A lot of Hollywood musicals owe their existence to the talent of Irving Berlin, the composer and lyricist whose work dominated films like “Top Hat” (1935), “Holiday Inn” (1942), and Easter Parade” (1948). Add to that number “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954), a late entry in the Berlin canon starring one of his favorite leading ladies, the endearingly imitable Ethel Merman. Although it’s a minor picture compared to classics like “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “There’s No Business Like Show Business” remains worth watching today, thanks to Berlin’s memorable songs, a cast of genre standouts, and a series of lavishly staged production numbers.
Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey star as Molly and Terry Donahue, married Vaudeville performers who raise three children while pursuing their stage careers. When the kids grow up, elder son Steve (Johnnie Ray) surprises the family by becoming a priest, while daughter Katy (Mitzi Gaynor) and younger son Tim (Donald O’Connor) carry on the show business tradition with their parents. The Four Donahues are in for more changes, however, when an ambitious young singer (Marilyn Monroe) becomes the object of Tim’s affection.
The story serves mostly as an excuse to showcase Irving Berlin’s songs, but as family tales go it’s a sweet one, punctuated with sentimental moments about the changing nature of relationships as children grow up and make their own choices. The family vocation provides plenty of opportunities for elaborate musical numbers that take full advantage of the CinemaScope format. Highlights include “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and the title number, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” a Berlin tune that had already appeared on the big screen in “Annie Get Your Gun” (1950), although it had first been performed by Merman in the original stage production. Marilyn Monroe has two show-stopping solo numbers, including the ridiculously steamy “Heatwave,” for which costume designer Travilla created an outfit that ought to have made the entire soundstage burst into flames.
The movie’s legacy today depends mostly on the presence of Monroe, who was already a big star in 1954, but it isn’t really her picture. Merman and Dailey split the majority of the screen time with Donald O’Connor and Mitzi Gaynor, and all of them prove entertaining and very credible as the talented Donahues. Dailey and O’Connor work surprisingly well as father and son, even though they were only about a decade apart in age and Dailey actually ended up marrying O’Connor’s ex-wife, Gwen Carter, in 1955. Johnnie Ray, a huge singing sensation at the time, falls flat in the role of Steve, and his musical performances seem dated, as well, but his departure from the family business mercifully limits his appearances.
“There’s No Business Like Show Business” was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Costume Design. Director Walter Lang earned his only nomination for “The King and I” (1956), but he also directed “Susannah of the Mounties” (1939), “Cheaper by the Dozen” (1950), and “Desk Set” (1957). For more of Ethel Merman and Irving Berlin, see “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1938) and “Call Me Madam” (1953). You’ll find Donald O’Connor in “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) and Mitzi Gaynor in “South Pacific” (1958), while Dan Dailey stars in “My Blue Heaven” (1950) and “It’s Always Fair Weather” (1955). You won’t have any trouble finding Marilyn Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953) and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), but see some of her early work in “All About Eve” (1950) and “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952).
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