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James Berardinelli review - *** out of ****

Released in 1974 to celebrate MGM’s 50th anniversary, That’s Entertainment is a clip-show motion picture designed to highlight many of the studio’s beloved musicals. More than 50 songs are featured from movies as old as 1929 (The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Broadway Melody) and as recent as Gigi (1958). The vast majority of the excerpts are from 1930s and 1940s releases. Director Jack Haley Jr. (the son of actor Jack Haley, who played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz) compiled the clips and prevailed upon an array of classic movie stars to handle the narration duties. Ten icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age co-host That’s Entertainment: Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, Debbie Reynolds, Bing Crosby, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, and Donald O’Connor. Liza Minnelli is also featured in a segment devoted to her late mother, Judy Garland. (Her involvement led to a short-lived marriage to Haley Jr.)

Anyone with a deep and abiding love for the great MGM musicals of the ‘30s and ‘40s will find much to praise about That’s Entertainment. The clips are on the long side, allowing most songs to play out in their entirety. Obvious choices (the Gene Kelly version of “Singin’ in the Rain,” “An American in Paris Ballet, “Over the Rainbow,” etc.) are paired with more obscure selections. Those who are less enamored of this once hugely popular Hollywood cash cow may find parts of That’s Entertainment long-winded. It sometimes seems that less might have been more. Although I agree that iconic songs should be presented in full, many of the lesser clips could have done with significant pruning. I did not need to see more than a few seconds of Joan Crawford singing and dancing. Nor did I need quite so much of Esther Williams.

Perhaps of greater interest to a modern audience (keeping in mind that MGM celebrated its 100th anniversary before this review was written) is the historical import of the narration/linking sequences. Although none has anything profound to say, we get to see the famous actors sharing memories as they wander around the decrepit MGM backlot – the property had recently been sold to developers and it was about to be demolished. All appear to be in good health (only Bing Crosby would die during the 1970s) and retain at least a semblance of the magnetism that made them famous. Today, of the 11 hosts, only Liza Minnelli remains alive. As a result, these segments take on a larger meaning than they had when the movie was first released.

Most of the song-and-dance stars of the era get their due, although a few of the narrators don’t talk much about themselves. For example, the lengthy segment devoted to Fred Astaire is presented by Gene Kelly, even though Astaire is a narrator in his own right. And the Kelly movies are held back until later in the film after he has completed his narration. (Kelly was the only person to participate in all four of the That’s Entertainment movies. He and Astaire were the lone presenters for 1976’s That’s Entertainment Part II, which he also directed. He was part of larger groups for both 1985’s That’s Dancing and 1994’s That’s Entertainment Part III. The latter represented his final film appearance.)

When I wrote a recent review for the horror clip show movie, Terror in the Aisles, I made an observation that I believe applies to That’s Entertainment: “With no Internet and with VCRs still having minimal household penetration, a clip show like this provided viewers a chance to see their…memories projected onto a big screen. In the 21st century, this is a throw-away but what it offered at the time of its release was substantial.” Watching That’s Entertainment in 1974 was a way to wallow in nostalgia in a way that otherwise wasn’t possible. Today, YouTube beckons for anyone wanting to watch a clip from an old musical. And most of those films are available on DVD/Blu-Ray/streaming for those excited to have the full experience.

Has That’s Entertainment outlived its usefulness? Perhaps not. For those with no awareness of pre-1960 films, it opens a window into a brand of entertainment that was once beloved by audiences. For lovers of movie musicals, it offers a no-muss, no-fuss opportunity to breeze through about 30 years of history in a little over 2 hours. And for those interested in the casual, behind-the-scenes perspective of the narration segments, there’s that as well. The format of That’s Entertainment is dated but, curiously, that may be the best reason to watch it in the first place.