Sunday, 18 September 2016

That's Entertainment! (1974)

Made to commemorate fifty years of MGM, That’s Entertainment is a nostalgic trip through the history of the studio's contribution to the genre that made them. It features the contemporary presence of several bona fide stars of the day, such as Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Bing Crosby and Debbie Reynolds, all waxing lyrical about their experiences with the dances, songs and fellow artists, and clips from over sixty MGM films from the 1920s (starting with the first MGM musical, The Broadway Melody of 1929, the first film to feature the song Singin’ in the Rain) to the 1950s. Fascinatingly, when viewed together, the deluge of clips reveals some interesting things.

Firstly is the contrast between the sleek, extravagant sets in films such as The Band Wagon and Good News and the rather sad, dilapidated state of the MGM lot as it was by the 70s, on the verge of demolition. This certainly emphasises the gulf between the two eras, and increases the feeling of nostalgia. This is something that could well have been felt at the time of release, with the United States mired in the Watergate Scandal, and is tacitly acknowledged in the strapline on the poster (“Boy, do we need it now”).

Secondly, while we are used to seeing the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Eleanor Powell in musicals, the ubiquity of the genre during the 30s and 40s meant that all of MGM’s talent were expected to be able to sing and dance, and the sight of James Stewart and Cary Grant giving it their best is wonderfully surprising.

Thirdly is the gradual evolution of cinematic style, from simply pointing a static camera at performers on a stage, to two distinctive directing techniques. On one hand is the style made famous by directors such as Stanley Donen in the likes of Singin' in the Rain, where the emphasis is very much on individual performers, with long unbroken takes as the camera glides up and down in their wake. The polar opposite of this is the Busby Berkeley style, of grand, often surreal spectacle, with scores of performers moving in sync amid lavish sets, or in the case of Small Town Girl, Anne Miller dancing through a sea of disembodied arms holding musical instruments.

One thing that all of the clips have in common is an energy and exuberance, which means That's Entertainment is never dull viewing. It works as a primer for those new to the genre and trip through memory lane for existing fans.