This was among the last MGM films shot on the studio's renowned back lot, of which there were actually six distinct satellite parcels of land west and south of the main lot, or Lot 1. Lot 2, the last of them to serve as a working back lot, was in use until late 1978. Development for residential housing on Lots 3-6 began the year "That's Entertainment!" filmed its new material with the studio's stars strolling the various standing sets, which had been allowed to deteriorate for well over a decade before their demolition. This is particularly noticeable in the train station set where Fred Astaire gives his introduction, and Bing Crosby refers to the English Lake area as looking rather "scruffy". On the other hand, the entire purpose of the film is nostalgia, and the use of the 'scruffy' facade, clearly aged and unused, helps to set the tone as one of a brief return to the glamor of the past, even though it was all make-believe.
Norma Shearer made an agitated phone call to MGM senior executive Paul Rosenfeld, insisting that her reaction shots to Clark Gable's 'Puttin' on the Ritz' (from Idiot's Delight (1939)) be deleted. Unfortunately, it was too late to make any changes and the shots remained in the film. Shearer explained to Rosenfeld in a letter, "I am presented as no more than an extra without screen credit while others who are dancers and singers perform triumphantly as stars of this production." When Rosenfeld offered to arrange a screening for Shearer, she declined saying, "I would be devastated to see myself as such an insignificant part of the whole...It is a little too late to do anything now except to express to you my wounded pride."
The movie's dedication: "Over the years, under the leadership of Louis B. Mayer and others, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has produced a series of musical films whose success and artistic merit remain unsurpassed in motion picture history. There were literally thousands of people... artists, craftsmen and technicians... who poured their talents into the creation of the great MGM musicals. This film is dedicated to them."
Was originally advertised with the tagline: "Boy, do we need it now!" This slogan attracted moviegoers to the film, seeing it as an escape from the gritty "New Hollywood" style of filmmaking, to say nothing of real life turmoils such as the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal.
Elizabeth Taylor claims to be singing for herself in the "Melody of Spring" sequence from Cynthia (1947), self-deprecatingly commenting that "I was certainly no threat to Jane Powell or Judy Garland, as you'll see." In fact, Taylor was dubbed in the film, and the ghost singer is one of very few whose name has never come to light.
The original theatrical print progressed from "Well, Did You Evah?" from High Society (1956) to "Hallelujah!" from Hit the Deck (1955). The song "True Love" from the former was added to later prints. Another difference is found in Frank Sinatra's narration for "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" from The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which originally ended with "and somewhere in all that loveliness, you'll find Dennis Morgan singing the song." In later prints, Sinatra goes on to say "If anyone could afford to film this number today, perhaps it would look something like this." To date, only the original 1981 VHS, Beta and laserdisc releases represent the initial theatrical print.
To take advantage of the 70mm projection system, several of the more spectacular sequences were reconfigured for a widescreen aspect ratio (1.85:1) despite the fact that they were originally filmed in academy ratio (1.33:1). These include "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," "The Varsity Drag," "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," "Strike Up the Band," the Fountain and Smoke number from Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), the entire Show Boat (1951) medley and "Broadway Ballet." (Ironically, all of the modern-day host segments were filmed 1.33:1.) For years, the rematted widescreen sequences were reverted to their 1.33:1 aspect ratios on both television and home video, true to their original composition but not to the original theatrical print, which was finally released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2010.
In 2010, in an effort to gauge whether the public preferred Blu-ray or HD DVD, both in their infancy, That's Entertainment! was the first of the MGM musicals to be released in high definition. As the Blu-ray format won the race, HD DVD copies of the film are now exceedingly difficult to find.
"Let's Go Bavarian" from Dancing Lady (1933) was featured in nearly all of That's Entertainment!'s promotional materials, featuring Fred Astaire and Joan Crawford in lederhosen costumes. The number was ultimately dropped in favor of "Heigh, Ho! The Gang's All Here" from the same film and featuring the same stars.
Inexplicably, the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from Neptune's Daughter (1949) was passed over for inclusion not only in this film, but in both of its sequels, despite the fact that the song won an Academy Award and was sparklingly performed by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban.
Though anthology films are now a matter of course, the film was a revelation at the time of its release, primarily for two reasons. First, the majority of the pre-1936 MGM film library had rarely if ever been released to television, so clips from films such as Free and Easy (1930) or The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929) were being seen for the first time since their original theatrical releases. Moreover, the clips from more familiar films such as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and An American in Paris (1951) had for many years been seen only via worn, badly spliced prints on independent TV stations' Late, Late Shows. For this film, the vintage footage was meticulously restored and remastered for 70mm projection, making it look even richer than it had in the films' original releases.
When the film unexpectedly took off at the box office, MCA Records issued a deluxe two-record-set soundtrack album, which also became a surprise chart-topper, as it featured many recordings that had never been released, most of them from the pre-1946 era. (MGM Records had invented the soundtrack album as a viable commercial product with its release of Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), so most of its musicals after that date were issued as soundtrack albums. Though there had been several releases of albums recorded directly from the sound track of earlier films, most were studio recreations recorded after the fact.) The MCA soundtrack album from That's Entertainment! also included several pieces of Henry Mancini's lush underscoring.
Much of the film's success is due to the intricate sleight-of-hand editing of Bud Friedgen and David E. Blewitt, who cleverly streamlined each number to a running time between one and three minutes. In some cases, this was a daunting task, as in the mammoth "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" sequence, which lasts nearly eight minutes in The Harvey Girls (1946) and was truncated to a seamless two minutes and thirteen seconds for the compilation. One can surmise that the only reason the team was not Oscar nominated is because voters were not familiar enough with the original footage to fully appreciate the meticulous editing that took place (indeed, only four numbers are shown in their entirety: Judy Garland and Van Johnson's introduction of Liza Minnelli to "In the Good Old Summertime;" Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor's prologue of "Singin' in the Rain" [note the removal of the credits on their umbrellas!]; Kelly's iconic song and dance to the same song; and Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell's tour de force tap routine to "Begin the Beguine"). Friedgen and Blewitt were so integral to the anthology that they were retained for That's Entertainment, Part II (1976) and elevated to co-director status on That's Entertainment! III (1994).