Review by Ed Nguyen
Narration by: Gene Kelly,
Sammy Davis Jr., Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ray Bolger, Liza Minnelli
Director: Jack Haley, Jr.
Audio: English Dolby Surround 5.1
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, widescreen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Introduction by Gene Kelly and Jack Haley, Jr., four featurettes, trailer
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: July 24, 2007
"They say dancing is as old as love."
The 1970's musical montage That's Entertainment signaled the end of the MGM era. Soon after this film's release, the once-glamorous MGM back-lots, where so many classic musicals had been created, would be sold off. The famous movie studio has never been the same since.
Happily, That's Entertainment, directed by Jack Haley Jr., was a resounding success and an elegant swan song for studio-era MGM. The film offered a seemingly endless parade of classic MGM movie clips. The best of these clips were certainly the musical routines, setting the stage for a sequel, Gene Kelly's That's Entertainment Part II, and also Jack Haley Jr.'s own follow-up years later, That's Dancing (1985).
Whereas the two That's Entertainment films included songs and comedy skits, That's Dancing focuses solely on dancing throughout film history. With opening and closing narration by Gene Kelly, this film takes a light-hearted stroll down memory lane from the earliest motion picture "flickers" to the current trends in movie dance (including a music video and even the "newest" craze of the day, break-dancing). How quaint.
The opening credits montage offers a glimpse of the large variety of clips to come, mostly from MGM, RKO, and Warner Bros films. However, some budget companies, such as Vitaphone, are also represented. That's Dancing is divided into five segments, each narrated by a different host. Gene Kelly opens with a discussion of the earliest sound musicals, many of which were rigidly photographed and forgettable. However, Busby Berkeley's innovative and intricate choreography would transcend conventional theatrical staging and revitalize the fledging film musical genre. His contributions to Warner Bros' 42nd Street made a star out of Ruby Keeler, and clips from that film, as well as Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, and Gold Diggers of 1935 are included here.
In the next segment, Sammy Davis Jr. talks about tap-dancing and vaudeville in film. Naturally, he discusses some of the best African-American dancers of early musicals, such as the incomparable Bojangles Robinson, whose tap-dancing prowess were legendary. Robinson is best-remembered for his dance duets with Shirley Temple, but That's Dancing also offers a rare Vitaphone clip capturing the vibrancy of his vaudeville act. There is also a show-stopping clip from Down Argentine Way with the awesome Nicholas Brothers, simply the best brother act ever to grace any Hollywood musical.
Of course, no discussion of tap dancing would be complete without Fred Astaire, who redefined how dance routines were photographed - full-figured and usually in a single take. Astaire appears in a solo from Roberta as well as very famous dances with Ginger Rogers from RKO's The Gay Divorcee ("Night and Day") and Swing Time ("Pick Yourself Up"). Other clips include the top female dancer of the day, Eleanor Powell, in MGM's Broadway Melody of 1936 and the salacious Honolulu. For a bonus treat, check out Ray Bolger in a scarecrow dance cut from The Wizard of Oz (this deleted scene has since been reprised on recent DVD releases of The Wizard of Oz).
The third segment of That's Dancing focuses on ballet, and who better to narrate than Mikhail Baryshnikov? Unfortunately, this will probably be the most obscure segment for most viewers, as ballet has never been a particularly popular sub-genre of the movie musical. Famous dancers who appear here include Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova (the first prima donna to truly embrace film) in The Dumb Girl of Portici, Vera Zorina in 1939's On Your Toes, Tamara Toumanova, Jacques D'Amboise from Carousel, Rudolf Nureyev of the Kiro Ballet, and Dame Margot Fonteyn. Naturally, this section would not be complete without a clip from the most famous ballet film ever, the cult classic The Red Shoes with Moira Shearer.
Ray Bolger narrates the film's fourth segment and reflects fondly upon the golden age of the MGM musical. This section of the film primarily compares and contrasts the dancing styles of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Astaire appears in the goofy-fun "I Left My Hat in Haiti" from Royal Wedding, the elegant "Thinking of You" from Three Little Words with Vera-Ellen, and the joyous "Shine on Your Shoes" from The Band Wagon. Kelly appears in the show-stopping "Moses Supposes" from Singin' in the Rain with Donald O'Connor, the ambitious Invitation to the Dance, and an unusual trashcan dance from It's Always Fair Weather.
The last narrator, Liza Minnelli, discusses modern musicals and adaptations of Broadway shows. There are clips of James Cagney from Yankee Doodle Dandy, a knockout dance by Ann Miller from Kiss Me Kate, Agnes DeMille's innovative ballet choreography for Oklahoma!, Shirley MacLaine from Sweet Charity, Cyd Charisse from Silk Stockings, and an ensemble dance from West Side Story.
That's Dancing closes with Gene Kelly once again as he touches upon new trends of the day. This is probably the weakest section of the film as these clips simply cannot compare with those from the MGM and RKO musicals. Nevertheless, they are not terrible clips and include John Travolta's disco-dancing from Saturday Night Fever, street-dancing in Fame, Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, and Michael Jackson in the music video "Beat It."
In general, while many of the clips are quite memorable, the best tend to arrive from older or classic MGM musicals. The older clips have a more consistent and gleeful tone, whereas those from newer musicals feel too dark. Perhaps this is a reflection on societal changes and values over the years.
All in all, That's Dancing is enjoyable but somewhat disjointed and arbitrary in its selection of clips. To be fair, one can hardly do justice to one hundred years of dance in a mere 104-minute film. A documentary miniseries might have been more comprehensive. As it is, That's Dancing should still serve as a decent introduction to classic film dance routines and should encourage newcomers to the genre to seek out more musicals. For the veteran fan, however, That's Dancing doesn't offer much that is new.
It should be noted that modern-day musicals literally pale in comparison to the MGM musicals, mainly because of MGM's spectacular color process Technicolor, which is sadly no longer used in American cinema.
It should also be noted that some clips in That's Dancing may be slightly cropped. Most musicals were filmed in a full-frame format, long before the advent of widescreen formats. Also, the video quality of That's Dancing varies depending on the age of the film clip, but otherwise the film looks decent.
The opening tune by Henry Mancini has a classical MGM feel, whereas the closing tune sung by Kim Carnes is quite atrocious and horribly dates the film with an '80s feel. The film is in Dolby Surround, unusual considering that hardly any of these musicals were even originally recorded in stereo sound. Again, That's Dancing sounds okay but is nothing spectacular.
This disc is one of five included in the box set Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 2, but it can also be purchased separately. The film will start automatically after several seconds of idle time.
There is a two-minute introduction by Gene Kelly and Jack Haley, Jr. followed by four unmemorable featurettes and a theatrical trailer.
In Invitation to Dance (5 min.), Jack Haley, Jr. discusses the making of That's Dancing, which involved two years of researching over 800 movies to select the dance numbers which would eventually make the cut in the film. Judging by the final cuts, perhaps the selection process should have been tightened to avoid newer musicals. The desire to present a level-headed evolution of film dance through the decades particularly falters when sampling inferior latter-day musicals. The result is a film that ends on a somewhat flat note, even if the noble goal was to bridge generations of dance together.
The Search (2 min.) looks at the selection process more closely but doesn't really offer anything new. The Cameras Roll (2 min.) discusses the narration for the film. The Gathering (2 min.) commemorates the gathering of dance stars, past and present, together to celebrate the release of That's Dancing. This is probably the most interesting featurette, as we get a check to see many past MGM stars once again.
That's Dancing provides a very basic introduction to the movie musical.