Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 22, 2020)
As we work through the films of Marilyn Monroe, something odd occurs. After star-making leads in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry A Millionaire, she returns to the supporting side of the equation for 1954’s musical ensemble There’s No Business Like Show Business.
Actually, Millionaire itself marked a minor move backwards. In Blondes Monroe co-starred with Jane Russell, but in Millionaire she found herself saddled with two co-leads in Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable.
However, at least Marilyn stayed in the forefront of Millionaire. For Show Business, she became relegated to a fairly minor role during this ensemble extravaganza.
While this seems like a strange career move, it makes sense within the greater context of Monroe’s career. According to studio lore, Marilyn accepted the role in Show Business only if she could get the lead in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch. Fox wanted Monroe in Show Business to boost its box office potential, so I guess both sides got what they desired.
Obviously Marilyn’s career didn’t suffer from her appearance in Show Business, which is something of a minor miracle. While I wasn’t wild about her two prior starring vehicles, I thought that Blondes and Millionaire were generally endearing and entertaining. That doesn’t hold true for the shrill and sappy Show Business, a film that suffers from a tremendous number of problems.
Show Business documents the lives of the Donahues, a vaudeville family. We see their start with the parents, Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terry (Dan Dailey), and we watch their brood grow as children Steve, Katy and Tim appear.
We briefly watch the kids as youngsters, but most of the movie examines them as adults. In those scenes, the junior Donahues are played by Johnnie Ray, Mitzi Gaynor, and Donald O’Connor, respectively.
All proceeds reasonably well for “The Five Donahues” until Tim meets sexy hatcheck girl Vicky (Monroe). He falls for her, but she resists, mainly because she has her own show business career to pursue.
Inevitably, her star rises and intersects with that of the Donahues, and this causes tensions among the family when Tim starts to favor Vicky’s interests over his clan’s. Along the way, other plot lines evolve - such as Steve’s departure for the clergy and then the military! - but the romance between Tim and Vicky dominates.
For a love story, Show Business takes an insane amount of time to get started. Monroe doesn’t even appear until 29 minutes into this 118-minute film, and we have to wait until the movie’s more than half finished before the two actually go out on a date!
Even then, melodrama takes priority. We see a little of Vicky and Tim together, but mainly the film prefers to focus on family turmoil and Tim’s problems.
Show Business offers little character development, as all of the main roles remain thin and sketchy. There are a lot of folks to satisfy given the large main cast, and the script can’t meet all of their needs.
As such, all of them stay stuck with general stereotypes and never evolve into interesting or compelling personalities. Could I have cared less about the Donahues? Perhaps, but I really had little interest in them.
It doesn’t help that much of the acting seems weak. Merman chews the scenery with vigor and generally presents a loud, obnoxious presence, while Dailey mainly looks like he wants to run away from her - can’t blame him for that!
O’Connor thrives best of the children, as his natural charisma and charm ensure that Tim presents the most likeable of the bunch, but he never can create a full-blooded character.
Still, compared to the lifeless performance from Gaynor - Katy’s a total non-entity - and the pathetically stiff and wooden work by Ray in the singer’s first - and only - screen appearance, O’Connor seems terrific.
As for Marilyn herself, the role isn’t exactly a stretch. She plays the standard breathy, sexy blonde who mainly looks out for herself. Monroe seems perfectly adequate in the part but she does nothing to make it come to life.
Not that she has much hope of overcoming the plotless script and flat characters. Show Business becomes an almost-total loss for me, but it may be more compelling for others due to one factor: its wide variety of production numbers.
Show Business is really little more than a slew of show tunes onto which a generic plot has been cobbled. I really didn’t enjoy those parts of the film, but fans of the genre may find Show Business to be much more entertaining than I did.