Over the decades, the That's Entertainment series has acquired a shaky reputation, about on a par with Cliffs Notes or a Time-Life classical-music anthology. Hardcore film buffs argue that the MGM compilations fragment classic musical sequences and comedy routines, presenting them out of context and defusing their full impact. But to be fair, many of the best-loved MGM musicals were themselves "compilations," in that a lot of them were backstage melodramas about people putting on a show, with songs that only tangentially related to the story. The best five minutes of some of those movies don't necessarily justify the hours of hack plots and set-bound phoniness. Jack Haley Jr.'s original idea to excerpt and compile the best of MGM makes the Golden Age look shinier, and it predicts the rise of DVD, where the history of cinema can be chopped into chapters for easy reference.
The four-disc That's Entertainment DVD collectionwhich includes the all-music 1974 original, the comedy-inclusive 1976 sequel, the outtakes-intensive 1994 entry, and a disc of related materialsmakes the project newly useful. The first feature bore the tagline "Boy, do we need it now," as part of a successful attempt to lure in older viewers disenfranchised by an age of malaise-slathered American art films. Aside from That's Entertainment III, which adds offscreen footage and clips of never-before-seen musical numbers, the series lets classic scenes and stars stand without critical comment, as a shallow representative of a happier Hollywood. The DVDs add depth, beginning with the bonus disc's collection of featurettes about behind-the-scenes craftsmen, and continuing through promotional television specials from the '70s, in which the MGM stars debate whether the studio system was as dreamy as they pretend.
The film clips themselves retain their immediacy, if only because the act of dancing on film makes the artificiality of sets, costumes, and makeup melt away, leaving only sweat and jiggling flesh. But the peripherals of the That's Entertainment set are what make it more than a great-scene encyclopedia. The series gains from the subtle commentary of the decaying MGM sets where the stars introduce their segments: the way Gene Kelly ages dramatically between the first and third installments, how Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli appear incapable of answering an interviewer's question without phony gushing, and Sammy Davis Jr.'s sly jabs at the institutionalized racism of the MGM musical era while he "pays tribute" to its heroes at an anniversary dinner. On their own, the That's Entertainment films don't say much. Watched consecutively, with the bonus features, they come closer to telling a story about the real zeal and heartbreak that went into some of the greatest movies ever made.