MGM had fallen on hard times by 1974. The once glorious studio only released five films that year. But new president Frank E. Rosenfelt heralded the studio's golden anniversary by announcing that "the roar of Leo the Lion will not be reduced to a weak meow." With That's Entertainment!, he proved that Leo's roar was far from forgotten, either.
The film was supervised by studio production chief Daniel Melnick, but the familiar name all over the credits - as producer, director and writer - was the studio's head of creative affairs, Jack Haley, Jr., son of the vaudeville star who achieved immortality as the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Haley and his crew spent 19 months pouring through the studio's archives to find clips from more than 200 features and shorts that captured the feel of MGM and its musicals. Editors Bud Friedgen and David Blewitt cut together highlights from 84 different musical numbers, shortening some numbers seamlessly and cutting them all together with a fluidity that kept the 127-minute film moving at a rapid pace.
To introduce the clips, Haley assembled an all-star cast including former MGM contract players like Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor and performers like Donald O'Connor (Singin' in the Rain, 1952) and Bing Crosby (High Society, 1956) who had scored career triumphs at MGM. The one youngster in the cast was Liza Minnelli, but she fit in perfectly as the daughter of the studio's greatest singing star, Judy Garland, and it's most honored musical director, Vincente Minnelli. She even went on to marry Jack Haley, Jr., the same year That's Entertainment! was released. (The marriage ended in 1979.)
To give the film some unity, Haley grouped the clips by theme. James Stewart, a non-singer who had introduced the Cole Porter classic "Easy to Love" in the 1936 Born to Dance, presented musical clips featuring non-musical performers like Clark Gable and Cary Grant. Gene Kelly paid tribute to fellow hoofer Fred Astaire, who returned the favor in a later segment. Minnelli introduced clips from her mother's films, including her own film debut as Garland's daughter in the final shot of In the Good Old Summertime (1949). And in one of the film's lightest segments, O'Connor presented a series of ever more grandiose water ballets featuring Hollywood's only swimming musical star, Esther Williams. There were also inspired excerpts from signature MGM numbers which have become classics - the barn-raising scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951), Donald O'Connor performing "Make 'Em Laugh" in Singin' in the Rain and Gene Kelly's dancing duet with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945).
Most of the host segments were filmed on various locations around the MGM lot: the small-town street where the Andy Hardy films and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) were shot; the railway station where Astaire sang his first number in The Band Wagon (1953); even the filled-in swimming pool where most of Williams' extravaganzas had been shot.
Many critics and audience members were wildly enthusiastic about the opportunity to re-visit the greatest moments from MGM's musical past. There were a few complaints, however, about the necessity to cut musical numbers to fit more material into the film's running time. There was also a minor fracas when MGM's favorite tap-dancing lady, Ann Miller, was hired to make personal appearances for the film. Some of the studio's other stars objected to the fact that she was the only one getting a paycheck while their past performances generated new revenues for the studio. But on the whole, That's Entertainment! was a triumph. It landed on the year's box-office top 20 alongside such contemporary fare as The Sting (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974), showing that audiences still had a taste for the kind of old-fashioned entertainment that had once made the studio great. Blewitt and Friedgen captured the American Cinema Editors' Eddie Award for Best Edited Documentary. And most significantly, the film triggered renewed interest in MGM's musicals, which the studio wisely presented in new television syndication packages and theatrical reissues designed to draw on the success of its biggest hit in years.
Producer: Jack Haley, Jr., Daniel Melnick
Director: Jack Haley, Jr.
Screenplay: Jack Haley, Jr.
Cinematography: Gene Polito, Ernest Laszlo, Russell Metty, Ennio Guarnieri & Allan Green
Music: Henry Mancini
Narrators: Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Peter Lawford, Liza Minnelli, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor.
BW & C-135m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.
by Frank Miller