When Warner Bros. (Turner Entertainment, Time-Warner, whatever) acquired most of the MGM library of films made prior to the mid 1980s, they got one of the greatest assortment of musicals ever made thrown into the bargain, including the trio of popular musical documentaries offered together in this three-disc box set, available in HD DVD and Blu-ray (and already issued in standard definition as a set or individually).
In the 1930s and beyond, studios made a variety of films, as they do today, but some studios became noted for particular kinds of films: Warner Bros. had their gangster movies, Disney had their cartoons, Universal had their monsters, and MGM had their musicals. It's no wonder that in 1974 MGM would capitalize on its past glory by issuing the first of several films celebrating their old musicals, with excerpts from some of their finest old shows, together with new introductions by some of its most-famous stars. The first film, "That's Entertainment," proved so enormously successful that MGM followed it up with two more. All three films represent the best that movies have to offer in terms of pure charm and delight, and it's practically an understatement to say they are wonderfully entertaining. To see and hear them in newly remastered high-definition picture and sound is icing on the cake.
"That's Entertainment" (1974):
Produced and directed by Jack Haley, Jr., "That's Entertainment!" started as an idea for television but grew into a theatrical release celebrating MGM's 50th anniversary. It gave audiences in the mid 1970s just what they needed after the gloom of Vietnam, namely, some great singing and dancing, among the greatest ever put on film.
The picture begins with an introduction by Frank Sinatra telling us about "The Hollywood Revue of 1929," which Sinatra describes as "the first all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing movie ever made." Then we get a medley of different versions of "Singin' in the Rain," MGM's signature tune from various movies. Before the show is out, the movie treats us to even more introductions and comments from Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Peter Lawford, Liza Minnelli, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, James Stewart, and Elizabeth Taylor.
The snippets of musical numbers represent MGM musicals from their golden years, the late 1920s through the mid 1950s. Among the entertainers represented in these numbers, which are presented more-or-less chronologically, we find Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, Dennis Morgan, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Elizabeth Taylor, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, James Stewart, Robert Montgomery, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Ann Miller, Mario Lanza, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Joe E. Brown, Liza Minnelli, Buddy Ebsen, Bing Crosby, Louis Jourdan, Leslie Caron, and Maurice Chevalier, among many, many more.
Director Haley filmed the introductions on MGM's crumbling back lot, the scene of so many memorable movie moments, just before they tore it all down. The old sets look more than a bit "shabby" as Crosby observes, but I suppose that is part of the charm, seeing the way things were in the movies and how the old sets had weathered the passing years. It's a part of the nostalgia, which this film plays on so effectively. Everything changes.
My favorite sequences in "That's Entertainment!" are many, but among them I loved watching Gene Kelly dancing with Fred Astaire in "Ziegfeld Follies"; Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse in "Anchors Aweigh"; Astaire dancing with a hat rack and then on the walls and ceiling of a room in "Royal Wedding"; Donald O'Connor singing, dancing, and clowning in the "Make 'Em Laugh" number and, of course, Kelly's celebrated number from "Singin' in the Rain."
You'll find plenty of glorious entertainment in "That's Entertainment," most of which makes you want to go out and buy the complete movies, particularly things like "The Wizard of Oz," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "Showboat," "An American in Paris," "Singin' in the Rain," "Gigi," and a dozen others.
"That's Entertainment, Part 2" (1976):
The first movie was so popular that two years later MGM made another such compilation. This time, only Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire host, but in it they do some new singing and dancing together for the first time in thirty years. It was also the last time they performed together in this way. For this outing, the format is slightly different, too. It's more fluid, with fewer interruptions of the material, and several segments cover purely speaking segments rather than just song and dance.
Among my favorites in Part 2 are Jimmy Durante singing "Inka Dinka Doo"; selections from "The Merry Widow"; "There's No Business Like Show Business" from "Annie Get Your Gun"; a sequence with Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong; a special section on the films of Hepburn and Tracy; and, best of all, a six-minute collection of great movie lines. The movie lines portion is much too brief, of course, but it's great fun. The Marx Brothers alone could have filled up an entire movie with famous lines.
"That's Entertainment III" (1994):
By 1994 when MGM decided to do a third movie montage, "That's Entertainment III," Fred Astaire had passed away. But they still had Gene Kelly (marking his final screen appearance) and flock of other stars from the old days on hand. So, this time the hosts are Kelly, June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, and Esther Williams.
This third installment seems a bit more detailed than the first two, although many of the best routines had already gone into the previous films. The hosts were getting older by then, too, and it was beginning to show. MGM liked to boast that they had more stars than there are in the heavens. Certainly, these three movies help prove the point. Still, I found myself getting a little tired after this final collection. You may not want to try watching them in a single sitting.
The picture quality is variable, to say the least, even in 1080-resolution, high-definition VC-1 transfers. Because these movie collections cover a number of years, the screen ratios vary from 1.33:1 black-and-white and color to 2.55:1 widescreen color and everything in between. MGM used some decent original prints, although many of them were far from perfect so don't expect miracles. These are not fully restored movies, and grain and accumulated grit show up just as realistically as the colors. Nevertheless, when things are good, as in "Meet Me in St. Louis," "An American in Paris," and "Gigi," the results can be spectacular.
Warner Bros. offer two audio choices on each disc: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and Dolby TrueHD 5.1, not that you can actually hear everything from 5.1 channels. I listened in TrueHD because I found it far smoother than the DD+ tracks. Most of the music doesn't have a lot of range in terms of dynamics or frequency, even in the newer films, but the all-important midrange is quite realistic. The stereo spread, when it's present, is extremely wide, and the music has a nice sense of depth in the front and ambient bloom in the surrounds.
Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne introduces all three pictures. Then, taking them one at a time, "That's Entertainment!" includes three vintage featurettes: "Just One More Time," eight minutes, a behind-the-scenes promo; the TV special "That's Entertainment: 50 Years of MGM," sixty-six minutes of cinematic history represented at the studio's birthday party; and "MGM's 25th Anniversary Luncheon," ten minutes, another parade of stars, this time from the late 40s.
On "That's Entertainment, Part 2" we get a vintage featurette, "The Lion Roars Again," a sixteen-minute promo for new MGM films of the day like this one. After that is another vintage piece, about twenty minutes of excerpts from "The Mike Douglas Show," mainly more promotional material for "Part 2." And then there's the thirty-seven-minute, 2004 documentary, "The Masters Behind the Musicals," which provides a behind-the-scenes look at the people who made MGM's great musical movies.
On "That's Entertainment III" there are but two major items. First, there's the 1994 documentary "That's Entertainment III: Behind the Screen," fifty-two minutes. Like most of the extras on the other discs, MGM seems to have meant this one to push the '94 film; yet it provides a wealth of good film background and history. More important, however, is the second item, a "Musical Outtake Jukebox" containing sixteen numbers (over forty-nine minutes) deleted from MGM musicals. I think I liked these outtakes as much as or more than I liked the third feature film.
Each movie also includes a theatrical trailer; a goodly number of scene selections (between thirty-two and thirty-eight) and a chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages in "That's Entertainment" and "That's Entertainment 2"; English and Spanish spoken languages in "That's Entertainment III"; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired, in all three. As usual with WB HD DVDs, the discs come with pop-up menus, bookmarks, zoom-and-pan features, guidelines to elapsed time, and Elite Red HD cases.
OK, you have to be a fan of singing and dancing to appreciate these films, but, really, who doesn't like singing and dancing when it's done by the best people in the business? I have to admit that MGM put most of the cream in the first film, but when you've got so much material to choose from, there's still plenty of good stuff left for parts two and three.