You don't have to be a student of the American musical to love "That's Entertainment III," which opens today at the Charles. In fact, I'll go further: It helps if you're not a student of the American musical.
If you are, you'll probably be somewhat offended by the film, which utterly lacks any sense of scholarly approach to its materials, which skitters and jitters through MGM's vast musical library for amusing numbers without bothering to put them in a meaningful framework.
The most egregious flaw is its refusal to recognize the contributions of "The Freed Unit," that unbelievably fecund and creative subset of the great MGM musical department supervised by the brilliant Arthur Freed. It began in 1939 with "The Wizard of Oz" and in 15 brilliant years redefined the movie musical with such films as "On the Town," "The Pirate," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Singin' in the Rain."
Freed films instead are mixed willy-nilly with cheesy Andy Hardy movies, a few Lucille Ball numbers, even a visit by Elvis. Apostasy! Scandal! Shame!
Sadder still, the film is a bumbling ramble through the hazy arcades of nostalgia, primarily set up to spotlight the reminiscences of such old stars as Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Howard Keel and so forth. There's not even the most fundamental of ordering devices -- simple chronology -- applied to the materials. It moves by free association through banal segues, something like a movie parlor game in which I say Judy Garland and you say "The Wizard of Oz," and then you say Ray Bolger and I have to come up with a Ray Bolger movie and co-star, or you get a point and then I'd have to kill you for doing better than me.
It's not that I mean in any way to disrespect the old troupers who appear, but they are not well used, being instructed by co-directors Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan to drift in the least incisive, most discursive and generic approach possible. You don't feel an intelligence guiding them into interesting areas and combining the results into something provocative.
For example, we get no sense of MGM culture in those days, and the studio is represented as being one happy family, untroubled by scandal, substance abuse, jealousy, office politics and commercial considerations. It's movie studio as Potemkin village and somehow completely unconvincing.
The movie's claim to distinction is some rare outtake footage its makers have unearthed. The best of this footage is a lost Cyd Charisse number from "The Band Wagon," in which she dances and lip-syncs to "Two Faced Woman," as recorded by torch-for-hire India Adams. When it was cut from "Band Wagon," the shrewd producers used the same soundtrack as the basis to a campy number by the hardly sylphlike and complete anti-Cyd Joan Crawford in "Torch Song." Cleverly, Friedgen and Sheridan split their screen and show the two women performing side by side, although in Crawford's case, the word "performing" is not quite accurate. "Lurching" might be more accurate.
Then there's the brilliant Fred Astaire, doing the same dance in two different costumes. I don't mean the same number, I mean . . . the same dance. Exactly, to the most seemingly spontaneous twitch of finger and flick of wrist. Again, the directors split the screen and compare the two sequences. It has an eerie feel to it.
What's most pleasing about "That's Entertainment! III" is the numbers themselves. I almost wish they'd done away with the concept of "documentary" and simply offered the snippets as pure cavalcade. Fifty-eight of them: all singing, all dancing, too much talking.
"That's Entertainment! III"
Directed by Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan
Released by MGM