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Gotta Sing! Gotta Listen! 

CD film anthology is a musical must

It was just over a decade ago -- 1995, to be precise -- that the Rhino music label and the Turner movie outfit combined forces to release an ongoing series of CDs that sought to push the classic movie soundtrack back into the spotlight. This inspired teaming was nothing if not prolific, as Rhino Movie Music and Turner Classic Movies Music kicked off the partnership by releasing lavishly produced CDs for (among others) Meet Me In St. Louis, North By Northwest and Doctor Zhivago. Within that same year, the gang became inspired enough to release deluxe two-CD soundtracks of The Wizard of Oz and Busby Berkeley musicals and a four-CD package highlighting the teamings of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. But the crowning achievement arrived at year's end: That's Entertainment! The Ultimate Anthology of MGM Musicals, a six-CD collection featuring 129 tracks.

Including most of the tunes showcased in the highly successful That's Entertainment! film trilogy, the set provided a comprehensive overview of the MGM movie musical in its glorious heyday. And because the powers behind this series weren't happy unless they were going that extra mile, the collection also included a mix of rare outtakes, extended versions of famous numbers and several songs that had never been available in an audio format before. And if that still wasn't enough, the boxed set also came with a 98-page booklet featuring an article on the history of the MGM musical, background info on all 83 films represented by the songs, over 200 rare photos and poster reproductions, an alphabetical list of film titles and an alphabetical index of song titles (complete with both disc and track numbers for easy hunting).

Eleven years later, it's extremely difficult to find this spellbinding set for purchase, which means it was a savvy move to reissue the anthology in a new edition (available this Tuesday, April 25). And as should be expected from the workhorses at Rhino-Turner, this isn't a simple case of slapping a new UPC bar code on the old set and shipping it off to retail stores. Besides improving the sound quality on many of the included tunes and expanding the accompanying booklet from 98 to 110 pages (though inexplicably deleting the helpful song title index), the set's producers have elected to add several numbers not included in the previous edition. The downside, alas, is that a handful of tracks from the earlier set had to be excised to make room for the newbies.

Most of this jerry-rigging occurs on Disc 6, since the other five CDs are exclusively devoted to the numbers heard in the film series: That's Entertainment! on Discs 1-2, That's Entertainment! Part 2 on Discs 3-4 and That's Entertainment! III on Disc 5. The sixth platter is comprised of previously unreleased material, outtakes and other vault rarities; immortal musical icons like Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Lena Horne are among those performing never-before-heard versions of long-established tunes.

It's good stuff, to be sure, but among the slashed numbers now no longer featured in this anthology are the pleasing Esther Williams-Ricardo Montalban duet "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (from Neptune's Daughter) and the witty Groucho Marx ditty "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" (from At the Circus). Expanding the set from six discs to a magnificent seven might have wreaked havoc with the packaging design but would have insured that no worthy number was left off the guest list.

Still, why carp about what's missing when what's included is so dazzling? The classics remain, including personal favorites like Garland's wrenching "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," William Warfield's powerful "Ol' Man River," Donald O'Connor's exuberant "Make 'Em Laugh" and Jimmy Durante's playful "Inka Dinka Doo." But listeners also get some offbeat delights: a "Singin' In the Rain" medley (specially created for the first That's Entertainment! film) consisting of four different versions belted out by Cliff Edwards, Durante, Garland and, of course, the Gene Kelly-Debbie Reynolds-Donald O'Connor team; Clark Gable's clumsy but endearing "Puttin' On the Ritz"; and Garland and friends serving up "March of the Dogies," a number that was cut from 1946's The Harvey Girls but finally made its screen debut in 1994's That's Entertainment! III.

I've never been able to warm up to the operatic stylings of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, so I'll continue to skip over their sole track ("Indian Love Call"); other listeners will similarly have their own must-avoids. But with 135 numbers (reportedly totaling close to eight hours) to choose from, it's safe to say that discerning soundtrack aficionados won't be at a loss for music. A loss for words is another matter: Even a gabby screen personality like Jimmy Durante might have been rendered speechless by this awesome compilation.

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