“There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954)

by A.J. Hakari

The 1950s are often referred to as the prime of Hollywood musicals, and I’m not about to argue with that. We saw An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, and the juggernaut that is Singin’ in the Rain, all of which (among many others) married jaunty tunes with artistically diverse presentations. But that decade was also the genre’s swan song, falling more and more out of favor with the public, while those productions that were greenlit often favored hollow spectacle over real entertainment value. There’s No Business Like Show Business came out about halfway through the ’50s, so I wouldn’t say it was a nail in the musical’s coffin. But it sure was a sign of where movies like it were heading, as it puts more dough into looking great than effort into striking genuine emotional chords.

The year is 1919. Vaudeville rules the entertainment world, and the Donahues are happy to be along for the ride. Longtime song-and-dance couple Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terence (Dan Dailey) gradually expand their act to include their trio of children, emerging from the Depression and rise of motion pictures still at the top of their game. But as the kids approach adulthood, fate threatens to split up the family business. Eldest son Steve (Johnnie Ray) heeds the call of the church, middle daughter Katy (Mitzi Gaynor) discovers the opposite sex, and youngest squirt Tim (Donald O’Connor) falls for a hat check girl (Marilyn Monroe) with her sights set on being a star, as well. Though it’s hard for them to see their little ones all grown up, Molly and Terence must pull together and realize that no matter where everyone goes, they’ll always be family.

There’s No Business Like Show Business is what most people imagine when the word “musical” is dropped, and not in a good way. By and large, the film is a dumping ground for a random assortment of songs, few of which are tied into the main story in the slightest. That’s just fine — hey, Singin’ in the Rain was a “best-of” compilation for MGM’s song catalogue, and it’s a classic — but this flick isn’t nearly as adept at serving up its numbers with form or reason for being. The tunes are catchy, yeah, although a lot are tacked on as part of a performance and play no integral part in where the plot is going. If There’s No Business Like Show Business wanted to be a revue, it should’ve been a revue; there’s no sense in shoving in one routine after another for the first twenty minutes, while trying to blitz character development past us at the same time.

Only once in a while does one of the film’s numbers really touch you, and it’s more often than not due to the spiffy cast. It’s just too hard to dislike someone with enough energy to burn like Donald O’Connor, a versatile performer who puts a smile on your face when he’s hoofing it with living statues and earns your sympathy when things take a turn for the dramatic. In fact, all of the actors fare just fine (even Monroe makes the conceptually-silly “Heat Wave” sequence fly), belting out their respective songs with passion and owning every moment in the spotlight. It just bites that the threadbare script affords the Donahue gang so few chances to feel like a real family. They’re so saddled with enacting bombastic set pieces or melodramatic theatrics that the legacy summed up by the title tune in the finale doesn’t seem all that earned.

There’s No Business Like Show Business is about as no-frills as musicals get. If all you care for is the quality of the costumes or if the choreography sizzles, then your fun is all but guaranteed. But I’ve seen so many pictures of this kind that were more than just frivolous larks, so it’s a letdown to see There’s No Business Like Show Business pass on a chance at substance and lap up the glitz instead.

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