Teens on Speed, Water Ballet, and Racist Tappin’: 1974’s That’s Entertainment!

by Jessica Roake

You may have missed 1974’s That’s Entertainment!, the best studio propaganda clip-film ever made, as some of you are not queeny, sequined old cabaret singers with a taste for strong cocktails, Hollywood Babylon, and Gene Kelly vehicles, which I have been since the age of four. For you uncultured bastards (have you even seen Liza with a Z?), a little background: In the 1970s, the big studios couldn’t get their heads around the young auteurs of American film, they couldn’t control the lives and careers of their stars, and they were essentially being bought and sold for parts by large corporations uninterested in movies. What was MGM to do?
a. Look to the future of film and embrace the change; start making movies like The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, or Chinatown, all of which came out in 1974.

b. Look to the past; put together a filmic testament to the enduring greatness of the studio musical and system, using aging stars and clips from 20-year-old movies.

The choice was clear, and a trilogy was born. The That’s Entertainment! films are extended montages of MGM musical clips from the studio’s Golden Age (1928–1960ish), introduced by some of the dream factory’s greatest stars: porcine old men in ascots and softly-lit old women with big hair and barbituated purrs.

Oh, here comes Mickey Rooney, looking every inch the toupeed blueberry in a navy leisure suit, toddling toward us on a sound stage in front of the ORIGINAL Andy Hardy house to talk about his hit musicals (please remember, Mickey Rooney was once THE BIGGEST STAR IN THE WORLD! AND HE BANGED AVA GARDNER! BEFORE SHE COULD EVEN GET A WALK-ON IN ONE OF HIS SENSATIONAL MOVING PICTURES! THE DAMES LOVED HIM BECAUSE HE WAS THE BIGGEST BRIGHTEST SHINING STAR IN THE MGM GALAXY! ) Thankfully Mr. Rooney here refrains from waxing creepy on his famous conquests. Instead he introduces a bit about the Andy Hardy musicals and his frequent co-star, Ms. Judy Garland.

That’s Entertainment! was released five years after Garland overdosed on the uppers and downers she’d been addicted to since her teens. But here’s why That’s Entertainment! is the finest in studio system delusion: Mickey Rooney, putting his all into a fine imitation of youthful naivete, exclaims, “Where we got all that energy, I’ll never know!” Boy, Mr. Rooney, I don’t know either! Maybe it’s just the excitement of putting on a show with the whole gang! I sure would like to see some clips from those pictures, testaments to the incredible energy reserves available to adolescents kept on a strict studio-enforced amphetamine regimen. Oh yes, lil Rooney, I would love to see some clips! Boy, that was a simpler time, wasn’t it? Look at the soda shops, look at the hay dances, look at the black-face number. Wait. Oh. Yup, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in a song-and-dance number in which Rooney and 30 other male dancers are in blackface. This is awkward. Maybe we could go back to the more comfortable terrain of drugging adolescent girls.

In That’s Entertainment! scenes like these are not rare, and there is absolutely no self-consciousness about their offensiveness. We wouldn’t want to tarnish the studio’s name by mentioning that ‘Uncle Louis’ B. Mayer gave little Judy magical thin’n’perky pills, but there’s nothing wrong with showing you some of our fantastic, dazzling blackface numbers! What? What’s wrong? Why are you looking away? Oh look, here’s Peter Lawford, one of our galaxy of stars you’re not really familiar with (he was the supporting male in Easter Parade and also, fun fact, the Kennedy brothers’ rumored Hollywood pimp. The more you know!). He’s apparently gone for the Charlton Heston aging-salve, the ascot, though it’s not really helping him look any less the creepy old boozehound. He speaks (slurs, Englishly) about the “original look of an MGM musical” while we see clips: lots of Technicolor feathers and sequins, show-stopping dance numbers full of challenging choreography made even more astounding by the heels and gowns involved, complicated aerial shots and, oh no, not again. Cut to further evidence of the “unique look”: two white dancers in black face, doing a “native” dance in front of a sound-stage tiki god. Wow! The splendor of choreographed racism! Since I’m limiting myself to the first of the That’s Entertainment! trilogy, I won’t go into the Joan Crawford blackface number featured in That’s Entertainment III. A scene like this exists, and you have to sleep at night knowing that.

