That’s Entertainment! (1974)
Written, produced and directed by Jack Haley, Jr.
Cinematography by Russell Metty
Warner Blu-ray (2:14)
For many years, I have hated musicals. My friends and co-workers have known this for years and were understandably shocked and confused when I chose Singin’ in the Rain for inclusion in our library’s Great Movies series last year. I also tell them that the main reason I hate musicals is that I played trumpet in far too many little theater pit orchestras (both out of obligation and necessity) when I was younger. The long hours of never-ending rehearsals can really wear you down, especially when you’re in your early to mid-20s and have the energy to do something besides waiting for one of the actors to find the right key or listen to the director arguing with the conductor over whether or not a certain verse can be cut from a song.
But that’s beginning to change. I still do not enjoy professional-level Broadway musicals performed onstage, but I’m discovering that movie musicals contain a sort of magic you just can’t find anywhere else. That’s why That’s Entertainment! (and no doubt its sequels) should be shown to people like me who think they hate musicals.
That’s Entertainment! should be thought of as two time capsules: that of the musicals themselves and of the on-screen narrators: Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, Debbie Reynolds, Bing Crosby, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Donald O’Connor, and the only narrator still with us in 2017, Liza Minnelli. The film premiered in 1974 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of MGM, the undisputed king of movie musicals from their beginnings from the 1920s well through the 1950s. The clips you’ll see are clearly among the finest taken from a long line of spectacular MGM musicals such as Broadway Melody of 1940, Royal Wedding, Show Boat, Anchors Aweigh, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Meet Me in St. Louis, and of course, Singin’ in the Rain. But that just scratches the surface.
These scenes range from awkward simplicity (especially in the genre’s infancy during the 1920s) to absolute jaw-dropping masterpieces. The singers and dancers make it all look easy, as if you could grab your own coat-rack and start dancing flawlessly in your living room. If only… I can only imagine how much time, work, planning and dedication (to say nothing of pain and injury) it took to pull some of these scenes off. And talent. These are enormously talented people. When you combine all that talent and all that work, it comes across as magic. I suppose that it is.
But magic would mean little if there were not an element of joy to go with it and you can see that joy in every scene. Just watch Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Esther Williams, Lena Horne and countless others. I have no idea how Fred Astaire danced on the floor, walls, and ceiling of that room in “You’re All the World to Me” in Royal Wedding (1951) and I don’t want to know. It is truly magic.
So is Gene Kelly in The Pirate (1948), Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and every single dancer in the “Barnraising Dance” from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Humans shouldn’t be able to do such things, but I thank God that they can and that someone preserved these moments forever. It literally takes us to a place of wonder, marveling at what humanity, at its best, can do.
Maybe that explains, at least in part, my frustration during all those little theater days. These were amateurs doing their best for no money and for the most part, having fun. But these people (with very few exceptions) will never reach the level of professionalism that we see in That’s Entertainment! and that’s okay. I think I’m finally coming to terms with that. While the professional and amateur worlds may be light years apart, there’s a commonality that links them together. We see or hear something we want to replicate, we try, and maybe we fail. But we’re doing something. We’re making an effort and maybe even making a difference. And rather than being jealous of those who can do it far better than we can, we can recognize, celebrate and immerse ourselves in the absolute joy of something that’s closer to heaven than earth, if only for a little while. We keep reaching, all the while admiring those who could reach a little higher than we can.
Photos: TCM, Cinema 52