The year was 1974. The Vietnam War was still raging and the Hollywood studio system was dead. But that year, That’s Entertainment, a documentary celebrating MGM’s 50th birthday, was a huge box-office hit. First, it reminded filmgoers of the “good old days” and second, it gave the American people a new hope during war times just as musicals did throughout World War II.
After the famous MGM lion’s roar, we first hear in That’s Entertainment the iconic song “Singin’ in the Rain.” Soon after, we spot Frank Sinatra, who begins the narration and presents a montage of films in which that song was used: from the pioneer The Hollywood Revue of 1929 to the unforgettable film that bears the same title starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. But it will take almost an hour until viewers actually see Kelly on screen at age 62 praising Fred Astaire’s dancing skills and proclaiming Astaire his favorite dance partner (from Ziegfeld Follies‘ “The Babbit and the Bromide,” 1945). Then sweetly, as if to repay the favor, Astaire — alone onscreen — hosts and complements several clips from Kelly’s works.
The success of That’s Entertainment made a second movie almost mandatory. That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976) boasted two special hosts: Kelly and Astaire. Seeing them onscreen together after 30 years was magic — just like seeing Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton together in Limelight (1952). This sequel featured other stars who weren’t in musicals like the Marx Brothers, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy. Also, this second documentary showed lesser-known numbers such as the amazing dancing sequence by Greta Garbo and Kelly’s dancing with cartoon cobras in An Invitation to the Dance (1956).
Nine years after That’s Entertainment II, another dance/musical documentary was released, That’s Dancing! (1985). This one didn’t focus solely on MGM productions however; rather, it featured several clips from other studios and presented talents never seen on the previous films of the series. Jack Haley Jr., who produced the first two That’s Entertainments, also wrote and directed That’s Dancing! Likewise, Kelly narrates and hosts a segment on, oddly enough, break-dancing.
Released in 1994, That’s Entertainment, Part III, the final movie of the series, included stills and numbers never before shown onscreen including Judy Garland’s deleted “Mr. Monotony routine” from Easter Parade (1948), which would be revised for the finale of Summer Stock (1950). Although TEIII brought Esther Williams as a hostess, marking her first screen appearance since 1963, it was also a bit sad because it was Gene Kelly’s last film; he passed away two years later.
Without a doubt, Kelly’s scenes in the That’s Entertainment trilogy and That’s Dancing! are a highlight. I should also note that in the second part, Gene is the director, a function he mastered in previous musicals like On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and Hello Dolly! (1969). He also insisted on Astaire as his co-host, taking the actor out of retirement and rehearsing with him the brief numbers that introduced the clips.
This entire series wouldn’t have been the same without Gene Kelly, not only because of his hosting abilities, but also because of his undeniable contribution to musicals. As our readers likely know, Kelly revolutionized the genre with memorable numbers like the on-location sequence in On the Town, the huge “An American in Paris Ballet” (cited in That’s Entertainment as the biggest success at MGM), the title number from Singin’ in the Rain, and the surprising tap-dance in roller skaters in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). He also danced with himself, with Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Rita Hayworth, Jerry the Mouse (right), and with a squeaky board and a newspaper.
Finally, there is Kelly’s capacity to make people smile. It’s evident wherever you look: in tweets, in comments on YouTube, in blogs and forums. In fact, watching Kelly’s films and numbers has allowed me to survive some tough times with happiness and hope. This That’s Entertainment trilogy is clearly my “guilty pleasure,” but that’s okay. After all, Gene Kelly is still the epitome of joy and, like Frank Sinatra announced in That’s Entertainment!, boy, do we need it now!