REVIEW: That’s Entertainment! III (1994)

That’s Entertainment! is a rather strange movie franchise: one that prefigured audience demand slightly ahead of time, and then prefigured newer demands all over again almost two decades later. The original 1974 film comprised a series of MGM musical numbers, all taken from pre-existing films, to celebrate the studio’s 50th anniversary. For many viewers of the time it was their first chance to see the sequences: many were consigned to the MGM vaults, television broadcasts were irregular, and home video was not yet a part of the entertainment market. The film was successful enough for MGM to release a 1976 sequel: more musical numbers, more nostalgia.

Then the studio revived the format for MGM’s 70th: by 1994 cable television and home video had both made MGM’s classic titles widely available. There was no real benefit in repackaging the same old clips again. Instead, the film – directed by Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan – pulled a variety of rare and unreleased sequences from the studio archives. While there were still plenty of previously available clips used – Kelly and Donen’s underrated It’s Always Fair Weather features several times – there is a focus on unseen footage. Lena Horne performing “Ain’t it the Truth” in a performance cut from Cabin in the Sky (1943). Two songs performed by Judy Garland before she was fired from Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Add in some behind-the-scenes and B-roll footage, and That’s Entertainment! III is an odd but fascinating re-purposing of a celebratory title from a fresh angle.

Much like its predecessors, it still foreshadowed audience demand. Just three years later the advent of DVD video led to all manner of lost and excised footage being dug up and distributed as special and bonus features. That’s Entertainment! III is essentially like watching the special features for several separate movies in a row. It is not as mainstream a proposition as the 1970s versions but it is arguably much more interesting. It is also well plotted, taking viewers through a fairly comprehensive history of the MGM musical from the late 1920s through to Gigi in 1958.

The various clips are introduced and narrated by a variety of legacy talent including Gene Kelly (his final film appearance), Cyd Charisse, Howard Keel, Lena Horne, Ann Miller, and Esther Williams. The segments are awkwardly written and highly artificial, but at the same time there is a certain pleasure in seeing them out of retirement to celebrate one another’s achievements.

Subsequently released on DVD (and then bluray), That’s Entertainment! III is something of a curate’s egg. Overall it is perhaps a little draining for viewers to watch – particularly when so many of the featured movies are now so widely available to watch instead. It’s use of cut footage does turn up some genuine gems, however: Horne’s “Ain’t it the Truth”, provocatively performed in a bubble bath, is excellent. Garland performing “I’m an Indian Too” is actively racist, unimaginably awkward, but rather fascinating – her performance in a cut scene from Easter Parade (1948) is much less controversial. Perhaps the most interesting sequence is a split-screen presentation of Eleanor Powell’s rolling tap dance in Lady Be Good (1941): the left side image shows what audience of the time saw, while the right side showcases a film crew scrambling to disassemble the set piece by piece to allow the camera rig to continue tracking towards her.

In a 21st century context, it’s all inside baseball: ardent fans of the MGM musical factory will find much here to please them, albeit in bits and pieces. Less well-viewed audiences would do better to simply watch some MGM musicals: Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St Louis, and busk from there.

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