Wow, I thought I’d seen song and dance numbers before. But everything until now has been pretty subdued, stripped back, low key, and even a little half assed, compared to visual and aural assault of There’s No Business Like Show Business. And I mean that in a really, really good way.
Ethel Merman and Dan Daily are Molly and Terrance Donahue, a small time vaudeville duo in 1919. Over the first half hour or so, the movie traces their ever growing family as they all take to the stage. As adults, their three kids all join the show, becoming knows at The Five Donahues, made up of the parents, eldest son Steve (Johnnie Ray), only daughter Katie (Mitzy Gaynor) and youngest son Tim (Donald O’Conner).
On the road, they meet up-and-comer Vicky Parker, played by Marilyn Monroe, who becomes the object of Tim’s desire, and from here on in, it really become Donald O’Conner’s movie.
There’s No Business Like Show Business is definitely a musical, but it’s not the kind where people spontaneously break into song and everyone else in the street somehow knows the words and choreography. Well, actually, that does happen once, but even then, it’s shot to seem more like a dream sequence than something happening in the reality of the movie.
But for the most part, the singing and dancing are confined to the stage where the many variations of the Donahues perform for paying audiences. For me, this made a huge difference in my enjoyment of the song and dance numbers. There’s something so artificial about most musicals that never quite sits right with me. By finding a logical way to incorporate these performances, it made me much more willing to go along with everything.
The way the movie is structured, I’m pretty sure the writers came up a list of songs first, then figured out how to wrap a narrative around them. The story and non-singing scenes are fine, but they never feel like anything more than an excuse to get to the next song. Which is fine too, because the spectacle of every single song and dance really is amazing.
I think this is the first Ethel Merman movie I’ve ever seen. And hearing her sing made me understand her iconic reputation. She’s a super strong presence who is pretty hard to ignore. And that, along with the inclusion of Monroe, makes it even more impressive that Donald O’Conner steals the show from them both. As the youngest, most impulsive son Tim Donahue, he definitely gets the most interesting character to play, and O’Conner really takes advantage of it.
There’s No Business Like Show Business is big, over the top, cheesy, broad and hokey. But it’s all those things in the best possible way. It totally commits while never taking itself too seriously.