I was reluctant to watch There’s No Business Like Show Business because of my lackluster reception to previous Irving Berlin movies, namely White Christmas and Holiday Inn. In certain regards There’s No Business (from here on out that’s what I’m calling it to save my fingers) is similar to the other films but I found it far more enjoyable than those bloated holiday epics. Many consider this a classic film musical but I also found it a compelling family drama with a fantastic cast including original Berlin star Donald O’Connor.
The Donahue children have grown up on the stage. As they get older they struggle to make their own way in show business, outside of the care of their parents Terry and Molly (Dan Dailey and Ethel Merman). Eldest son Steve (Johnny Ray) decides to enter the seminary while Katy (Mitzi Gaynor) and troublemaker Tim (O’Connor) stay on-stage. When Tim falls for rising star Vicki Hoffman (Marilyn) it causes a slew of problems that see the Five Donahues come together for one final performance.
Having such a lukewarm response to Berlin’s previous films I found myself continuously drawn to this quirky family drama, and it is quirky. Sure this tells a tale told in similar musicals, that of a stage family and how they acclimate to separation, but there are moments that just make you say “huh” and yet you’re charmed by it. A dance involving Donald O’Connor and statues that are played by humans that isn’t necessary but is fantastic nonetheless. O’Connor is fantastic in this movie and if anything I wish he was the star of the film. I’ve only seen O’Connor as the lovable Cosmo Brown in Singin’ in the Rain but here he plays a charmer and a troublemaker with the ladies. Him telling Marilyn lasciviously “we don’t need to rub two sticks together to start a fire” was both shocking to me, since I’ve only seen him as an asexual sidekick, and oddly attractive. His chemistry with Marilyn is phenomenal to say the least.
Mitzi Gaynor is graceful as the sweet and demure sister Katy and Johnny Ray is just….bizarre as Steve who becomes a priest. I don’t want to call out actors but Ray’s performance was….really gay (and I mean that in the sense he’s incredibly flamboyant and homosexual in performance). According to IMDB Ray was a notorious bisexual but here he came off as a crooning Liberace and was just distracting, especially considering how much of an insignificant character he is.
The parents, played by Merman and Dailey also aren’t a huge draw. I admit I enjoyed Merman’s performance far more than her role as the extremely grating mother in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but she’s just the standard mother character. Her sole memorable moment was the performance of the title song. Dailey was interesting because on first glance I thought it was Bing Crosby, and technically the role would have been perfect for Crosby as Dailey plays the character very bland and straight. Sure there are moments where he’s constantly talking about wanting to get laid by other women in front of his wife. In fact the opening of the movie revolves around a musical number where Terry continuously hits on young women. A bit of trivia that I found funny is that apparently O’Connor was separated from his wife at the time and said wife was dating (and eventually married)…Dan Dailey! Oh a tangled web we weave in Hollywood.
Marilyn is the catalyst of the film as rising star Vicki Hoffman. She performs the sensual “Heat Wave” which is a hot number and a bit shocking considering Marilyn gyrates against a tree in one moment. Sure her character is essentially the woman who dreams of a successful career and thus causes the downward spiral of O’Connor making her a bitch but that’s how these movies usually go. By the end there’s a pretty awkward message about WWII but nothing that ruined my enjoyment of the movie.
While Marilyn is only a cog in a bigger wheel of musical drama, There’s No Business Like Show Business is a strong movie musical with a slew of engaging performances.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.