ponder the future of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer no one can deny it’s had one hell of a past.” And indeed, this bumper crop of classic numbers and songs from the studio’s unimpeachable treasure trove became the biggest and brightest money maker of 1974; little wonder since in just a little over two hours audiences were magically teleported into a world just the other side of the rainbow. Haley had appealed to MGM to consider making such a movie. But it was only after Haley’s own hour-long TV tribute, Hollywood: The Dream Factory, hosted by Dick Cavett, was nominated for an Emmy that the powers that be green lit his full-scale ‘dream project’ for a relatively paltry $3,200,000. Daniel Melnick, then the latest in an increasingly forgettable and ineffectual line of studio executives placed atop Metro’s increasingly unstable empire, afforded Haley and his editor, Bud Friedgen the run of the back lot, his choice of ole-time stars to co-host the various self-congratulatory segments, and, unprecedented access to the vast un-air-conditioned sheds and warehouses harboring these golden ticket memories from Hollywood’s yesteryear. As ironic as it seems incongruous to consider today, Leo’s iconic roar was preceded by the optimistic tagline, “Beginning our next 50 years…”
Alas, Metro’s fate had already been sealed six years earlier; Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian gaining controlling interest in a company he had virtually zero interest in managing as a film studio. What appealed to Kerkorian was MGM’s Culver City real estate and the marketable value of the name itself; also, grave-robbing 45 years’ of legacy to line the plywood trappings of his newly inaugurated MGM Grand casino. With the appointment of television maverick, James T. Aubrey in charge of Metro’s daily operations, Kerkorian wasted no time pillaging the back lots for franchise-able assets; slapping the MGM logo on his private airline and Vegas hotel, while drastically reducing the studio’s output to one or two home-grown and modestly budgeted programmers per annum; the rest of the yearly spate padded out in low budget, independently-made movies purchased outright for a song under lucrative distribution deals. To those who had spent their lives behind the hallowed gates of Hollywood’s premiere ‘dream factory’, Kerkorian’s corporate takeover was the final death knell. Retirements were ‘encouraged’ with Aubrey orchestrating the sell-off of Metro’s mind-boggling assortment of props and costumes in a heart-breaking auction; the ‘profit for profit’s sake’ rape filmed for posterity. Chariots from Ben-Hur (1959) Garbo’s gowns from Camille (1936), Judy Garland’s Oz-bound ruby slippers and thousands of other ‘relics’ archived from the studio’s illustrious past were sold off to the highest bidder. Yet, these were the ‘lucky’ sacrifices.
More tragic – and frankly, idiotic - was the hasty purge occurring inside Metro’s stills, animation and music publishing departments. Original compositions with hand-written annotations by the likes of Arthur Freed, Conrad Salinger and Lenny Hayton, screenplays with revisions from Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, etc., hand-painted Tom & Jerry cartoon cells, and, stacks and stacks of production stills, documenting every movie ever made at Metro, including glamour shots photographed by such artisans as Laszlo Willinger and George Hurrell; impeccably crafted images of all of the studio’s glittery stars and contract players, plus original artwork for lobby cards and posters; these were assessed as having virtually no resale value prior to the nostalgia craze soon to hit Hollywood; Aubrey giving instructions for this priceless heritage to simply be boxed up and junked in dumpsters. With all the sadistic glee of a maniacal playground bully eager to pulverize his latest target into the dust, Aubrey liquidated MGM Records and sold off the company’s overseas theater chain. Next, he turned his attentions to real estate closer to home: the iconic Lot 3; acreage containing byways, streets and lagoons where every Andy Hardy picture, Meet Me in St. Louis and Show Boat – among countless other classics – had all been photographed were slated to be razed. Thus, even as Haley was preparing to shoot his present day star cameos for That’s Entertainment!, the rumblings of bobcats and bulldozers could be heard in the distance, mowing down these fiberglass and plywood facades. That’s Entertainment! would be the last time audiences saw the fictional town of Carver, the streets of old Verona built for Romeo and Juliet (1936) or the train depot where Fred Astaire had once sauntered along ‘by himself’ in The Band Wagon (1950). In less than a month all of these invaluable objet d'art, so nicknamed by co-cost, Bing Crosby as a “sort of scruffy… illusion on an illusion”, slightly dilapidated ruins, having resisted the passage of time, would be leveled to make way for future condo and housing development.
