That’s Entertainment, Part II
The original (1974) of this three-part series (though the last wasn’t made until 1994) was responsible, more than anything else, for my enduring love of musicals, both on the stage and on the silver screen. Before that I’d seen musicals, like most everybody else, but only the new ones, and the ‘60s and ‘70s wasn’t really a good time for them. Sure, there was Funny Girl, and Oliver!, which even won Best Picture, but that was seen as proving how out-of-touch Hollywood was with the times. This was the ‘60s, man! We wanted relevance! If we wanted a musical, we’d go see Hair or Jesus Christ, Superstar. The Sound of Music? Oh, please!
Most of the musicals that were being made were adapted from Broadway, except for the odd item here and there like Julie Andrews’ Star, which almost sank the musical genre and 20th Century Fox all by itself. I had little inkling of the vast treasure trove of original musicals that were produced in the ‘40s and ‘50s, mainly by that most glamorous studio, MGM. That’s Entertainment was my first real exposure to them, and I was stunned. Before that I’d seen a few clips of B&W Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, just a few seconds here and there, on television. I knew they must be huge, but they didn’t look like much on the tiny screen. Now here they were on the big screen, and even more, those glorious Technicolor creations with Kelly and Astaire, Minelli, Ginger Rogers and Cyd Charisse … it was almost too much to take in. I’d had no idea! And I love them to this day. Before that, Esther Williams was a brand of swimsuit; after that, she was the star of these absolutely mind-boggling aquatic epics, and I learned that, for many years, she was the most bankable star on the lot. By 1972, she was pretty much forgotten, as she is today, except by film buffs. Now, I’m not saying she was good, at anything but swimming. Her films are among the most preposterous ever made, no question. But it is such a glorious preposterousness, like Busby Berkeley’s 100 girls in white gowns playing 100 white grand pianos …
These movies are essentially MGM’s valentines to itself, and that’s okay. The people who created and starred in these films have a right to crow. Nobody could do it like MGM (which exists now only on some corporate level, and the old Culver City studio where there were more stars than in the heavens is now called … gasp … Sony Pictures!!!). You want to know just how much first-rate fantasy they produced? Enough that, even after Jack Haley Jr. (yes! The Tin Man’s son!) cherry-picked 134 minutes of the best stuff, there was still enough left to make this second movie without any feeling that we were dealing with B material. Far from it! This is all first-rate stuff, though of course it can’t compare to the two Singin’ in the Rain numbers, or Cyd and Fred dancing in the dark, from The Band Wagon. The original was hosted by … well, damn near everybody who was still alive at the time: Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Peter Lawford, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, and Liza standing in for Judy. The sequel is hosted just by Gene and Fred together, and it’s great to see these old hoofers (Astaire was 73, Kelly was 60) doing the old soft shoe together.