A star-studded cast wants you to know... There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

This is my contribution to the Backstage Blogathon, another superb event from Fritzi of Movies Silently and Janet of Sister Celluloid. Click here to read the other posts.

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If it weren't for the presence of Marilyn Monroe, what would our knowledge be of There's No Business Like Show Business? Would it be known for housing the dynamic talents of Donald O'Connor at his prime? Or would it be used as an example of what Mitzi Gaynor was like as her star was rising? If you ask me, if it weren't for Marilyn, this film would be all about Ethel Merman, the boisterous songstress who wouldn't need a microphone to fill a football stadium with her voice. But because of glamorous Ms. Monroe, everyone else is sort of unfairly pushed aside. Don't get me wrong -- I love Marilyn, I really do, but I must admit that her popularity can be a bit much. For instance, the box set of her films I have that includes Show Business. While Monroe has a good-sized part in it, including two solo musical numbers, I'm not totally sure I would put this alongside The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, and Bus Stop like my set does. You know what I mean? It gives you the wrong impression of what the film is like, which can sometimes ruin the viewing experience for you.


Luckily for me, I wasn't a bit perturbed to find out that in addition to Marilyn, I was getting the aforementioned Gaynor, O'Connor, and Merman, as well as Dan Dailey. As if that weren't enough, we get a fun score from Irving Berlin, direction from the ever-reliable Walter Lang, and the lusciousness of Technicolor. Perhaps, though, what surprised me most about the film was its sweet story of a show business family. When you have all these things screaming "MARILYN" at you, the last thing you expect is to feel goosebumps and get teary-eyed at scenes that don't even involve the blonde bombshell. If you're surprised to read that, imagine my shock when it happened to me -- scratch that, when it consistently happens to me. While I attribute all this warmth and fuzziness to the stellar cast, I also have to give props to the screenplay, written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (yes, Nora's parents). Other credits of theirs include Daddy Long Legs and Desk Set, two of my favorites.

Show Business is about the Donahues, led by father Terry (Dailey) and mother Molly (Merman), two vaudeville veterans who thrive on performing. Over the years, they add their young children into their act, making them the Five Donahues. Realizing that constant traveling isn't right for their kids, Terry and Molly put them into boarding school, only to have them try to run away to join
their parents -- show biz is in their blood, too, it seems. More years go by and the kids are all grown-up and still in the family act. Tim (O'Connor) is the hoofer with fast-flying feet; Katy (Gaynor) is the glitzy tap-dancer with pretty pipes; and Steve (Johnnie Ray) is the classy piano-playing crooner. Now that the children are adults, they hesitantly break up the Donahues and go their own ways, Steve becoming a
minister and Katy and Tim working on the show of rising star Victoria Hoffman (Monroe). Tim and Victoria fall in love, but his jealousy leads him to wrongly believe that Victoria is stringing him along while she really romances the show's producer. The Donahues are further split up when Katy marries, Steve goes into the army as a chaplain, and Tim disappears after a minor car accident. The family's search for him
leads to many dead ends, and Molly blames Vicky for embittering her son to the point that he had to leave. The film ends on the night of a big revue for the Hippodrome Theater before it closes. While onstage singing the title song, Molly sees Tim in the wings and the family is reunited. The Donahues, plus Vicky holding Tim's hand, reprise "There's No Business Like Show Business" amidst a crazy finale, and I may or may not be softly crying tears of joy.

What I enjoy so much about this film is that while it loves to drown itself in flashy numbers and well-done montages, it's always about family. The Donahues care about each other so much, it's insanely touching and realistic. When Tim comes home drunk, Molly rolls her eyes and dunks his head in the sink to sober him up before she tucks him into bed. (By the way, I love
that Tim's bathroom has lots of different hotel towels. It's a nice touch to strengthen the idea that the Donahues have traveled and performed everywhere.) When Tim and Katy decide they want to work on a show without their parents, they're anguished over how to do it without hurting their feelings. One of the best scenes, though, is during a party thrown for Steve
before he goes into the ministry. Katy and Tim re-enact an old number of Terry and Molly's, complete with the same costumes and Gaynor's impression of Merman's bold persona. Terry is beaming with pride, but when he looks at Molly, she's crying because she realizes how things are changing for them. Without saying anything, Terry holds his wife and we fade to black. Why am I getting goosebumps from this?!

