Monday, September 17, 2018

Book Review: That Was Entertainment: The Golden Age of the MGM Musical

MGM musicals were among my first great movie loves. At a young age I was captivated by the picture book THE MGM YEARS, with its glossy photos of some of MGM's greatest films, and I began searching for the movies I read about. Some of them were shown in Los Angeles revival theaters, and I was fortunate that my parents were more than happy to take me to see them; others I saw on commercial television in those pre-cable, pre-VHS days.

The books THE MGM STOCK COMPANY and THE MGM STORY, as well as the release of THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974), cemented my passion for classic films in general and MGM musicals in particular. MGM musicals have been a source of endless joy for me over many years of movie viewing.

I was thus happy to learn of a new book on the MGM musical, THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT: THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MGM MUSICAL. It's a history by Bernard F. Dick, whose previous books include biographies of Loretta Young and Claudette Colbert; it's been published by the University Press of Mississippi.

Particularly given my love for MGM musicals, I found the book an enjoyable read. THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT presents biographical material on some of MGM's greatest talents, starting with producer Arthur Freed, and simultaneously also surveys MGM's musicals in considerable detail. For me the book was a sort of "walk down memory lane" of favorite films and the many great talents who worked at the studio.

Judy Garland is the focus of multiple chapters, looking at her films with Mickey Rooney and then the progression of her career at the studio throughout the 1940s. Other chapters focus on topics such as MGM's original musicals, film versions of Broadway shows, Esther Williams' "swim" films, and musical revues. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on MGM's many "biopic" musicals.

I did have some reservations about the writing style and feel the book would have benefited from an editor able to help shape the facts into a smoother read. I was impressed at how much of Arthur Freed's early history, a century or more ago, the author was able to piece together, but at times it was difficult to follow the narrative. As an example, the author theorizes as to Freed's location at the time his father committed suicide in 1917; he then goes on to discuss Freed becoming head of the family, his WWI service, and his brother dying in France in 1918. After that the author returns to 1917 and describes the father's suicide at greater length. I found the non-chronological presentation challenging to follow, which was disappointing as the material itself is valuable.

Similarly, an introductory paragraph on MGM's 1930s musicals starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy initially jumps all the way forward to a specific critique of their last film, I MARRIED AN ANGEL (1942), then backs way up to discuss MacDonald's pre-MGM career, describing scenes from her Paramount film ONE HOUR WITH YOU (1932). All in one single paragraph! Similarly, the paragraph introducing the chapter on original MGM musicals begins with AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) winning the Best Picture Oscar but ends up being mainly about the later adaptation of the stage musical BRIGADOON (1954).

The author obviously researched and knows his material, but it feels as though he struggled a bit on how to wrap his arms around the voluminous information he had to share and guide the readers through it in a consistently coherent manner. Trimming out some excess background not germane to the topic could have been part of the solution, such as a paragraph on the SUSPENSE radio show which works its way into a look at Garland's career or a detailed two-paragraph description of the recent Broadway production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, dropped into the chapter on original MGM musicals.

I felt that some of the later chapters, for instance on composer biopics, Jane Powell, and Esther Williams, were smoother reads. Also on the positive side, the depth of detail and tendency to dart from point to point make the book feel like chatting with an old friend about a favorite topic, excited to compare notes and cram everything into the conversation! I didn't always agree with the author's thoughts but found it interesting to compare opinions. As someone with a lifelong love for MGM musicals, spending time reading and thinking about them is always a pleasure.

As is the case with many books in today's publishing environment, there was a need for some additional copy editing; several minor goofs crept in. They weren't particularly important but I mention that in the interest of a thorough review. A more glaring error: The introduction states that Betty Garrett sang "I Can Cook, Too" in ON THE TOWN (1949); that song is not in the film.

THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT is 253 pages long, including footnotes and index. There is a nice insert of 16 glossy pages with photos from MGM musicals.

Thanks to the University Press of Mississippi for providing a review copy of this book.

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