“I went to Aubrey and said you can’t tear it down,” Debbie Reynolds reflected years later, “Lot 3 is like a Disneyland. You just put in a turn style…I’ll get stars to come every day and sign autographs. It’ll be great.” Alas, Reynolds pleas fell on deaf ears, Reynolds turning her efforts to the auction, scooping up as many of bits of memorabilia, later hoping against hope to establish a more permanent home for these irreplaceable pieces of movie land memorabilia. “Later on Universal did it. You know, if a little dumb girl from Burbank could see it why couldn’t they? And the shame of it is - why didn’t they see it? It’s too late now!” To add insult to injury, Kerkorian inaugurated his Vegas hotel with an inauspicious statement to his stockholders, in part reading “MGM is a hotel company and a relatively insignificant producer of motion pictures.” It had taken Louis B. Mayer nearly 40 years to will Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer into the greatest purveyor of ‘make-believe’ this world had ever known, but only a little over six years for Aubrey and Kerkorian to break it down to bedrock; MGM’s distribution offices shuttered; its creative personal and groomsmen laid off, the rights to its vast library outsourced for a period of ten years to television; mercifully, later to be snatched up, ridiculously colorized, but ultimately – and lovingly – preserved for posterity by cable network impresario, Ted Turner.
In the wake of all this carnage, That’s Entertainment! hit theaters with much fanfare and even more unanticipated interest from audiences who made it the most successful release of 1974 grossing more than $26,890,200. If Aubrey and Kerkorian had mis-perceived no interest in the past, That’s Entertainment! sparked an overnight cottage industry for collecting, revisiting and treasuring Hollywood’s national heritage. Underground movie buffs, long knowing the giddy excitement and joy of squirreling away whatever they could salvage of their movie-land memories, viewed That’s Entertainment! as a complete vindication of their eccentricity. Now, the general public wanted in on the action. And Aubrey and Kerkorian were stumped. Worse, they had liquidated far too many assets far too quickly to make yet another quick buck on any of them now. Apparently, there was a lot of ‘marketability’ in these otherwise easily discarded remains than had first met the eye. MGM was hardly in a position to launch a glitzy Hollywood premiere. And yet, the stars of yesteryear turned out in droves, bedecked and bedazzled for the occasion; the retro appeal of seeing so much megawatt star power on the red carpet, capped off with a star-studded dinner and photo-op at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where many of these almost forgotten names L.B. Mayer had made legendary assembled to break bread together for the first – and arguably, last – time since the studio’s much touted 25th anniversary in 1949. That’s Entertainment! ought to have been the regal beginning of another majestic era in MGM’s stellar history.
Alas, it served only as a glorious, if poignant reminder that the real glory years were a thing of the past. Directed with adroit – if self-congratulatory – aplomb and concision by Jack Haley Jr. (son of Oz’s Tin Man), That’s Entertainment! was the sort of spellbinding all-star extravaganza, virtually unseen elsewhere in the grittier realism afflicting the cinema firmament in 1974, reinforcing MGM’s once galvanized mottos of “art for art’s sake” (or art for art’s sake) and “more stars than there are in heaven.” In an era before home video, where else could one hope to see Eleanor Powell majestically tap and spiral her way down a series of drums from Rosalie (1937), or witness the mammoth spectacle of ‘A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody’ from The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Here again, Esther Williams swam, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire danced apart and together, and, Mario Lanza projected ‘Be My Love’ soothingly to Kathryn Grayson. The Cotton Blossom sailed with Cap. Andy from Show Boat (1951), Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney ‘put on a show’ as ‘babes in arms’ and ‘on Broadway’ and Bing Crosby crooned Cole Porter’s immortal ‘True Love’ to Grace Kelly in High Society (1956). Seven potential brides danced with seven backwoodsmen, Tony Martin proclaimed ‘Hallelujah!’ aboard ship and Maurice Chevalier ‘thanked heaven’ for Gigi.
