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Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

Director: Walter Lang
Starring: Ethel Merman, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Marilyn Monroe

This will be a short one, because there's frankly not all that much to say. Of all the films I'm watching for this series, There's No Business Like Show Business is the only one that I had absolutely no familiarity beforehand. I actually hadn't even heard of it before, which is odd considering it's a film from right in the thick of the years when she was a super star, with just about every role a notable one. A fairly unremarkable film, There's No Business Like Show Business has got some decent song and dance numbers to it (though it would have to, with this cast), but it's kind of a bland and formulaic "showbiz" movie, even by the standards of showbiz movies. If you're a Donald O'Connor fan or an Ethel Merman fan, then it's worth a watch to get to see them do the things they do best; but with respect to Marilyn Monroe, this is a film for completionists only.

There's No Business Like Show Business is the story of the Donahues, a family of vaudeville performers, and how their lives and their act changes over the course of time. At the head of the family are Terence (Dan Dailey) and Molly (Ethel Merman), who find success on the stage and try to balance that professional success with providing something resembling a normal life for their three children - at least until they decide to bring the kids into the act. Together the family rises to the top, but the act begins to break apart once the kids come of age, with son Steve (Johnnie Ray) deciding to leave the performing arts in order to become a priest, and daughter Katy (Mitzi Gaynor) and younger son Tim (Donald O'Connor) pursuing success outside of the family act. That pursuit centers around up-and-comer Vicky Hoffman (Marilyn Monroe), with whom Tim becomes infatuated and whose career soon comes to eclipse what remains of the old Donahue act.

The story in There's No Business Like Show Business is pretty thin. There are characters and there are plot developments, but this is very much a performance movie, with almost wall-to-wall singing and dancing, each number pretty much bringing the plot to a halt. The performances are entertaining enough for the most part - there are a bunch of capital "P" performers in it, after all - but overall it's not really a film that holds one's attention. The plot is uninspired and underdeveloped, with much of it turning on Tim's tumultuous relationship with Vicky, which exists almost exclusively as "milestone" moments - they meet, they get together, they break up, they get back together just in time for the film's final number - with little in between and without much in the way of character development for Vicky. There's a lot of musical grandeur in the production, particularly in the closing number, but There's No Business Like Show Business isn't a very captivating watch.

In terms of Monroe's career, There's No Business Like Show Business is a blip on the radar, a film that she agreed to make coming off a suspension from 20th Century Fox and marriage to Joe DiMaggio, and in exchange for getting to make The Seven Year Itch. All things being equal, taking a flimsy part as part of an ensemble in a lavish musical in exchange for an iconic role in a Billy Wilder movie, is a pretty good deal. Speaking of which...

Up Next: The Seven Year Itch

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