If there's anything this cast has, it's talent and chemistry. Ethel Merman could certainly be a loud, over-the-top entertainer, but Show Business gives her another dimension where she could be the vulnerable mother hen that you want to hug and have her tell you everything will be alright. (Am I too emotionally attached to this film?) Dan Dailey is a great partner for her, and, if you ask me, he's the movie's unsung hero. Dailey has always been underrated, his co-stars frequently outshining him by being more flamboyant, but to me, he gives a film a calm, grounding presence. He doesn't have to indulge in theatrics to make me adore him, and his dancing is always tops. Criminally, none of his routines from Show Business seem to be on YouTube or TCM's database, so for an example of his work, you can see him go toe to toe with Cyd Charisse here or his celebrated routine with Gene Kelly and Michael Kidd here.

Out of the Donahue kids, Donald O'Connor is given the best showcase, which isn't surprising since he was guaranteed box office by this point after the success of Singin' in the Rain two years earlier. Like Dailey, O'Connor is one of those Golden Age dancers who gets left behind in the shadows of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, excluding the immortal legacy of Singin'. But
Show Business demonstrates why that's unfair to O'Connor. Funny, genuine, and an outstanding hoofer, his numbers are always something to look forward to. His solo "A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)" is a charming ode to the power Vicky holds over Tim. After walking her home, he still hears her voice in the air and begins this song. During his dance, he gets hit
on the head and starts imagining that the figurines in the fountain come to life, chasing him around the courtyard. Remarkably, O'Connor duets with the disembodied voice of Monroe throughout the number -- I say "remarkably" because I would have thought that the studio would hate that their big star was reduced in the routine to just a voice. It's much more effective
that way, though, illustrating Tim's intensifying feelings over Vicky. That being said, I do wish that O'Connor and Monroe had a full-blown duet. They had a good rapport, with O'Connor praising the actress for years after her death, and surely out of the vast Irving Berlin catalog the filmmakers could've found something. But hey, what we have is good and I should stop complaining.

The second number with Tim and Vicky also includes Katy as they rehearse "Lazy" for Vicky's show. I knew "Lazy" from Holiday Inn, but I didn't connect that that song and this were one and the same until recently -- that's how different the renditions are. Bing Crosby ironically sings about being lazy while doing vigorous chores on his new farm. Marilyn Monroe slithers around,
rejecting dates because it would mean getting off of the couch while O'Connor and Gaynor act as commentators on the action (inaction?). It's a cute routine, one of my favorites from the film in fact. The nice thing is that you can watch it here. Naturally, because Marilyn's in it people will post it, but any other number from this film can't be uploaded. I'm only slightly bitter.

The best number from Monroe is her first one, "After You Get What You Want." Still just a hatcheck girl at a nightclub, Vicky has big aspirations. When she meets Tim, she doesn't realize he's one of the famous Donahues, so she brushes him off. Her ratty agent (Frank McHugh) brings in a big producer and Vicky gets the opportunity to perform for him. Dressed in a nude-colored
but sparkly dress and matching headpiece, she does this darling song and absolutely nails it. I just love Marilyn's singing voice, and this number shows that she didn't need any big productions to be radiant. The best video I could find is here, although it has an annoying banner at the bottom of the screen that you might want to cover with your hand or something.

Marilyn's other solo is one of her most famous, "Heat Wave." This is the kind of number that makes me clutch my pearls and go "Oh, goodness!" I don't understand how this one got by the censors. Funny story, actually: Monroe's revealing costume was given the go-ahead as long as her belly button was covered. What was with the Code and belly buttons? The slim piece of material
certainly doesn't hide the rest of Monroe's assets. Add in shirtless chorus boys, the implication that everyone's in heat, and Marilyn's gyrations and you've got a racy little scene. If your heart can take it (which it probably can -- I'm just a prude), watch the fun here. I thought I'd find a good print of it, but no such luck.

