Armchair Cinephile

This is entertainment!

Back in the dark days before home video, cave dwellers had few ways to see vintage movies. In that climate, That's Entertainment! was a gift from heaven. A greatest hits compilation of MGM musicals, it freed decades of opulently staged song-and-dance sequences from the tiny screens and degraded color of the living room TV. Despite the often bored or wooden introductions of the stars who hosted the film, the program boasted some of the most charming and outlandish stuff put on celluloid. The movie was a hit, spawning two sequels - Part Two broadening the scope to include non-musical gems, the more dignified Part Three (made 20 years after the first) taking a historical approach and digging up previously unseen material - like a bubble bath scene with Lena Horne that was too racy for 1943.

The trilogy was just reissued by Warner Brothers as That's Entertainment! The Complete Collection, which includes a fourth disc with many more sequences that never made it into their intended musicals, much less into the three TE! films. Movie lovers may feel they know musicals reasonably well, but even those familiar with the joys of Fred and Ginger or Gene Kelly may be unfamiliar with tap dance queen Eleanor Powell or the outrageous choreographed swimming routines of Esther Williams. With treasure buried in so many obscure films, it helps to have a guide. It may seem strange that, thanks to the wonders of catalog licensing, Warner Bros. is the studio offering this tribute to the unmatched legacy of MGM, but lovers of musicals should be glad it's being done by somebody.

For contemporary viewers who can't get worked up about MGM's musty old treasures, another perspective comes via one of the most exciting DVD releases in months: One of those extremely rare movies so strange that it deserves its status as a cult film, Richard Elfman's Forbidden Zone (Fantoma) plays with images so sensitive one hesitates to describe the action in a family newspaper. Exploiting stereotypes about race, homosexuality, and, er, the differently abled, there is truly something here to offend everyone.

It's a musical, in a way, that riffs on everything from Cab Calloway to Yiddish theater music, but rarely hints of anything after 1950. The plot is a kind of Orpheus affair: A too-curious daughter finds and enters a hidden door to the Sixth Dimension, an underworld whose king is played by Hervé Villechaize. Her brother and slow-witted grandpa launch a rescue operation but are met with many distractions: man-sized dancing frogs, nearly-naked musical twins - and Satan, who sings and dances a lot like Calloway.

The Prince of Darkness, by the way, is the director's brother Danny Elfman, who with his band Oingo Boingo wrote the film's infectious songs. If the music draws on wild pre-war American pop, so do the visuals: The black-and-white film borrows the look and feel of a Fleischer Brothers cartoon, albeit one made by pornographers.

Fantoma's new DVD, which is replacing the old VHS tape I have watched on dozens (literally) of drunken evenings, treats the movie like a holy relic, with a high-def video transfer, audio commentaries and documentaries, music videos, and deleted scenes. (After watching the feature, newcomers may find it astounding that anything was deemed unfit for inclusion, but here's proof.)

Demented tributes aside, there still appears to be a brisk market for more conventional musical DVD titles. For the emotionally stunted, there's Kiss Exposed, the likeably ludicrous "documentary" that comes in Universal's new 3-disc (2 hits CDs, 1 DVD) Kiss Gold package; it sandwiches some cool old full-makeup performance footage between adolescent fantasies of the band's offstage life and some hilariously dated music videos from the group's post-costume days. Warner is rolling out some quality titles, like No Quarter Unledded, documenting the Jimmy Page/Robert Plant reunion, and David Byrne Live: Union Chapel London, a beautifully produced concert disc that takes the form of a VH1 Storytellers show, letting Byrne give short introductions to each song. Sure, he's not always telling the truth - but aren't artifice and sleight-of-hand the building blocks of great musicals?

By John DeFore


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