Talk about recycling: When it comes to the vintage musicals, much more than the melodies keep lingering on. First it was the lavish song-and-dance numbers themselves that got compiled in such popular anthologies as MGM’s That’s Entertainment! and That’s Entertainment, Part 2, both of which have just been rereleased in budget-priced video editions. Now outtakes and previously unreleased footage of other numbers are getting their turn with the video release of That’s Entertainment! III.
Radically different musical styles have long since moved into the mainstream. But old-pro pizzazz and the sheer technical achievement of the old musical sequences make them timelessly compelling. More than anything, of course, they do indeed still entertain.
That’s most evident when you watch the first That’s Entertainment!. Twenty years after its original release, TE! holds up as something more than the best musical anthology ever made. A snappily paced, masterfully edited compendium of more than 70 songs and dances from MGM films of the 1929-58 period, TE! blessedly separates those numbers from their movies’ usually silly plots. Among its most memorable sequences: Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell tapping up a storm to Cole Porter’s ”Begin the Beguine” and Clark Gable (yes!) hoofing to Irving Berlin’s ”Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
There was enough material left over in MGM’s vaults to provide 60 more musical numbers for the 1976 sequel, That’s Entertainment, Part 2 — choice numbers, too, with only a little degradation in overall clip quality. The original song-and-dance formula is diluted, however, by a dozen or more comedy scenes (with the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Hepburn and Tracy, Abbott and Costello, and others). But they are so wisely chosen, sharply edited, and outright funny that the overall entertainment level remains high. Best of all, however, are the dance numbers, especially Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron’s moonlit duet to Gershwin’s ”Love Is Here to Stay” and director Ernst Lubitsch’s spectacular black-and-white The Merry Widow waltz scene, featuring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier.
That’s Dancing! shifts its focus entirely to movie dances and goes beyond MGM to include scenes from other studios and from music videos. The film covers nearly 100 years, from the earliest silent flickers to Busby Berkeley’s chorine extravaganzas to break dancing and Michael Jackson — too much for just under two hours. But there’s no shortage of showstoppers, especially Cyd Charisse’s knockout ”Red Blues” (from Silk Stockings) and a ballet sequence with the incomparable Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
Although it’s the most daring and resourceful of the series, That’s Entertainment! III did poorly in its recent theatrical release. That probably had something to do with preconceived notions about these anthologies’ scraping nearer the bottom of the barrel with each new sequel. To be sure, some of the clips in TE! III fall below the quality of previous editions, but not too far. And there are several refreshing new ingredients, including a behind-the-scenes approach — it’s like being a fly on the walls of MGM’s soundstages. For example, Lena Horne is notably wry yet blunt about Hollywood racism in the ’40s and ’50s. There are also eye-opening revelations about how several big production numbers were shot, such as the underwater camera portholes on Esther Williams’ swimming tank and the breakaway platforms that permitted the cameras to follow Eleanor Powell’s nonstop, scene-changing dance routine in Lady Be Good. In the special ”gift set” version of the tape, the commentary by Horne, Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, June Allyson, Esther Williams, Ann Miller, and Howard Keel is not all lovey-dovey about ol’ MGM or longtime boss Louis B. Mayer.
The biggest innovation is in making TE! III much more than a compilation of familiar scenes. This time producers Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan have ferreted out previously unseen sequences and outtakes featuring the likes of Astaire, Horne, Frank Sinatra, Charisse, Reynolds, and Judy Garland (including Garland’s abortive start on Annie Get Your Gun, showing her in pretty ragged shape). Through split-screen technology, two different production numbers are simultaneously performed to the same prerecorded soundtrack (Arthur Schwartz and Harold Dietz’s ”Two-Faced Woman,” as dubbed by India Adams). On the left side of the screen there’s Charisse in peak form for a number dropped from The Band Wagon, while on the right there’s an over-the-hill Joan Crawford-made up to resemble a person of color-doing the one used that same year in Torch Song. Clearly, the wrong version got dropped. And for the first time we can see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing unobstructedly (and terrifically) to ”The Swing Trot” instead of being partly obliterated by the opening credits for The Barkleys of Broadway.
Watch out, though: All TE! III videos are not the same. The standard VHS cassette and CLV laserdisc edition are the original theatrical version (108 minutes, plus an overture). An extended directors’ cut (119 minutes) adds five numbers dropped from the theatrical version and is available only as part of a $99.98 boxed VHS ”gift set” and a $124.98 CAV disc set. Both boxed sets contain a first-rate 55-minute ‘making- of” documentary and, best of all, a 35-minute collectors supplement with 10 complete additional outtakes. Some of these outtakes are only so-so, but there’s one unforgettably moving Garland sequence offering Harold Arlen’s ”Last Night When We Were Young,” shot for In the Good Old Summertime. While the VHS set offers a 70-minute soundtrack CD, the CAV set has even more extras, including several dozen extended musical numbers on the discs’ alternate analog tracks (such as Garland’s ”Minnie from Trinidad” from Ziegfeld Girl and Horne’s complete ”Ain’t It the Truth,” cut from Cabin the Sky). It’s everything videotainment should be. That’s Entertainment!:A That’s Entertainment, Part 2: A- That’s Dancing!: B That’s Entertainment! III VHS tape or CLV disc: A- CAV disc: A+