“Show business isn’t just scenery, lights, greasepaint and glitter, it’s heart. Because if your show hasn’t got a heart, you haven’t got a show. That’s what I tried to convey when I wrote the song ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business.’” — Irving Berlin
If it weren’t for the presence of Marilyn Monroe, what would our knowledge be of the 1954 musical 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? Or, if it weren’t for Marilyn, would this film be all about Ethel Merman, the boisterous songstress who could belt out a song like you wouldn’t believe?
While I do adore the blonde bombshell, Show Business is so much more than an exhibition of Monroe’s considerable talents. In addition to her, there is the aforementioned Gaynor, O’Connor, and Merman, as well as Dan Dailey. As if that weren’t enough, we get sixteen Irving Berlin tunes, direction from the ever-reliable Walter Lang, the lusciousness of DeLuxe Color, and a never-ending parade of jaw-dropping costumes from Charles LeMaire and Travilla. What might be most important, though, is the film’s very sweet story about a show business family, which never fails to make me a bit teary-eyed thanks to the stellar cast and the screenplay written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (yes, Nora’s parents).
The plot follows the Donahues, led by father Terry (Dailey) and mother Molly (Merman), vaudeville veterans who thrive on performing. Over the years, they add their children into their act, making them the Five Donahues. 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. After the kids have become adults, the family hesitantly go their separate ways: Terry and Molly slowly retire, Steve becomes a priest, and Katy and Tim work in the show of rising star — and Tim’s girlfriend — Victoria Hoffman (Monroe).
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 to an insanely touching and realistic degree. For example, when Tim and Katy decide they want to do a show without their parents, they’re anguished over how to break the news without hurting their feelings. One of the best scenes, though, is during a party thrown for Steve before he leaves for a Catholic seminary. Katy and Tim re-enact an old number of Terry and Molly’s, complete with the same costumes and hilarious impressions of Merman and Dailey. Terry is beaming with pride, but when he looks at Molly, she is crying because she realizes how things are changing for them. Without saying anything, Terry holds his wife and we fade to black.
If there is anything this cast has, it is talent and chemistry. Ethel Merman could certainly be a loud, over-the-top entertainer, but Show Business gives her this other dimension as the vulnerable mother hen who gives out the best hugs and advice. Dan Dailey is a great partner for her and, even more than that, he is 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 his films a calm, grounding presence. He doesn’t have to indulge in theatrics to make me adore him, and his dancing is always tops.
Out of the three Donahue kids, Donald O’Connor is given the best showcase, which isn’t surprising since, unlike Gaynor and Ray, he had consistently proven himself at the box office with hits like Singin’ in the Rain, Call Me Madam (another delight directed by Walter Lang and co-starring Merman), and the weirdly popular “Francis the Talking Mule” series. Funny, genuine, and an outstanding dancer, O’Connor’s numbers are always something to look forward to. He was also a tremendously charismatic actor, and he shares a very good rapport with Monroe, whom he praised for years after her death.
One of O’Connor’s favorite partners, though, was Mitzi Gaynor. Impossibly vivacious and adorably playful, Gaynor — who is still with us and regularly posts on social media! — is charming as Katy. Her adoration for real-life friends O’Connor and Merman is unmistakable, and so is her mesmerizing footwork. As for the third Donahue kid… the less said, the better. Although he was a ’50s teen idol and an important figure in early rock’n’roll, Johnnie Ray’s tortuous acting makes him easily the weakest part of the film. Despite leading a fascinating life offscreen — his music and dramatic stage presence influenced the likes of Elvis and the Beatles; he was best man at Judy Garland’s fifth and final wedding; he went through a few scandals due to his bisexuality — Ray just isn’t very magnetic here and it became his only major film appearance.
Although I wouldn’t categorize Show Business as an important film in Marilyn Monroe’s career — it didn’t have the same impact as, say, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Niagara (both 1953), and her role is smaller than the publicity materials would have you think — it does illustrate why people find the actress so captivating. Whether shimmying through “Heat Wave,” lounging around in “Lazy,” or holding her own in a dramatic scene against Merman, Monroe has a radiant presence you can’t ignore. The film also demonstrates that the actress played more than just dumb blonde archetypes (although I’d argue that her “dumb blondes” were never really dumb). Vicky is ambitious, hardworking, and, yes, provocative, all of which gets misconstrued by Molly and, to a degree, Tim. Thankfully, in the end, they realize how wrong they were to vilify Vicky for her dedication to her career, which is so satisfying to witness.
There’s No Business Like Show Business is a forgotten gem of a musical with strong talent behind and in front of the camera. It’s a film that admires its characters for their resilience and their devotion to putting on a good show, while also recognizing that they — and the choices they make — aren’t always perfect. The movie has some melodramatic moments, sure, but before you roll your eyes at them, you just might find a tear or two instead.
There’s No Business Like Show Business will be screened at the IU Cinema on December 8, concluding this semester’s Sunday Matinee Classics: CinemaScope Song and Dance series.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.