Movie dancing is like no other kind. As big as the wide screen, as brassy as a Hollywood orchestra, it revels in abstract patterns and intimate human portraits alike. It also has the unique ability to unite spectator and spectacle through the camera, which -- in the best films -- moves with a choreography of its own.
Small wonder the studios have found room for an astonishing variety of dancers over the years, ranging from balletic beauties like Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron to the anonymous charmers who trooped through Busby Berkeley production numbers with Cheshire cat grins on their faces and neon violins in their hands. Both types are proudly on view, along with dozens of in-between talents, in the new nostalgiafest from MGM/UA, rousingly titled ``That's Dancing!''
A glance at the five narrators tips the movie's eclectic hand. Gene Kelly, with his ever-friendly face, is our comfy host. Ray Bolger shows up with some goofy humor, while Mikhail Baryshnikov adds a touch of Old World class. Top it off with pedigreed show-biz stars Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli, and you have a squad of the most glamorous tour guides Hollywood could offer.
What they have to say, unfortunately, is less impressive than the way they say it. ``That's Dancing!'' is a travelogue of sorts, a journey through terrain both familiar and exotic. And like travelogues of old, it has a thudding script that rarely measures up to the sightseeing itself.
Kelly makes ponderous points about dancing as a primal urge; Bolger's punch lines fall through the floor; Baryshnikov drones on about Degas's painting for no clear reason. In the worst gaffe, the producers mimic Hollywood's old exploitation of New York glamour by setting a big Minnelli speech in today's Times Square -- where she introduces excerpts from ``Oklahoma!'' and ``Yankee Doodle Dandy'' before a backdrop of glittering porn-theater marquees.
But there are more than enough treats when the film clips get going. Reaching back to the beginnings of cinema, there's a rare shot of Isadora Duncan in an outdoor recital. (It's quick -- don't blink.) From a little more recently, there's a chubby chorus line from Hollywood's pre-talkie days, looking (as Kelly notes) like they've spent more time at the dinner table than the rehearsal hall.
From there on, the parade of stars doesn't let up. There's trusty Ruby Keeler looking as sweet, lovable, and just barely talented as ever. There's the brilliant dancing of Fred Astaire trading steps with partners as different as Ginger Rogers and LeRoy Daniels, among others. The great (Bill Robinson) and the less great (June Allyson) kick up their heels with the ungreat (dancing wasn't Lucille Ball's forte) in a teeming montage of styles and personalities.
What prevents ``That's Dancing!'' from being a definitive anthology is the decision by producers David Niven Jr. and Jack Haley Jr. to leave out clips used in MGM's earlier ``That's Entertainment'' compilations. Thus the classic ``Singin' in the Rain,'' for example, is represented by the boisterous ``Moses Supposes'' duet (with Kelly and Donald O'Connor) rather than the superb ``Make 'Em Laugh'' or the title number.
The film partly makes up for this by offering some footage never seen before in any form: a duet by Kelly and Carol Haney that once served as raw material for a special-effects sequence, and a major Bolger number that was trimmed from ``The Wizard of Oz.'' (The narration expresses wonderment that this dance ended up on the cutting-room floor, but Bolger has acknowledged that it would have slowed down the story.)
``That's Dancing!'' could have been a touch more accurate (one or two names are mispronounced) and a lot more complete. It could also have interrupted its celebratory mood for an occasional look at the hard realities of movie history. It's a treat to see Bill (Bojangles) Robinson do a two-step with pint-size Shirley Temple, for instance; but it's too bad narrator Davis doesn't mention that Temple was the only white female Robinson ever danced with on-screen, since the racial codes of the day wouldn't stand for a black man partnering a white grown-up of the opposite sex.
Such complaints don't stop ``That's Dancing!'' from being fun, though. From its early Charleston dance scene with Ernst Lubitsch to its last segment -- a timely look at today's disco, video, and breakdance techniques -- its energy and its imagery are equally unfettered. For adults who recall the faces and steps, and for younger viewers who have only caught haphazard glimpses on cramped TV screens, this is a sure-fire delight.