I should confess one thing: I can't stand Johnnie Ray. His tortuous acting makes him easily the weakest part of the film, but thankfully he doesn't get a lot of screen time. Aside from that, Show Business is a good musical with strong talent. It admires its subject for their resilience and their devotion to putting on a good show, rewarding them with a deserved happy ending. The movie has some melodramatic moments, sure, but before you roll your eyes at them, you might find a tear instead. You can enjoy the movie on Netflix Instant or on DVD -- let me know your thoughts in the comments!




































With love,
Michaela

Comments

  1. Monroe is very much the 'star' here, certainly at Gaynor and Merman's expense. I do think Merman was remarkably philosophical about it though, and wanted the film to be a success even if she didn't have the limelight. It's a shame films like this shape so much of the 'Marilyn' persona, she had a lot more to offer!
    Loved reading this review, even just looking at the stills cheered me up!

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    1. Thanks! The plot is pretty meta -- Monroe/Vicky is a sexy upcomer who starts replacing the old-fashioned entertainers the Donahues/Merman, etc. I agree with your comment about the Marilyn persona. I guess that's why the advertising bugs me so much. It furthers this myth of who Marilyn was by constantly aligning her with this incorrect image. Ugh, I could go on all day.

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  2. I always feel for Mitzi Gaynor in this film. She could act, sing, and dance, but is overshadowed by the studio's desire to emphasize Monroe's sex appeal. Gaynor is sexy in her own right (Gaynor's Parisian portion of Alexander's Ragtime Band--ooh la la!), but Monroe was the gal of the moment.

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    1. I adore Mitzi Gaynor and I think she gets the shaft a lot. It's nice that the film doesn't make Gaynor and Monroe enemies, but rather allies, especially towards the end.

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  3. Love all those wonderful photos. Thank you. Ethel and Dan make this film for me.
    Vienna

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    1. Walter Lang films are always great to look at -- the man must have loved Technicolor. Dan and Ethel are the heart of this movie, for sure. Thanks for reading!

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  4. Like you said, this film has a lot to offer – much more than Marilyn M.'s presence. This is one of the movies that helped me see what a truly talented performer Ethel Merman is. I think it's time to see this one again!

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    1. For me, I need a whole film to appreciate the full talent of Merman. Another great one of hers, if you haven't seen it, is Call Me Madam -- it's even better than Show Business and it has George Sanders singing! Beautifully!

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  5. Thanks so much for joining in! The costumes, wow! One of each, please.

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    1. I forgot to mention the costumes -- shame on me! Especially since they were Oscar nominated! They are so many gorgeous gowns, but I think Marilyn's are my favorites.

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  6. I'm pretty sure this film was only broadcast on TV once because of Marilyn's star power - but you get so much more! Donald O'Connor was the highlight of the film for me, I love his dance routines! And also the sailor song was hilarious, I never forgot that tune!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Donald O'Connor was one of the best. Such a talent, and the fact that he could hold his own against the megawatt power of Merman and Monroe is indicative of just how great he was.

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  7. Thanks for pointing out the features of this one, which I've never given a proper viewing (more like had it on in the background). I'll make a point of watching it next time it comes around... I am a huge Donald O'Connor fan and one of my regrets is that he didn't get to star in more movies—he had everything, and as you say was in a league with the very greatest dancers in the movies. Don't know if you've seen his other movie with Reynolds, I Love Melvin, but it's a lot of fun and has some fantastic O'Connor numbers, highly recommended.

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    1. I Love Melvin is indeed a cute, little movie. O'Connor should be right up there with Astaire and Kelly, but I think the studios kept putting him in films that were too small. They never afforded him the chances they did with Gene and Fred, which is just so odd. Thanks for reading!

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