In all, some 150 clips and snippets from MGM’s mind-boggling array of perfectionism gave audiences the sort of walloping ‘one/two’ knockout in utterly fabulous entertainment that, even today, can scarcely seem fathomable. Acting as the film’s MC, Frank Sinatra gave a brief overview of the early sound era; Elizabeth Taylor shared moments ranging from her own awkward musical debut in Cynthia to the sumptuous college musical, Good News (both released in 1947); Peter Lawford explained some of the pitfalls and perks of being a studio contract player, and, James Stewart illustrated them more definitively with quaint examples as diverse as Jean Harlow’s whisky-voiced warbling in Reckless (1935) to his own thinly trilled ‘Easy to Love’ from Born to Dance (1936). From here, That’s Entertainment! effortlessly segued into Metro’s real ‘golden’ period: Mickey Rooney sharing poignant remembrances of Judy Garland, further embellished elsewhere by a tribute to Garland’s post-Rooney movies, lovingly introduced by her daughter, Liza Minnelli. Gene Kelly paid homage to Fred Astaire, with Astaire returning the favor in kind later on. Between them there followed Donald O’Connor (a real curious choice to co-host since O’Connor only made Singin’ in the Rain at MGM – the rest of his career spent mostly at Universal, with loan outs to Fox and Paramount. O’Connor’s tribute to Esther Williams was even more of an oddity as he never appeared with Williams on the screen. Debbie Reynolds championed some of Metro’s finest films pre-Cinemascope, including Show Boat (1951). Bing Crosby gave a nod to his own brief career at Metro (Crosby’s tenure devoted to Paramount) and Sinatra’s, jokingly discounted as ‘his competition’, before capping off the jubilation with a series of widescreen spectacles from the mid to late fifties, the Barn Raising Ballet from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) amongst these highlights. Sinatra returned to conclude the show, introducing ‘the best number’ from possibly ‘the best musical ever made’ – a truncated rendition of the ‘An American in Paris’ ballet.
At its gala premiere, Jack Haley Sr. declared, “This isn’t nostalgia. This is art.” And rightly so, since by 1974 the MGM musical had been dead for some time; the studio, teetering on the verge of a devastating restructure that would ultimately reduce its holdings to ‘garage sale’ status. But at least in That’s Entertainment! such nearly forgotten treasures were resurrected from near oblivion and exalted to their rightful place in film history. Not everyone was pleased with the results. Esther Williams famously sued the studio for unauthorized use of her clips – a suit later settled out of court. With all the hoopla surrounding it MGM just had to have a sequel; That’s Entertainment Part 2 (1976). Unfortunately, producers, Melnick and Saul Chaplin’s follow-up was decidedly something of a let down on several levels. First, it removed the star cameos that had so poignantly buttressed the original movie’s vintage clips – deciding instead to have Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly co-host the movie; billed as something of a reunion, as the two had not tripped the light fantastic together since The Babbitt and the Bromide sequence from 1949’s Ziegfeld Follies. Alas, time had taken its toll; neither Kelly nor Astaire as light or fantastic as they once had been.
Another misfire, Melnick and Chaplin had decided to showcase their footage in a rather hap-hazard chronology, toggling back and forth between color to B&W snippets, and, widescreen to full frame images without any continuity and seemingly zero connective tissue to establish and maintain the film’s base narrative. Worst of all, the musical performances were heavily truncated and frequently interrupted to showcase even more disjointed word play from the studio’s non-musical performers; sound bites excised from such classics as Woman of the Year, Goodbye Mr. Chips and Red Dust, but again, without any context or even subtext; thus, neither enhancing the memory of their original performances nor establishing their place in this new venue of presentation. Finally, since MGM had leveled all of their outdoor back lots in the interim, the newly filmed introductory sequences featuring Astaire and Kelly were confined to a series of rather garish sets built on sound stages; the most ‘impressive’ of these reserved for the finale where Kelly and Astaire warbled a revised version of the iconic showbiz anthem, ‘That’s Entertainment’ while climbed up and down ladders leading to a series of transparent cubes, suddenly illuminated with the visages of various stars who had appeared in the movie. Though not nearly as successful as its predecessor, That’s Entertainment Part 2 was nevertheless a money maker.
