Friday, August 24, 2007

That's Entertainment! III (1994)

A brief word of recommendation about one of the most surprising things I've DVRed this summer. Unlike its two much older predecessors in the epic That's Entertainment! saga, which are basically just greatest hits compilations — the cinematic equivalent of The Beatles' Red and Blue Albums — the oddly punctuated That's Entertainment! III mines the vaults of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for incredible moments from musicals that, for a variety of reasons, were never shown theatrically. If we want to stretch my metaphor to the absolute limit, that kind of makes it The Beatles Anthology with fewer thinly veiled drug references (except in the Esther Williams numbers).

For instance, you get to see Fred Astaire perform a strange sort of duet with himself, dancing to the song "I Wanna Be A Dancin' Man." The number, from the rather obscure film The Belle of New York, was shot once with Astaire in casual attire, and then again with the actor in a suit after MGM decided Astaire looked better that way. Directors Bud Freidgen and Michael J. Sheridan play both renditions in split-screen, and we watch Astaire and Astaire work in eerily perfect synchronization — other than the clothes and the backgrounds, the performances are totally identical, a testament to the man's incredible preparation, athletic ability, and unmatched timing. (For an interesting counter-point, and a contemporary use of split-screen choreography, see Donen-Kelly's It's Always Fair Weather).

MGM musicals are famous for their lavish production values and their air of opulence but That's Entertainment! III shows that behind-the-scenes, the studio tended toward thriftiness whenever possible. Sequences, songs, and even costumes that got trimmed from one film would often wind up in another. When Cyd Charisse's version of the song "Two-Faced Woman" was cut from The Band Wagon, that freed up the number to be taken by Joan Crawford, who sang it (albeit a lot less well) in her film Torch Song. Charisse, by the way, has the sexiest, longest legs you've ever seen in your life. Seriously. I mean those things are good. They belong in a museum.

The most affecting portions of the film, though, belong to Lena Horne, an African-American actress whose career was stifled by the racist restrictions of the "Golden Era." Horne gets to narrate her own story, and she doesn't hide her disappointment or her disgust when explaining how one of her numbers got cut from Cabin in the Sky (seeing a black woman enjoy a chaste bubble bath alone was deemed inappropriate) or how she lost out a role that should have been hers in Show Boat (once again, the color of her skin played a significant factor). Watching her performances in the archival footage and realizing how talented she was gives the actress a modicum of revenge. But it's still not enough.

I DVRed TE! III anticipating to fast-forward through a lot of it looking for obscure stuff I'd never seen. As it turned out, I was sat glued through the whole thing. This is really interesting stuff, and that's on top of the sheer bliss that comes with watching these remarkable musical numbers, which already lend themselves well to the anthology format. Context, schmontext.


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