Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox

Marilyn Monroe and an all-star cast are featured in Irving Berlin's tuneful depiction of the trials and triumphs of a veteran vaudeville family. The talented Donahue family has plenty of love to get them through the hard times - that is, until they cross paths with a rising starlet (Monroe) whose own ambitions may make or break them. Co-Starring Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor, this delightful classic delivers dazzling production numbers and masterful show tunes!

Director: Walter Lang
Cast: Ethel Merman, Donald O'Connor, Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey, Johnnie Ray, Mitzi Gaynor
DVD: Widescreen 2.55:1/16X9; audio English Dolby Digital 4.0 & Digital Stereo; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 28 chapters; Not Rated; 118 min.; $24.98; street date 5/29/01.
Supplements: Trailers; One-sheet; Restoration Comparison.
Purchase: DVD | Marilyn Monroe: The Diamond Collection

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/B/D

As we continue our romp 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 had marked a minor move backwards; in GPB Monroe co-starred with Jane Russell, but in Millionaire she was 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 was relegated to a fairly minor role in 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 GPB and Millionaire were generally endearing and entertaining. That didn’t hold true for the shrill and sappy Show Business, a film that suffered 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 very little character development, as all of the main roles remain very thin and sketchy. There are a lot of folks to satisfy given the large main cast, and the script 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 didn’t help that much of the acting was weak. Merman chewed the scenery with vigor and generally presented a loud, obnoxious presence, while Dailey mainly looked like he wanted to run away from her - can’t blame him for that! O’Connor thrived best of the children, as his natural charisma and charm ensured that Tim would be the most likeable of the bunch, but he never was able to 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 wasn’t exactly a stretch. She plays the standard breathy, sexy blonde who mainly looks out for herself. Monroe was perfectly adequate in the part but she did nothing to make it come to life.

Not that she had much hope of overcoming the plotless script and flat characters. Show Business was 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. Personally, I can’t stand musical pieces, so I really didn’t enjoy those parts of the film. However, fans of the genre will find Show Business to be much more entertaining than I did.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but think that even those folks will find it to be a disappointment. Many musicals suffer from thin stories, but at least their tales offer some interesting elements and/or characters. That wasn’t the case for There’s No Business Like Show Business, a contrived and melodramatic exercise in cinematic tedium. The film’s lavish production numbers will redeem it for some, but if you’re not absolutely enchanted by musical pieces, this one should be skipped.

The DVD:

There’s No Business Like Show Business appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Note that the packaging states the movie uses a 2.35:1 ratio, but since all four of the widescreen Monroe films in the “Diamond Collection” display identical dimensions, I believe Show Business was actually closer to 2.55:1. Although the picture occasionally showed some signs of age, I thought it usually provided a terrific visual experience.

Sharpness generally appeared crisp and accurate. Some of the wide shots displayed moderate softness at times, but I thought that these instances were rare and largely insignificant, especially compared to the fuzziness witnessed during How to Marry A Millionaire. Show Business used a wide image with fine definition, and I thought the majority of the film seemed detailed and distinct. I saw no problems related to moiré effects or jagged edges, and print flaws appeared to be wonderfully minor for such an old movie. Show Business looked almost totally devoid of any grit, speckles, nicks or other issues. I saw very light grain on a few occasions, and some scenes showed an oddly flickering quality; for example, the one in which Marilyn speaks to her agent demonstrated this concern. However, all of these areas were exceptionally minor, especially for an aged film.

Colors looked terrifically bright and dynamic throughout the film. Of the five movies in the Marilyn Monroe “Diamond Collection”, Show Business was the first that wasn’t shot in Technicolor. As such, some of the problems that often accompanied that process were not evident during Show Business. While both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry A Millionaire displayed some excellent colors, they also showed mild pulsing to the hues. That issue doesn’t appear during Show Business, as its tones were rock-solid at all times. The wild variety of production numbers meant that Show Business offered a wonderful mix of hues via costumes and backdrops, and the DVD replicated these with fine accuracy and vibrancy. The palette embraces many different colors, and they all looked absolutely wonderful. If there were any problems with bleeding, noise, or other concerns, I certainly didn’t see them; I felt that the hues of Show Business were absolutely stunning.

Black levels weren’t quite as fantastic, but they consistently appeared clear and dense. The movie showed some nicely-deep dark tones, and contrast looked accurate and distinct. Shadow detail seemed to be acceptably clean and smooth, with no problems related to excessively dim or opaque images. Ultimately, There’s No Business Like Show Business offered a very satisfying picture that presented a consistently fine image.

