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By 1974, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, once the most prestigious studio in the film industry, was struggling to stay afloat. Desperate measures such as selling off portions of the famed backlots were being enforced by the executives, and the future of MGM looked uncertain at best. But out of darkness came light - the release of That's Entertainment!, a movie-length tribute to the glorious MGM musicals of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The film was one of the studio's best financial successes - certainly the timeliest - pulling in over $19 million! The irony of MGM being saved in the 70s by recalling their old hits from forty years before was not lost on the studio's management (the box office receipts didn't hurt either). Realizing the power of nostalgia combined with the potential to reach new audiences, MGM turned out That's Entertainment! II by 1976. Hosted by Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, the sequel expanded on the original That's Entertainment! formula. In addition to showcasing the best of the singing and dancing from the golden age of musicals, That's Entertainment! II also focused on slapstick comedy and the contributions of the songwriters behind the tunes, as well as special tributes to Frank Sinatra and MGM's royal couple, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
If you are going to showcase the best in the business, it doesn't hurt to have two of the greatest movie stars hosting, and Astaire and Kelly pulled it off admirably. Although both men were well into their senior citizen years (Astaire was almost 80!), the two men sang and danced their way through several new sequences with Kelly also assuming directorial duties. The dancing, however, was Astaire's idea: "I told Gene we can't just stand around and talk or it will look like we have fallen arches and can't move anymore. It worked well but it was so very, very strenuous." Not that you could ever tell; the two men, while showing inevitable age in their faces, still move as lithely and effortlessly as they did years before. That's Entertainment! II, in fact, serves as an on-screen reunion for the pair - Kelly and Astaire previously appeared together in one other film, Ziegfeld Follies from 1946, in which they danced in a sketch called "The Babbit and the Bromide."
Among the film's highlights are the opening titles, created by Saul Bass, one of the best graphic designers in the business. Requested by directors from Scorsese to Hitchcock, Bass's titles are responsible for setting the tone for many a flick, including The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Exodus (1960), and Vertigo (1958). In fact, Bass's talents were so keen that Hitchcock hired him as a visual consultant for Psycho (1960); it was Bass who originally sketched out the visual concept for the famed shower scene.
That's Entertainment! II appealed widely to its audiences, making over $3 million and spawning two more installments of That's Entertainment! An unkind critic, however, wrote of the film: "Audible above the familiar voices of the MGM stock company and the inimitably lush orchestrations was the distinct screech of a barrel being scraped." But for lovers of classic movie musicals, That's Entertainment! II is a gold mine of treasures. While the original featured such popular films as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and well-known scenes such as the title song from Singin' in the Rain (1952), That's Entertainment! II highlights the less-exposed moments in film musical history: an Ann Miller/Bob Fosse dance scene in Kiss Me Kate (1953), Lena Horne singing "The Lady is a Tramp," the incredible "Water Ski Ballet" sequence by Esther Williams (from Easy to Love, 1953), choreographed by none other than Busby Berkeley, the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers duet - "Bouncin' the Blues" - from The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), Jimmy Durante in Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962), and a sequence from Gene Kelly's experimental dance epic, Invitation to the Dance (1956). A classic Marx Brothers scene (from A Night at the Opera, 1935) is also featured, and everyone gets into the dancing from Eleanor Powell to Cyd Charisse to Greta Garbo (!). Contrary to being scraped, musical aficionados will find the barrel overflowing with amazing talent.
Producer: Saul Chaplin, Daniel Melnick
Director: Gene Kelly
Screenplay: Leonard Gershe
Production Design: John De Cuir
Cinematography: George Folsey
Film Editing: David Bretherton, David Blewitt, Bud Friedgen, Peter C. Johnson
Original Music: Saul Chaplin, Howard Deitz, Nelson Riddle
Principal Cast: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and archival footage featuring Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Robert Taylor, Kathryn Grayson, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell and others.
C-130m. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin