Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.
Friday, May 08, 2009
In 1974 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios celebrated its 50th anniversary with a compilation documentary looking back on the golden years of the studio when it produced lavish musicals starring some of the era's top entertainers. With the end of silent films in the 1920s, musicals were a favorite choice to take advantage of the new "talkie" technology. Technicolor and other photography methods ushered in color filmmaking during the same time period and the costumes and decorative sets of musicals allowed MGM to showcase their stars in full color and with singing. For much of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the musical was a popular choice for theater-goers with stars such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley in their stable of performers. MGM was king of the musical genre and this compilation includes clips from nearly 100 musicals. It was followed by two sequels and a related film titled THAT'S DANCING!.
Frank Sinatra: The year is 1929; the singer, Cliff Edwards, also known as Ukelele Ike. The film: HOLLYWOOD REVIEW. it is the first all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing movie ever made. In the years that followed, "Singin' in the Rain" would become a theme song for MGM.
Some of the movies MGM produced during their first fifty years constitute an incredible list. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) is only one film of dozens of very memorable pictures. The image of Gene Kelley dancing with an umbrella and singing the title song of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) is a familiar image to just about anybody who has turned on a television. TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (1949) and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) are two memorable musicals from the mid Forties. SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954) is one of the liveliest and strenuous films ever made. ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1946) is a classic fondly remembered by many. Some non-musical films were also part of MGMs wondrous past and celebrated in the THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! trilogy. TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO IN HOLLYWOOD (1945), GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) are just a few.
MGM used to brag that the studio had "More stars that there are in the heavens." Archival footage of Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell, Lena Horne, Esther Williams, Ann Miller, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Jeanette MacDonald, Cyd Charisse, June Allyson, Mickey Rooney, Mario Lanza, and many others are featured. In addition to Fred Astaire, many of the finest singers and dancers to ever be filmed are shown. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are two performers who are still popular, long after their deaths. Jimmy Durante is one of the most underappreciated stars to ever be filmed, at least by today's audiences. James Stewart, Mickey Rooney and Cary Grant are three more leading men that helped MGM produce so many amazing musicals and films during their earlier days. A strong leading woman was another powerful part of the MGM family. Contracted stars included Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow. Other familiar ladies of MGM golden age included Ava Gardner, Lena Horne, Lucille Ball and Joan Crawford.
The first film features a number of hosts, all of them household names. Frank Sinatra is the first host, followed by Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli. Peter Lawford, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor also share hosting duties. These stars recollect fond memories and films they starred in during the heyday of MGM musicals and introduce many important musical numbers from the multitude of musicals produced. THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! was the final production on MGM's former backlot and many of the sets appear in various states of disrepair with trash strewn about. But this is show biz and the "disrepair" is very artfully done. They could have easily cleaned up the trash. Obviously, it's just another authentic looking Hollywood set.
Frank Sinatra: Through the years, MGM has produced over 200 musical films. And if you had to select one number from one film, that would best represent the MGM musicals, I have a feeling that the vote would be unanimous, especially among the people who worked here, and that's why we've saved the best for the last: "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. It won an Oscar as the Best Picture of the year over 20 years ago; but the ballet from that film is as timeless as the day you and I first saw it. Produced by Arthur Freed, directed by Vincente Minnelli, and choreographed by Gene Kelly, it can only be described as MGM's masterpiece.
The second film in the THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT series was released two years later, in 1976. Their first film had been one of the highest grossing films of its year, so MGM was quick to produce a follow-up. They have more than enough musicals to produce a great number of sequels, but instead of completely focusing on the music, a very nice and lengthy segment of this second film looks at some of the memorable moments and lines from MGM's library. The Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello are part of this nicely edited collection of clips. Unlike the first film, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II has only two hosts. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly appear together and co-host the film. They sing and dance and fondly remember the days when they worked on MGM's backlot producing these magical musicals. Whereas the first documentary was the last time anything was filmed on MGM's famous and expansive backlot, this sequel marked the final time that Fred Astaire was filmed dancing. Part of the attraction of this sequel is in the reunion of these legendary stars, and Kelly directed the introductory segments featuring him and Astaire.