While the film’s Dolby Digital 4.0 mix didn’t match up with the splendid visuals, it still seemed good for its age. Actually, this soundtrack strongly echoed the audio heard on How to Marry A Millionaire, and I do mean “echoed”. The latter film featured some heavily localized speech that often bled into the other channels; the dialogue could appear tentatively placed within the environment, and this occasionally became distracting. During Show Business, I thought this tendency seemed less pronounced, but it definitely occurred. I liked the fact that both films tried to spread speech across their width, but the execution of this could appear awkward at times.

Otherwise, I felt the soundfield of Show Business was reasonably broad and engaging for an older movie. Effects usage was modest, as I heard only occasional elements from the side speakers - such as knocks on doors or cheering crowds - but the overall atmosphere seemed decent. Music displayed quite solid stereo imaging throughout the film, and the surrounds contributed nice reinforcement to the score and various tunes. They also bolstered crowd noise and other ambient effects in an acceptable manner. Ultimately, this was a modest soundfield, but it seemed fine for the material.

Audio quality showed some concerns but the sound still remained largely good. As I noted, dialogue suffered somewhat from the excessive reverberation that appeared to be related to the localization of lines. Otherwise, speech was acceptably clear and accurate, with no problems related to intelligibility. I heard some mild edginess at times, but virtually all of those concerns were restricted to the lines spoken by Dan Dailey; only his words came across as rough and brittle, whereas the rest seemed a little thin but were largely distinct.

Effects were similarly dated but I thought they came across as fairly accurate, while the music really was allowed to flourish. Within the constraints of the era’s recording capabilities, the songs seemed nicely robust and dynamic. Highs were fairly bright and crisp, and bass seemed a little flat but appeared relatively deep and well-defined. Some minor hiss appeared at times as well, but as a whole, I thought There’s No Business Like Show Business provided a fairly effective auditory experience for an older film.

None of the Monroe movies in the “Diamond Collection” provides a wealth of extras, but There’s No Business Like Show Business offers one of the weakest batches. We get two American trailers and a Portuguese clip. Interestingly, the very long first trailer - which runs almost four and a half minutes - doesn’t really spotlight Monroe, but the shorter second ad mentions her more prominently. Unfortunately, none of the dialogue was dubbed for the Portuguese piece for O Mundo Da Fantasia; it would have been very entertaining to hear substitutes for the famous voices of Merman and Monroe.

In addition to a “one-sheet” poster replicated as a stillframe, we find trailers for all four of the other Monroe movies that are part of the “Diamond Collection”: How to Marry a Millionaire, Bus Stop, The Seven Year Itch, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes . We also get a promo for the “Diamond Collection” as a whole.

Lastly, this DVD features a Restoration Comparison. In one part of this 75-second piece, we see a contrast between the film restoration and a combination of film and video restoration, while the rest of it demonstrates the differences between the film/video restoration and the old video master. The comparison is most distinct in the latter instance, mainly because the new transfer cleaned up a lot of flaws. That part also shows the effects of the old pan and scan techniques and how they negatively affect such wide compositions like Show Business. This kind of piece doesn’t really float my boat, but it could be mildly interesting at times.

However, the film itself was mostly a dud. For fans of musicals, There’s No Business Like Show Business may provide some entertainment, as the movie does include a lot of lavish production numbers, but these can’t overcome the dull and tired storyline. Show Business seems to exist as nothing more than an excuse to slap some Irving Berlin songs on screen and dazzle us with fancy costumes and sets, but I thought it was boring and overdone. The DVD provides terrific picture and fairly solid sound, but it skimps on extras. Ultimately, this one left me cold; only the most die hard fans of musicals and/or Marilyn Monroe should even think of bothering with There’s No Business Like Show Business.

Note that There’s No Business Like Show Business can be purchased on its own or as part of Fox’s Marilyn Monroe “Diamond Collection” set. The latter includes four other movies - How to Marry a Millionaire, Bus Stop, The Seven Year Itch, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - plus a sixth DVD, a documentary called Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days. That disc only appears as part of “The Diamond Collection”, a package that’s really a steal for Monroe fans; in addition to the bonus DVD, it costs only $99.98 list as opposed to a total of $124.90 for the five films on their own. Granted, you’d need to really love Marilyn to want that much of her material, but if you fall into that category, it’s a great idea.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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