That’s Entertainment (1974) – ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Directed by: Jack Haley Jr.

Spoilers? (Not really)

Described as a ‘compilation movie’ I was genuinely unsure of what to expect from That’s Entertainment. Initially I wondered if it was going to be like when a sitcom runs out of ideas and does an episode rehashing the best bits, and to be honest that’s pretty much what it is, as well as a documentary and feature-length commercial for MGM. With the film being produced by MGM there’s always the concern that it might be a completely out of touch and corporatised history of the era, but all those reservations fade after Sinatra’s introduction, which contains a line that encapsulates the era; “the musicals of the 1930s and 40s or even the 50s may not tell you where are heads were at, but they certainly will tell you where are hearts were at.”

The stars don’t stop at Sinatra though and That’s Entertainment has a legitimate case for having the best cast ever assembled for a film. Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, Debbie Reynolds, Bing Crosby, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Donald O’Connor and Liza Minnelli all host segments looking back at their own films, the films of a colleague, or a specific period for the MGM musical. Gene Kelly talks of the films of Fred Astaire and vise versa, Minnelli talks of her mother and (briefly, although not really sufficiently) father, and Reynolds, O’Connor and others talk of the film widely regarded as the apotheosis of the Hollywood musical, Singin’ in the Rain.

All of which might strike you as self-indulgent but it avoids this because the stars are genuinely affectionate towards each other and their work, as well as modest and occasionally self-deprecating. Each section takes place on an old, shut down set which adds to the air of melancholy already inevitable due to the nostalgic nature of the premise. Of course any controversy is lightly skipped over (Garland’s treatment during the filming of The Wizard of Oz for example). Everything is a masquerade, everything is about what happens on-screen, anything else is incidental.

Then there’s the musical numbers themselves. The choreography of Busby Berkley and Gene Kelly still stand out and over the course of the film, after seeing all the biggest and best numbers, a distinctly MGM aesthetic does start to materialise. This is especially true of the colour era with Technicolor classics like On the Town, Show Boat and The Band Wagon. The finale of the film plays what writer/director Jack Haley Jr. (rightly) sees as the sequence most emblematic of the MGM musical, the final sequence to An American in Paris. The colours, the choreography, the exuberant joy communicated through movement, all that is great about musicals come through during that scene and it’s a shame they didn’t show all of it. 

I’ve mentioned two Minnelli films so far and he, along with Berkley, did probably deserve their own section. Although in a way I’m glad they didn’t as it better fits the ethos of classic Hollywood. It’s all about the stars and it’s all about what happens in front of the camera. Intertextuality is rare and each picture stands alone as its own piece of magic. The ephemerality of the era shines through when Astaire walks through the abandoned New York subway set used in On the Town and both viewer and star knows that it’s over and nothing like it is ever likely to return.

Rating – 63/100

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