Time passed. MGM went through more corporate restructuring. In 1981, Ted Turner made a valiant attempt to strengthen the company’s assets and, in tandem, resuscitate the old MGM, by acquiring and amalgamating Metro with United Artists. Regrettably, the new company proved more a liability for Turner than an asset. In a little less than a month of his acquisition, Turner was forced to sell off the studio to Lorimar Telepictures: the MGM name and rights reverting back to Kerkorian. Turner was left with Metro’s classic film library, arguably, the only asset he was ever truly interested in acquiring anyway. During this turbulent period, Kerkorian offered to purchase the remaining shares and take the company private. His proposal was met with open hostility from the stockholders and never came to fruition. For a brief period in the early 1980’s, MGM tried to return to form, its output of largely forgettable movies, every so often, yielding a winner like Octopussy or Poltergeist. But in 1982, the studio officially ceased operations as a ‘film-making entity’, choosing instead to rely solely on independently produced pick-ups for its bread and butter. Even so, there were hints the old MGM might come back yet again. In 1985, Jack Haley Jr. pitched That’s Dancing! to the executive brain trust. Unlike the That’s Entertainment! franchise, That’s Dancing! would exclusively feature the very best dance numbers without interpolated songs. The new film would stick to the format that had made the first That’s Entertainment! a winner; hiring a host of old-time and contemporary dancers to narrate its segments. Unlike That’s Entertainment!, this time Haley drew inspiration not only from the MGM library, but also gave nods to Warner Bros., 2oth Century-Fox and even the Archers. Despite the presence of such luminaries as Gene Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ray Bolger and Sammy Davis Jr., That’s Dancing! was not nearly as successful as That’s Entertainment!, its $4,210,938 gross, a disappointment, given Haley had had to license various clips outside of MGM/UA’s custodianship and thus, pay for the privilege. The new movie was also fairly uneven; ballet intermingling with Broadway show stoppers and even Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ music video. Once again, time passed.
Kirk Kerkorian reclaimed MGM in 1986, the name of the company changed to MGM/UA Communications Co. – the two corporate entities separated from each other. There were MGM pictures (or rather, those which used the lion to precede their acquisition from outside producers) and those outsourced under the United Artists’ banner. By the end of the decade, MGM had endured several more failed corporate restructurings; Kerkorian refusing to relinquish his rights, but seemingly doing next to nothing to resuscitate the studio’s prestige. Perhaps the bloom for Kerkorian had worn off after the disastrous MGM Grand fire of 1980 that claimed 85 lives and injured another 650. Either via manifest irresponsibility during its construction phase or simple unbridled greed thereafter to capitalize on the MGM brand at the expense of cutting corners and deliberately sacrificing safety standards, the hotel tragedy was investigated, yet curiously without any charges ever leveled at Kerkorian’s feet. In Hollywood, another name change and MGM-Pathé Communications was born in 1990. Four years later, Bud Friedgen, Michael Sheridan and Peter Fitzgerald would pitch That’s Entertainment III to studio executive, George Feltenstein.
Regarded for his enduring passion for Hollywood’s history and MGM’s in particular, Feltenstein green-lit Part III almost without reservation; returning to the original movie’s format, padding out the new segments with an enviable roster of surviving alumni, including Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, June Allyson, Ann Miller, Howard Keel, Cyd Charisse, Esther Williams and Lena Horne. Signing Williams and Horne proved something of a minor coup; the first, because of her rather tempestuous lawsuit filed after the first That’s Entertainment! proved a smash hit; the latter, as her career had largely been relegated by the studio to appearing in cameos; easily excised to appease the Southern censors. This time, Feltenstein stuck very close to home, producing yet another cornucopia of classic moments. That’s Entertainment Part III would also diverge from its predecessors by offering something no previous anthology had even dared; outtakes or deleted songs and dances left on the cutting room floor decades earlier, yet miraculously, having survived Metro’s turbulent demise and, in the interim, lovingly archived for posterity. Thus, alongside vintage kitsch and coo, Judy Garland radiantly burst forth in two deleted gems; the first, the sly and jazzy ‘Mr. Monotony’, from Easter Parade (Garland wearing the top half of a tuxedo later reused for her iconic ‘Get Happy’ finale from Summer Stock in 1950) the other, ‘The March of the Doagies’, from The Harvey Girls; an extravagant dance number shot at night. Cyd Charisse, lip-synced to contract dub artist, India Adams, performed ‘Two-faced Woman’, originally planned for The Band Wagon, but later winding up as a garish bit of camp in blackface, mouthed by Joan Crawford. Lena Horne seductively cooed ‘The Gospel Truth’ – another outtake from Cabin in the Sky. For all its gloss, the remembrances in That’s Entertainment III now seemed more tinny and artificially self-congratulatory than ever; the assembled clips, serving only as a somewhat painful reminder that the MGM most people recalled was indeed a thing of the past. As though to relive 1974, That’s Entertainment III was given a lavish premiere. But it failed to generate the sort of giddy excitement known to pack theaters and garner ebullient reviews, Variety labeling it ‘Briga-swoon’ – a glib nod to a clip from 1954’s Brigadoon prominently featured in Part III. Arguably, the nostalgia craze had cooled.
To date, Warner Home Video has made only the three That’s Entertainment! compendiums available in hi-def; That’s Dancing! the red-headed stepchild of this franchise (included in the TCM collector’s series DVD set) still awaiting such treatment. It is really too bad what’s here is rather disappointing too. When Warner Home Video elected to transfer all three movies to ‘flipper’ DVD discs back in 2002, they gave the public the option to view them in two separate ways; either, as originally seen in theaters, with optical zooms built in to re-frame clips originally shot in 1.33:1 to fit the 1.75:1 modern movie frame, or, lovingly reassembled, with the 1.33:1 clips properly formatted and the widescreen segments left intact. Inexplicably, this same option has not been afforded these Blu-ray releases. We get only the original theatrical cuts. Personally, as a purist, I wouldn’t mind this so much. Although the 1.33:1 clips are cropped, occasionally cutting off pertinent information at the top or bottom of the frame, and do appear slightly cramped in the recomposed 1.75:1, this is, in fact, the way Jack Haley Jr. intended these movies to look. No, the chief problem herein lies in a lack of overall clean-up and image stabilization. First, clean-up: it has been minimally applied. While certain vintage clips appear fairly pristine, far too many suffer from advanced grain, likely due to the printing techniques of the day, but with an unsettling amount of chroma bleeding during the B&W segments and occasionally muddier than expected colors in place of the radiant hues of vintage Technicolor. It would have been prudent of Warner Home Video to reassemble at least some of these vintage clips from their more recently restored Blu-rays of Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Easter Parade and Meet Me In St. Louis.
Worse, the ‘new’ star segments, shot in 1974, ’76 and 94 respectively, look twice as old as any of the vintage clips featured elsewhere. The best looking transfer in this 3-pack is the original That’s Entertainment! but even it falls short of expectations. Obviously, WHV has paid some attention to it – or rather, marginally more than its two sequels. That’s Entertainment! Part 2’s color palette is sorely lacking and age-related artifacts are everywhere. But the real oddity here is That’s Entertainment III; as colors are bizarrely anemic, the entire image slightly soft and/or out of focus. Given the recent age of this latter installment in the series, and, also the fact the now defunct MGM/UA Home Video’s CAV format LaserDisc transfer from 1995 positively blows this new hi-def incarnation out of the water; it is a real mystery why this penultimate movie looks so awful in 1080p. In all three cases, WHV has improved upon the audio, remixed to 5.1 DTS.
Equally admirable is Warner’s commitment to stacking each of the 3 discs in this set with a host of intriguing extras; vintage trailers and featurettes discussing the movies, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at their Hollywood premieres, specially produced junkets originally aired on TV to help promote each movie and finally, a host of unedited outtakes and musical sequences featured in Part III. Idiotically, this latter compendium of clips, labeled as jukebox outtakes, is not nearly as comprehensive as what was available on that now defunct and aforementioned LaserDisc offering. While the LD contains literally hours and hours of songs and dances to sift through, many featured as ‘audio-only’ supplements, the Blu-ray merely gathers together a handful of selections, presented in 720i not 1080p for consideration. It should be pointed out, none of these extras are in hi-def and nothing has been done to stabilize their image quality. It ranges from fair to abysmal, depending on the source material.
Bottom line: I would have liked to champion the That’s Entertainment!: The Complete Collection gift set as a must-have purchase. Indeed, I credit the original That’s Entertainment! as the life-altering experience that made me a starry-eyed movie buff. I saw it when I was nine and, then, knowing absolutely nothing about Hollywood or its stars, fell completely under its spell, barely able to wait for the time when I could go to Hollywood to dance in the rain with Gene Kelly or belt out a few tunes with Jane Powell. Over the next 5 years, I systematically hunted down each and every movie featured in That’s Entertainment!, determined to soak up all I could at my local VHS retailer and discovering, to my then naïve amazement, there were a lot more goodies out there to be had for the price of a cheap rental…this, in the days before the studios made ‘collecting’ our memories on home video possible. Now, in reviewing these Blu-rays, I have to say this is merely a passable effort with a few sincere disappointments along the way. As Frank Sinatra suggested in the original film, “You can wait around and hope…but I’ll tell you, you’ll never see the likes of this again!” Regrettable indeed, and pity that.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
That's Entertainment! – 5+
That's Entertainment Part II - 3.5
That's Entertainment Part III – 3