Musical Monday: That’s Entertainment! (1974)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
That’s Entertainment! (1974)

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
Jack Haley, Jr.

Starring:
As themselves narrating: Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, James Stewart, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire, Liza Minelli, Bing Crosby

Plot:
A feature film documentary celebrating 50 years of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, featuring film clips from 1929 into 1958.

Trivia:
• The last time a major motion picture was shot on the MGM lot before it was demolished and sold.
• Originally planned for television.
• Produced and directed by Jack Haley, Jr.
• The documentary was followed by two other documentaries: That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976) and That’s Entertainment! III (1994)
• Final film appearance of Bing Crosby
• The highest-grossing film of 1974

Highlights:
• The film clips
• Appearances from the stars

Peter Lawford on the former set of “The Band Wagon.”

Peter Lawford on the former set of “Good News.”

Mickey Rooney on the former street where Andy Hardy lived.

Notable Songs and Performances:
• There are too many to list, but some of my favorites include:
– “Indian Love Call” performed by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy from “Rose Marie”
– “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” as performed in “The Great Ziegfeld”
– “Begin the Beguine” as performed in “Broadway Melody of 1940”
– “Honeysuckle Rose” as performed by Lena Horne in “Thousands Cheer”
– “Thou Swell” performed by June Allyson in “Word and Music”
– “Varsity Drag” performed by June Allyson and Peter Lawford in “Good News”
– “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” performed by Debbie Reynolds and Carlton Carpenter in “Two Weeks with Love”
– “It’s a Most Unusual Day” performed by Jane Powell in “A Date with Judy”
– “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” performed by Judy Garland and cast in “The Harvey Girls”
– “You’d Be Easy to Love” performed by James Stewart in “Easy to Love”
– “Puttin’ On the Ritz” performed by Clark Gable in “Idiot’s Delight”
– “Dear Mr. Gable (You Made Me Love You)” performed by Judy Garland in “Broadway Melody of 1938”
– “Dancing in the Dark” performed by Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in “The Band Wagon” (1953)
– “Old Man River” performed by William Warfield in “Show Boat”

My review:
With channels like Turner Classic Movies and VHS and DVD releases of movies, it’s hard to imagine a time when film nostalgia wasn’t part of public interest. But the documentary celebrating 50 years of MGM films, “That’s Entertainment!” (1974), is given credit for sparking the nostalgia trend.

“That’s Entertainment! was a rather risky experiment at the time, because no one knew if anyone would want to see a movie like this,” said former TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne in the DVD’s introduction. “In 1974, nostalgia hadn’t yet become a fact of life. So production executive Daniel Melnick was really taking a big chance with this film.”

The last film shot on the MGM lot before it was divested, “That’s Entertainment!” is over 2 hours, features over 70 musical numbers and clips. The film was written, directed and produced by Jack Haley, Jr., son of the actor Jack Haley who played the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).

“The response to this film was tremendous,” Osborne said. “Many were shocked when it received unanimous raves.”

The film was one of MGM’s top-grossing films of 1974.

For any lover of MGM films, musicals and film history, “That’s Entertainment!” is for you.

Throughout this film, I feel so overwhelmed with a love of film that it builds up in my chest and occasionally comes out as tears. It sounds crazy and it’s hard to explain, but I cry off and on throughout this documentary out of happiness.

The film begins with clips of early MGM musicals and has various segments. They pay homage to non-singing stars, Judy Garland, the films of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Esther Williams.

While the film clips are joyous, there is a depressing side to this documentary. Not only was it the last film made on the MGM backlot, but you also see the stars walkthrough dilapidated and rotting sets. Peter Lawford walks by the set of Tait College from GOOD NEWS (1947), which is all grown over. Mickey Rooney walks through the town of Carvel, near Andy Hardy’s old house. Fred Astaire walks beside the train from “The Band Wagon” in the “Girl Hunt Ballet,” which is torn and falling apart.

In the DVD’s introduction, film historian Robert Osborne said that some of the actors involved got emotional on set, seeing the studio in disrepair.

I first saw “That’s Entertainment!” as a child and revisited it as a teen when I first started getting into my musical love. Now, I can say that I’ve seen all the musicals. I recently showed parts of this to my niece (who was three at the time). She enjoyed some parts – mostly the dancing – and others not so much – particularly if they were just standing and singing.

If you love this musical and can find it, I highly recommend the CD boxset, released in 2006.

Two other similar documentaries followed “That’s Entertainment!,” which are still fun, but this one is the trio’s best.

When the film came out, the publicity line said, “Boy, do we need it now!” And after 2020, I think we absolutely still need “That’s Entertainment!”

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2 thoughts on “Musical Monday: That’s Entertainment! (1974)

  1. “Throughout this film, I feel so overwhelmed with a love of film that it builds up in my chest and occasionally comes out as tears. I cry off and on throughout this documentary out of happiness; it sounds crazy and is hard to explain.”

    Totally get this! I really enjoyed all your thoughts.

    This film came out when I was a “Tween” and I can attest it was a big deal. L.A. theaters started showing these movies and I was lucky to go see many of them with my family. My parents even humored me making a public TV donation a couple years later because the premium was to see THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT PART 2 *on the MGM lot*. (I can’t tell you how awestruck I was to set foot on the property!) The pre-release version I saw of TE2 was longer and included “Lonesome Polecat” from 7 BRIDES and a couple other numbers.

    I just upgraded these films to Blu-ray and plan to revisit the entire series soon.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    Like

  2. I remember seeing this at the Ziegfeld theater in NYC when it was first released. The impression it made was astonishing. Most of us were used to seeing these movies in faded and worn pan-and-scan tv prints. Viewing the images to their full widescreen technicolor glory was a revelation.

    The B&W opening clip from “Broadway Melody” was a tiny square in the center of the screen that grew to a huge Technicolor widescreen image when the credits came on. This repeated throughout the screening as older movies were shown in their original 3:4 ratio and the image grew to 1: 2.35 to fill the screen. The audio was similarly expanded from mono to surround sound. The showmanship to maximize the impact of the clips in the theater made the experience a true “event.”

    Unfortunately that is all lost when viewing it on television. There is simply no way to recreate the impact it had in the theater to someone seeing it on tv. At least the clips are all there so one can appreciate the craftsmanship taken to make these movies.

    Like

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