There’s No Business Like Show Business a Fun, Fifties Musical
By Kristin Battestella
It’s all fluff, loosely strung together songs, and missed character opportunities, and yet the 1954 musical There’s No Business Like Show Business has a lot of entertaining predictability and catchy tunes.
From Vaudeville to Broadway, the Donahue family – mom Molly (Ethel Merman), dad Terry (Dan Daily), sons Steve (Johnnie Ray) and Tim (Donald O’Connor) and daughter Katy (Mitzi Gaynor) – struggle with raising the kids, buying a house, performing during The Depression, and having a normal life thru all the ups and downs on the show business road. As times change, Steve gets religion, Tim meets fellow singer Vicky (Marilyn Monroe), and more growing pains threaten to tear the family apart. Can the Donahues go on with the show?
Director Walter Lang (The King and I) and writers Phoebe and Henry Ephron (Take Her She’s Mine) and Lamar Trotti (The Ox-Bow Incident) provide a great 2 hour excuse to hear some Irving Berlin tunes, and that catchy titular tune has seeped into the biz lexicon. The opening family catch up and sporadic reflective narration is a bit slow to start, and yet There’s No Business Like Show Business is awfully rushed and overly condensed. The entire picture could have been about the performing struggles during the Depression alone. The straight drama is short and uneven compared to the dance numbers; ironically, the real behind the scenes difficulties of this movie seems to have more scandal and turmoil than the safe, easy onscreen turns. Some of the brassy dialogue and fast talking over each other script rhythms will also take getting used to for today’s audiences. More time should have been spent on character development, granted, and contemporary viewers probably want There’s No Business Like Show Business to be more complex than it actually is. However, taking this picture seriously or wishing what it could have been is somewhat missing the point of There’s No Business Like Show Business. Great comedy, wit, and honesty keep the fast moving fun memorable. Even if it’s all mid century straightforward and innocent, there’s plenty to enjoy here.
Most of that delight in There’s No Business Like Show Business is thanks to the musical pomp, songs, and dances. The film feels like a two for one special movie and a Broadway show with nearly one song after another – from ethic spins on early ragtime numbers like the lengthy “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and period swing and jazz crooners to spiritual sounds and full on displays like the title tune. It’s also nice to see some of the early, simpler stage shows, merely two folks singing and tapping their toes instead of today’s huge, loud, sometimes nonsensical spectacles. These productions were state of the art then, and the depth of stage is also fully utilized. People move up and down or front to back on the stages, creating vision and movements without the need for in your face camera tricks, editing, and zooms. The camera is pointed at the boards while the stars do their thang, and it’s refreshing to see it all. Some of the dialogue between the singing sounds uneven or at a lower volume, but the story is filled in thru the tunes anyway. We are seeing a showbiz family ply their trade – that’s the story, and it’s the perfect definition of a musical. Our players are stage performers, and there’s a reason for the majority of the songs. Folks aren’t just breaking out into song for the heck of it as we see so often in musical movies.
Of course, the characters do suffer from the musical focus in There’s No Business Like Show Business. Ethel Merman (Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Call Me Madam, Anything Goes) is an iconic woman who could hold a Broadway note like few today. Perhaps some contemporary pop listeners may not like her vocal style, but it fits perfectly with the setting here and in all honestly, Molly was her part to have. Merman, however, probably was too old for the role, but all of the family stars seem older than their characters’ ages. It’s a nice change of pace from everything made so young and youth reigns this century, but Molly’s treatment of the kids like kids even when they are adults is very fifties date and even simpleton instead of funny. That safe sentimentality also doesn’t allow room for anybody to get deep. How does Molly really feel about being upstaged? We don’t know because any such hang-ups are either dealt with humorously or forgiven by the next number – and “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor” is just too cutesy to be believed. Though Dan Dailey (When My Baby Smiles at Me) fits the bill as the mid century dad, man of the house, breadwinning husband Terry, he’s still played as second fiddle to his wife in charge. There are lots of jabs between the couple, but its all friendly, fresh, and made light. He seems to have a wandering eye, and for sure this couple had to have some rough patches thru the years – but any whiff of that is played for the humor rather than something scandalous. Poor Terry’s most serious development happens in a minute long walking/memory lane montage!
Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain) is also a great performer and his comedic timing is perfect, yet his Tim somehow feels like a downgrade for Marilyn Monroe as Vicky. How did this guy get that girl? Tim shows his stuff in the lone breakout in song fantasy of “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him),” but the lovelorn drunkard throwing his talent away angle is too clichéd, typical, and not heavy at all. Brooding, saucy twists were happening in other fifties films, but There’s No Business Like Show Business uses Tim’s twist without actually spending enough time on it for there to be any significance. Naturally then, coat check girl with dreams Monroe (Some Like It Hot) makes a sexy marshmallow sounding joke right out of the gate. It’s also strange that there are even scenes with her alone sans The Donahues. Isn’t There’s No Business Like Show Business about them? Monroe looks dynamite, wearing plenty of sheers and barely there Travilla costumes for “After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It” and “Heatwave.” Her husky, sultry delivery is fine, too. However, Monroe seems limited compared to the rest of the cast. It’s as if someone made her do more dancing than she was capable whilst also making her do the same old sexy thing with little room for depth. As a result, “Heatwave” is hot looking but also kind of a dumb routine. Despite the character flaws of There’s No Business Like Show Business, Monroe still has several catchy, unable to take your eyes off her, memorable moments.
Fun, Vegas style costumes with a lot of leg and wonderful dancing also can’t save Mitzi Gaynor (South Pacific) from being a bit upstaged by Monroe, especially in the awkward “Lazy” rehearsal. There’s No Business Like Show Business gives little attention to Katy beyond singing, dancing, and finding a man and again, the lone daughter becomes one of the many unrealized focal points in this piece. Likewise, singer Johnnie Ray’s Steve is supposed to be a big, talented showstopper, but not really so much. I don’t know how he could have been as popular as Elvis back in the day, and he seems more like a Sinatra imitator here. Although Steve’s show biz dissatisfaction and forthcoming change is obvious, there’s no real character reflection, soul searching, or hints to his becoming a priest. He exits stage right and comes back a few hours later intent on going off to seminary! Today we like to read between the lines or expect something in this suggestion about the different son who doesn’t want to be part of the family business and leaves for the priesthood – his dad rejects the idea outright while his mother begs, “Why this?” – but There’s No Business Like Show Business was not making any statements or complex allegory in the hurried characterizations here.
Fortunately, the feathers and hats alone are a sight to behold! The costumes, designs, fashions, décor, and dressings – be it the nineteen teens or the then contemporary stylings- are wonderful. Not to mention There’s No Business Like Show Business has all that Deluxe color! Of course, you have to wonder how they could do those quick costume changes without the magic of film editing, and some sets are meant to look cardboard cut out or stage poor. However, that’s part of the show within a show pastiche; it’s neat to see the big numbers and the behind the scenes before, during, and after drama of it all. There’s No Business Like Show Business has plenty of looks and flair to enjoy, along with mid century amusements. $6.20 for a cab!
Yes, it can be nerve wracking that There’s No Business Like Show Business is not the big, epic How the West Was Won of musicals that it could have been. Resolutions happen too easy, everything breezes along regardless of the potential tossed in its wake, and everybody comes full circle by the end. Though not made with the dramatic character focus in mind, one may wonder what the point of There’s No Business Like Show Business is if some of the characters don’t change or could have been dropped all together and gone unnoticed just the same. Actually, the idea of placing the songs, musical productions, and flair over the people is pretty akin to today’s bombastic all flash and no substance popcorn flicks, so I’m surprised to see some of the negatively this film receives. There’s No Business Like Show Business is full of great tunes, stage atmosphere, and is dang good fun at what it does right. Classic film audiences, song and dance lovers, and fans of the cast can still have a fluffy good time here.