For this second documentary, archivists featured more obscure musical numbers from MGM's vaults, and also included tributes to some of the studio's best known comedy teams such as the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, romantic teams such as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and a montage of iconic stars such as Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, James Stewart, Lana Turner, and Greta Garbo.
The film is highlighted by several newly-filmed musical numbers featuring Astaire and Kelly, including a couple of routines in which they dance together for the first time since the 1946 film ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1946), and for only the second time in their careers. It was the last time 76-year-old Astaire danced on film. According to film historian Robert Osborne, in specially-filmed introductions produced for Turner Classic Movies, it was Astaire who suggested to Kelly that the two take advantage of this potentially last-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform together, something Kelly had actually wished for during his narration of the first THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! film. The sequel received more critical acclaim, but was not as successful at the box-office as the first entry.
In 1985 THAT'S DANCING! was released, a retrospective that looks back at the history of dancing in film. However, unlike the THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT films, this documentary does not focus exclusively on MGM productions. This film is sometimes considered part of the THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT series, especially since its starting credits include a card with the THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III title--not to be confused with the 1994 film--but even though it shared studio and producers, it is considered a separate production.
THAT'S DANCING! includes more recent performances by the likes of John Travolta in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) and Michael Jackson and from the then-popular films FAME (1980) and FLASHDANCE (1983), as well as classic films from other studios, including CAROUSEL (1956), released by 20th Century Fox, and OKLAHOMA (1955), released by Magna Corporation and 20th Century Fox. A highlight of the film was the first theatrical release of a complete dance routine by Ray Bolger for his "If I Only Had a Brain" number that had been shortened in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939).
The hosts for this film are Gene Kelly, Ray Bolger, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr., and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Pop singer Kim Carnes was commissioned to sing an original song that plays over the closing credits. THAT'S DANCING! was not included when the three THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT films were released on DVD in 2004. Instead it was released on its own in 2007. The DVD includes several behind-the-scenes promotional featurettes from 1985 on the making of the film, as well as its accompanying music video featuring Kim Carnes although the DVD omits the video itself.
It took eighteen years, but in 1994 MGM celebrated their 70th Anniversary with a third entry in the THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT series with THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III. This last sequel provides many musical numbers and history of the MGM musicals, but adds a new aspect to the documentary series. It features more retrospectives with a focus on previously unreleased or rarely seen material cut from the MGM films, culling together lost performances that had been edited out of MGM's vast library. These scenes include performances from familiar names, including Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Debbie Reynolds and Cyd Charisse. June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds and Esther Williams join Gene Kelly in hosting duties. This film marks the final time Gene Kelly appears on camera.
Although posters and home video versions use the title without an exclamation mark, the actual on-screen title of the film uses it. Many changes had occurred since the first two films--including the deaths of Fred Astaire, who had co-hosted the first two films, and many other MGM stars of the past. Plus, the advent of home video and cable TV had made many of MGM's films readily accessible to audiences, a luxury they did not have in the mid-1970s. In order to provide a "hook" for audiences, the producers decided to feature film footage cut from famous MGM musicals. Many of these numbers are shown for the first time in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III. Unfortunately, this is definitely the weakest entry in the series, although still well worth watching.
Gene Kelly: MGM's dream factory created a rich, romantic, compelling world of illusion. And although we may not see anything like it again, we're blessed with memories and miles and miles of film. In the words of Irving Berlin, "The song has ended, but the melody lingers on."
The four documentaries are nostalgic and very entertaining. However, the procession of brief and unrelated film clips is like watching a variety vaudeville show, or if you're not in the mood, like watching movie trailers. But most of the scenes are first rate seldom-seen treasures and the commentaries from the many movie star hosts is very educational. We learn, for example, that the singing voices of Lucille Ball, Elizabeth Taylor, and Debbie Reynolds were dubbed in.
Jack Haley Jr. wrote and directed the first THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! film, and also directed, produced and wrote THAT'S DANCING! Gene Kelly directed THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II, and Leonard Gershe wrote the narration. THAT'S DANCING III was directed and written by Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan. All three films were released on DVD in 2004. The box set collection of the films comes with a bonus DVD that includes additional musical numbers that had been cut from MGM films as well as the first release of the complete performance of "Mr. Monotony" by Judy Garland. The version used in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III is truncated. THAT'S DANCING! received a separate DVD release in 2007.
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