Director: Jack Haley Jr.
I'm not clear on where this first showed - I guess wide release? It has a box office take listed, so I guess it was put out in theaters. Which is pretty wild. The movie is essentially a review/ clip show of MGM musicals and the greatest generator of a punchlist for movie nerds I can think of.
What's even wilder is that the movie was released as a 50th Anniversary celebration of MGM - and we're about 50 years from the release of this film. Time. It does roll on.
The film is hosted by an array of folks who were still living and vibrant, from Frank Sinatra to Bing Crosby to Elizabeth Taylor to a Mickey Rooney (who'll de damned if he's gonna shoot in the sun and manages the worst lighting you'll see in a major release as he wanders down a tree-lined sidewalk). But it's all a celebration of what made the movie musical great - and it makes a stunning case for the idea. Spectacle, talent, artistry and a bit of hokum all combine in an electric mix across about 100 clips supporting the thesis and the arguments presented for the musical.
Clips cover everything from the Depression-era Busby Berkley opuses to Andy Hardy films to Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller and of course Fred and Ginger (and Fred and Cyd). And a reminder that the most insane Hollywood may have ever gone was staging Esther Williams movies. It's impossible to imagine happening in the past 40 years.
1974 - the year of release - is an interesting inflection point. Liza Minnelli appears to remind you she's the daughter of Judy Garland and Vincent Minnelli and that she just won an Oscar for a musical. It's the promise of a new generation taking on musicals, which may have seemed possible in '74. But, clearly, that's not what happened. Sure, these days we get one or two a year, and most Disney cartoons are musicals for all intents and purposes, but as much as westerns would fade, musicals became a novelty. And, frankly, it seems like people my age feel weirdly threatened by musicals that don't start as Broadway shows.*
Trotting out the old guard is a fine idea for a retrospective, but in 1974, there's no home video. They weren't going to re-release 45 years of musicals, I don't think. So what was this for? One last hurrah and a trip down memory lane? The stars walk the now clearly dilapidated sets, around a decaying MGM lot, and I have to ask "why?" Why would MGM show their own sets in such a state of disrepair? I don't know what happened to MGM in the 1960's, but the story of MGM by the 1980's was about purchases, mergers, real estate sales... the company had gone from being a force of nature to a has-been. Even today, MGM seems to exist to put out Bond movies and not a whole lot else. If this film hoped to push people to clamor for musicals, I guess - not so much.
That said, it's a stunning reminder of what Hollywood - at least MGM - did on the regular to deliver wildly imaginative productions, the kind of talent they had on staff, and what movies can do. And maybe what we lost when the 1970's taught us to rely on "realism" in film, or at least pivoted us to space epics for our visions of flights of fancy.
Clearly Broadway tells us there's still an audience for musicals, and you do wonder - with today's techniques - what would an Esther Williams film look like? Who could star in it? Can an audience sit for a tap number? Do people still get swept up in ballroom dancing by the best, or just when it's a reality show with D-level stars trotted out for two minute numbers and people pretending to be judges?
And, honestly, even TCM doesn't play musicals like it used to. I'm sure the numbers track better to other kinds of films for whatever reason, but it would be nice to have some play of those big spectacle flicks.
MGM produced enough of these musicals that it spawned several sequels - That's Entertainment 2 and 3, as well as That's Dancing. So clearly they were making some money off of these things.
*I will never get the hostility to La-La Land