This is not, strictly speaking, a part of the That’s Entertainment! trilogy, but it is very much like them. The first one had a deep impact on me. I had always loved musicals, but it was mostly hearing the original cast or soundtrack albums. I hadn’t seen all that many of them.
It’s easy to forget these days when you can see just about anything you want, any time you want, (and of course many people are too young to remember it at all) but back before VHS you had to scour the TV Guide for the limited number of channels you could get and make note of when a movie you wanted to see was airing. That could be 3 AM, and if you wanted to see it, you just had to stay up. You could not pause or rewind, you dashed to the kitchen or the bathroom during commercial breaks. It took a lot of dedication. As for the theaters … well, a movie would show up, play for a week, and then it was gone. They never came back. So there were thousands of movie musicals I had never seen.
Then along came That’s Entertainment!, and my mind was totally blown. I had had only the vaguest idea of what had been done on the silver screen. I knew little about Busby Berkeley. I had never heard of the best tap dancer who ever lived, Eleanor Powell. All I knew about Esther Williams was that she was a swimmer. I had never seen the best single couple’s dance number ever filmed, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, “Dancing in the Dark,” from The Bandwagon. The list could go on and on. Now here came this compilation film that included some of the best, brassiest, over-the-top numbers from the studio that was universally known as the best producer of musicals, MGM. No wonder it was a huge hit. There were plenty of people like me who had never seen this stuff, and plenty more who had seen it once and wanted to see it again. Same with the sequel, and the sequel to the sequel.
Then there was this one, which concentrated just on the dancing. It begins with the earliest, pretty lame films of the sound era, and follows through the years as production numbers became better, larger, more elaborate, ending with Michael Jackson’s MTV video, Beat it. There are five hosts introducing the numbers: Gene Kelly, Liza Minelli, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mikhail Baryshnikov, and best of all, Ray Bolger in his last film appearance. Among the highlights (and of course, the whole film is highlights!) is a number cut from The Wizard of Oz showing Bolger doing one of his boneless dances.