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WHAT'S REEL, WHAT'S NOT

In its vain and glamorous heyday, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studiously avoided sending "messages" to the 90 million Americans who went to the movies each week. Instead, the biggest and richest of the Hollywood studios produced sophisticated escapism, polished to a gleam by the slickest directors and craftspeople and inhabited, as the company boasted, by "more stars than there are in the heavens."

Although the company still exists in name, MGM's day is done. Even some of the physical evidence was disinherited in 1971, when the once-great studio's crass new caretakers unloaded its entire store of costumes and props--from Ben Hur's chariot to Dorothy's ruby slippers--for a million and a half bucks.

A grinning auctioneer promptly resold the stuff for $13 million.
Luckily, someone decided against dumping the movies themselves into the La Brea Tar Pits. In fact, just as recycling began to catch on in the mid-Seventies, the great minds at MGM compiled two nostalgic samplers of the dazzling musicals that sustained the studio in the late Forties and early Fifties. The That's Entertainment! road shows, released in 1974 and 1976, were proud, vivid reminders of the magic Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer could work with a tune--from muscular Gene Kelly Singin' in the Rain to Judy Garland venturing Over the Rainbow to nimble Fred Astaire dancing over floor, walls and ceiling in Royal Wedding.

That's Entertainment! III is surely the last of these disinterments. MGM emptied the tank with parts I and II, so this mishmash of scraps, outtakes and dregs achieves neither their grandeur nor their high style, although it puts up the same self-congratulatory front. What it does best--perhaps intentionally, perhaps not--is send some un-MGM-like messages about a certain time in the movie business and in America.

With a kind of conspiratorial wink, assemblers Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan reveal the artifice behind an Eleanor Powell production number as grips frantically dismantle the set midshot so the cameras can move in closer. We get a glimpse ("Never seen before!") of the studio's false start on Annie Get Your Gun, scrapped when the troubled Garland suddenly fell to pieces and had to be replaced by Betty Hutton. There's a gruesomely funny rendition of "Two Faced Woman" from 1953's forgotten Torch Song, featuring nonsinger Joan Crawford in what the narrator calls "tropical makeup"--but what you and I would call blackface. It's contrasted with an elegant Cyd Charisse version of the same tune that wound up getting cut from The Band Wagon.

Waterlogged Esther Williams remembers absurd plot contrivances to get her out of her street clothes and into the pool. We glimpse a momentary MGM miscalculation, the Ross Sisters, who were, well, contortionists. We see second-string stuff from Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and the feather-light Astaire. On this plate of leftovers, there's plenty of evidence of the storied MGM craftsmanship. But Friedgen and Sheridan seem just as concerned with a little overdue truth-telling. While we watch the outtake, gracious Lena Horne explains that her bubble-bath number was cut from 1943's Cabin in the Sky because the sight of a black girl in a tub outraged the censors; without rancor, she tells us how she lost the lead in Showboat to friend Ava Gardner because interracial romance was a screen taboo in 1951.

In fact, bittersweetness dominates That's Entertainment! III. We sense not only the perfectionism at MGM, but the wantonness and waste. We see not only the glories, but the falsity. These effects are underscored by the compilation's "hosts," surviving MGM stars like Kelly, Mickey Rooney and June Allyson, whose dazzle and verve had already begun to diminish when they took up elder statesmen duties two decades ago in the first two That's Entertainment! movies.

Oddly, even that works to advantage. This elegy to a studio and a time may seem tatty and shopworn, but that's exactly what makes it even more fascinating than its glamorized predecessors. Not only have the assemblers turned the klieg lights up one last time, they've opened the dressing room door a crack so we can hear the old rumblings within, if not the last gasp.

Nostalgiaphiles, movie buffs and the Garland cult should be transfixed.

 
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