[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
That’s Entertainment, Part Two begins where the first compilation should have ended, with (a portion of) the first performance of “That’s Entertainment” by Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan and Oscar Levant in Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. Around this footage Saul Bass has devised one of the most delightful main titles seen in a long while—albeit one that seems, with its cast lists being washed out to sea by the tide or consumed by flames—to hark back to the elephants’-graveyard atmosphere of the first That’s Entertainment’s guest narrations filmed amid the crumbling and deserted MGM studios. The and-this-too-shall-pass-away suggestion proves inapt to an anthology that dwells very little on the fact that “they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” and indeed pays little explicit homage to MGM itself (the only mention of Metro I can recall occurred in a song lyric, from long ago and far away). But MGM films are still the subject of That’s Entertainment, Part Two—and not only MGM musicals but also some of their comedies and, more glancingly, dramatic and adventure films.
Reverence is notably absent in a hilarious, but scarcely malicious, assemblage of instant-inspiration songwriting scenes from such salutes to composers as Three Little Words, Lady Be Good and—the most outrageous of all—The Great Waltz, in which we find “Tales of the Vienna Woods” being synthesized during a process-screen buggy ride. The sequence cuts more deeply than the parallel “Hey kids, let’s do the show right here!” passage in the earlier film, for the Rooney–Garland–Berkeley musicals achieved an infectious vitality in the midst of such absurdity whereas these songwriter scenes—and films as a whole—were just dumb. Likewise, Part One’s chuckles at the expense of a hapless James Stewart singing—without benefit of rerecording—and a self-amused Clark Gable doing a turn as song-and-dance man were essentially sweetnatured, given the dozens of examples readily available to memory of Stewart and Gable doing what they were meant to do, and doing it beautifully; but here the laughs are on Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan, and (with the partial exception of MacDonald’s pre-Eddy work for Lubitsch and Mamoulian) these relics are merely left standing in all their naked silliness.
Not that Part Two seems nasty in focus or campily exploitative on the whole. In fact, despite some smoothly managed interstitial material directed by Gene Kelly, with Kelly and Fred Astaire abundantly on hand and in motion, the new compilation lacks focus of any kind beyond a general let’s-look-at-more-of-that-old-stuff. A lot of that old stuff remains dazzling and/or rapturously beautiful and/or intrinsically witty: as examples, respectively, I lovingly cite Eleanor Powell being flipped end over end down a line of chorus boys to end up in triumphant closeup, Lubitsch’s ravishing “Merry Widow Waltz,” and Jimmy Durante in any of several adorable appearances. And, while I missed the buildup to Lubitsch’s waltz and regretted that at no time does Part Two (at least in 35mm) accommodate the full CinemaScope rectangle when Scope films are quoted (1.33:1 sequences are mostly treated integrally, for which much thanks again), I can’t regret the continuation of this anthology series.
I can’t cry crocodile tears for the disappearance of a motion picture artform I never cared about till comparatively recently, but I can regret the general dumbness and even hostility that musicals have often met with in the past decade or so. I don’t know when it started, but I can recall seeing West Side Story after it had won its Oscars; as opposed to those who had seen the film prior to the Awards, and seen it because it was what they wanted to see, the obligatory viewers of “The Best Picture of 1961” were volubly offended whenever a musical number came on (even allowing for an honorable objection to the way that film segued into its song scenes, one had to wonder what sort of picture those people thought they were going to see). Any sampling of the musical form’s excellence has to have a positive effect on viewer tastes and tolerance. And for one who hasn’t seen nearly enough of That’s Entertainment’s source films in their integral form, the collection is invaluable. I don’t know how many times I’ve passed up Small Town Girl on the tube, but Bobby Van’s incredibly sustained kangaroo hop through several acres of scenic bustle is the sort of cinematic adventure any film-lover, musical specialist or no, must glory in witnessing.
THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT, Part Two
Direction of new material: Gene Kelly. Narration written by: Leonard Gershe. Cinematography of new material: George Folsey. Editing: Bud Friedgen, David Blewitt; David Bretherton, Peter C. Johnson; Michael J. Sheridan, Ana Luisa Perez, Ramon G. Caballero, Dennis Lee Galling. Production design: John DeCuir. New musical arrangements: Nelson Riddle. Main title: Saul Bass. Production: Saul Chaplin, Daniel Melnick.
The players (new material): Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson