By Byron Coley
Call me selfish, but I feel justified in complaining that it is difficult to find much in the way of video entertainment for the kids that a parent such as myself would actually want to watch. There has been some kind of faux family-film revival over the course of the last few years, but most of the results are pathetic and atrocious dogshit, with aesthetic values soaked up from either 70s Saturday-morning television or Charlton Heston’s subhuman line of Vietnam comic books. Any reader who has been staggered by the weight of the Berenstein Bears’ corpus knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Letting my kids have totally free rein to watch whatever they want would be akin to letting them write the household dinner menus. A small serving of Chicken McNuggets goes a pretty long way for me, and the same goes for Barney the Dinosaur, Thomas the Tank Engine, and all of their peers and minions. Things that are designed to be kid-friendly today too often seem designed to be hostile to adult appreciation. What all of this blubbering is getting around to is that during the past five years or so, my attention has turned with some frequency to that genuinely swell American art form, the musical.
Musicals come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are just pasted-together excuses to introduce a bunch of new songs, but the best are incredibly sophisticated blends of drama, song, and choreography that tap deep into the essential sap of the American experience. Watching and rewatching films like The Music Man, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is satisfying on all kindsa levels: visual, intellectual, visceral. I have discovered, however, that what the kids are hooked by is the singing and dancing parts. Unless there are a bunch of kids or other non-adults on the screen (for example, in The Sound of Music, The King and I, The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins), they don’t give a tinker’s cuss for the story. They’re into the sheer sensory overload provided by a screenful of dumbbells hoofing and hollering like there’s no tomorrow. To cop a phrase from a source I can’t remember, they like their movies to cough up one damn thing after another. It was no surprise, then, that my little critics reacted very favorably to the three films in the “That’s Entertainment!” series, which splice together song-and-dance highlights from the classic era of MGM musicals (defined by MGM as 1929-1958). They have given a similar thumbs-up to the six-CD set that Rhino Records has just issued, anthologizing those movies’ sound tracks and then some. There is no song in this remarkable collection of mainstream cud that you couldn’t safely play for the Republican grandparents, and the orchestral arrangements are far from avant-garde, but the material does capture an unabashedly American zeitgeist.
Of particular note is “Singin’ in the Rain,” four different performances of which are included: There’s the nascent hut-tut of Ukelele Ike’s small combo from The Hollywood Revue of 1929. There’s Jimmy Durante’s antic piano run-through from the 1932 comedy Speak Easily. There’s Judy Garland’s punched-up orchestral romp from 1940’s Little Nellie Kelly. Finally, there’s the skittery, drop-spattered treatment that Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor gave it when it served as the title song for the 1952 film. “Singin’ in the Rain” is the perfect illustration of the malleability of MGM’s classic musical material. Written by the company’s first golden pair, composer Nacio Herb Brown and lyricist Arthur Freed, “Singin’ in the Rain” is not so much listened to as it is absorbed on a molecular level. It’s so familiar, so brimming with bonhomie, that it must sound familiar even to people who’ve never heard it before.
The best of the tunes from MGM’s musicals all have that effect on me. Some of this can be attributed to my having watched too many movies on TV as a youngster, but so many of these songs were subsequently performed by other artists that it’s difficult to say where I first heard them. There are many such pages here from the classic American songbook–“Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (as sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban!), and plenty more–126 to be precise.
The argument could be put forth that, robbed of their context, the selections on That’s Entertainment! are stripped of their semiotic meaning, but that’s a bit beside the point. I mean, it doesn’t take many props to figure out what Joan McCracken is bellowing about when she sings “Pass That Peace Pipe” (from Good News, a 1947 June Allyson and Peter Lawford vehicle that no one I know has actually seen). Nor is it necessary to know the exact plight of Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier’s characters in Gigi in order to squeeze out a bathetic tear during their rendition of “I Remember It Well.” Many of the songs here create their own instant context, or were conceived so far outside of believable context in the first place that their logic was always entirely self-contained. What this all means is that these discs provide just the sort of charge my tots are after–one damn thing after another. As there’s no palpable diminution in the quality of the material as you go, what emerges is a cavalcade of sustained climaxes– something like one of Glenn Branca’s guitar symphonies, or jerking off on LSD.
There is no meaningful way to be critical of composers like George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers, or any of the others whose work appears here. Nor is it possible to fault the work of the MGM orchestra (whose musicians go regretfully uncredited). And who but a curmudgeon could speak ill of the singing talents of Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, Lena Horne, Groucho Marx, and their ilk? I mean, what’s not to like? There may be more examples of Garland’s vocalese than you imagine you can bear (I counted 23)–but hey, you don’t have to listen to them consecutively. There may be a few too many sappy ballads for your taste, but the musical as a form during the Golden (pre-cynicism, mostly pre-Sondheim) Era was so drenched in sentimentality that griping about it is about as worthwhile as complaining that your grandma’s cooking is fattening. It is possible to argue with the text and subtext of many of the lyrics in terms of our current social situation, but to do so at this point would be an exercise in pseudo-intellectual onanism.
If you can allow yourself to just go with the flow, accepting that yes, those were indeed stupider times, but boy, did they know how to write great pop songs for the lowest common denominator, then you may get a whole pantload of kicks out of the That’s Entertainment! box. And if you’re a parent (or even an uncle or aunt) capable of viewing the purchase of That’s Entertainment! as an alternative to another season of Barney sing-alongs, this stuff even transcends its status as national treasure.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph of videotape box of “That’s Entertainment!”, uncredited.