But BEHOLD: Mr. “Be A Clown” himself, Donald O’Connor, pretending to be straight and wishing he could have worked with the “lovely figured” Esther Williams, that icon of synchronized swim musicals (Williams gets a huge amount of screen time. I had no idea she was such a big star, or that she was married to a Lamas — she’s Lorenzo’s step-mom! Fun fact!).

GAZE UPON: Elizabeth Taylor, as she descends a perfectly backlit staircase covered in jewels and a diaphanous blue gown, her black hair bouffanted to the heavens, her heavily lidded eyes filled with painkillers and regret. Hearing her use that kitteny/tipsy voice to expound on MGM musicals as though she’s singing “Is that all there is?” is like gazing into the eyes of pure, intoxicating gay iconhood. But before you start getting too worried about whether Liz can stay awake long enough to introduce her clips, BE CHARMED by little Ms. Spunk herself, the incomparable Ms. Debbie Reynolds (the female stars in That’s Entertainment! are all introduced this way, though most of them had been Mrs.’ed many times over by the ‘70s). She skips up to the camera to talk about growing up on the lot, and dreaming of dance solos, and the incredible opportunity of Singin’ in the Rain’ and she is, even in her forties, every inch the perky little ingenue. Ms. Debbie Reynolds is exhausting, and as much as I like her, I am distrustful of such unfailing adorability. It’s like she’s still on Uncle Louis’ happy pills, which, given the 1974 release date, is a distinct possibility.

I, like Ms. Debbie Reynolds, bought into the magic factory thing completely as a kid (I did not, full disclosure, need speed to tap dance). I had a crush on Gene Kelly c. 1954 instead of Corey Haim, I sang “Belly Up to the Bar Boys” from The Unsinkable Molly Brown for a children’s theater audition (I WAS A STAR! but did not get the part), and I tapped and tapped and tapped some more, selling it always with the face. I rented musicals all the time, and though I never understood its blackface or Esther Williams bits (seriously, swim musicals?), I did love the best-of format of That’s Entertainment!, which gave me all the glitz with no pesky plot. I stopped doing musical theater myself as a Very Jaded Teenager (I couldn’t take the creepy girls with their private voice coaches and inexplicable love for the song “Baby Face”), but I still secretly loved musicals — full of sparkles and leaps and dream sequences and fakey sets and face-mash kisses, and then just when you least expect it, a moment of grace, of perfect vocal or physical expression. I loved them long after I realized what a campy, offensive mess That’s Entertainment! is.

There really isn’t anyone who represents this beating heart, this diamond in the chintz of That’s Entertainment! better than Ms. Judy Garland. All three That’s Entertainment! pictures feature long montages dedicated to Garland (the first is introduced by Liza!), and you really do have to be a heartless bastard not to love her. MGM — the same studio responsible for hooking Garland on dope and dumping her when the drugs ultimately hurt her performances — congratulates itself for her greatness in That’s Entertainment!, and the back-slapping in these scenes is particularly cringe-inducing. But though you know how horribly it all turned out, watching Judy Garland sing on screen makes all the rest fall away, as unnecessary and dated as water ballet. Casual racism, revisionist history, some utterly awful musical numbers, and way too much Esther Williams? Oh yes. But also: more stars than there are in the heavens, the dream factory’s bloated self-regard, gauzy divas grasping at their glory days, and Ms. Judy Garland, making you cry with her voice.

Jessica Roake lives and writes in Washington DC. When she isn’t playing trains with a toddler who’s not into musicals yet, she writes for the likes of The Awl, Salon, and The Washington Post Express. She has a pretty neglected blog, she tweets in fits and starts, and her favorite musical is Singin’ In The Rain.