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When Marilyn Monroe appeared in the ensemble musical There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), she was trembling on the brink of superstardom at 20th Century Fox after making splashes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire (both 1953).
Not thrilled by the script and reluctant to compete with such musical-comedy heavyweights as Ethel Merman, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor and Dan Dailey, Monroe balked at doing Business and Fox considered Sheree North as a replacement. Monroe finally agreed to do the film in exchange for the promise that her next vehicle would be a film version of the hit stage comedy The Seven Year Itch (1955), to be directed by the brilliant Billy Wilder. That movie, of course, was the one that would lift Monroe to the heady new heights of stardom she maintained until her untimely death in 1962.
There's No Business Like Show Business has a score by Irving Berlin, who adored Merman and had written two Broadway shows expressly for her: Annie Get Your Gun in 1946 and Call Me Madam in 1950. Business takes its title from the climactic number of the former show, which became a kind of anthem for theater people after Merman first belted it out onstage.
A huge star on Broadway, the brassy Merman had limited success in films but had shone in Fox's film version of Call Me Madam (1953), which also had costarred Donald O'Connor and was directed by Walter Lang, in whom she had "almost mystical faith," according to biographer Bob Thomas. The success of Madam led to her top-billed appearance in Business, although she had her work cut out for her in keeping the sexy Monroe and dynamic Gaynor from stealing her thunder. O'Connor and Dailey are as smoothly accomplished as ever, although the performance of "sob singer" Johnnie Ray (a sensation of the day) was described by a New York Times reviewer as "embarrassing," with moments in which "your flesh is likely to crawl."
The film's sentimental story revolves around The Donahues, a performing family in vaudeville, with Merman and Dailey as the parents and O'Connor, Gaynor and Ray as their unlikely offspring. The family faces tumultuous times as O'Connor falls for ambitious showgirl Monroe and Ray decides that his true calling is to be a priest.
The constant, dazzling production numbers are set to such Berlin standards as "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam" and "Remember." Perhaps the best-remembered number is Monroe's languorous delivery of "Heat Wave" (a song originally intended for Merman). Accompanied by a crew of male dancers, Marilyn turns up the heat in a black bra and a flamenco skirt split almost to her waist. "Anything You Can Do," a number from Annie Get Your Gun, was filmed with Merman and Dan Dailey but not included in the film's final print.
According to Thomas, Merman was philosophical about the attention being paid to Monroe. "Hell, she's the one we need to sell the picture," she told a friend. However, she resented what she considered Monroe's lack of professionalism, which included chronic tardiness and her reliance upon her acting coach, Natasha Lytess, instead of Lang. Monroe refused to wear costumes designed for her by Miles White and insisted that Travilla create new ones, including the "Heat Wave" outfit.
Merman won a small victory one day when Joe DiMaggio, then married to Monroe, visited the set and refused to be photographed with his wife. Instead, he wanted to pose with Merman -- "my favorite star!" Thomas writes that, as Monroe's tardiness grew ever more acute, Mitzi Gaynor "found a way to keep Ethel cool. Whenever Marilyn wouldn't come out of her dressing room, I gave Ethel a wink, hinting that something naughty was going on in there. Of course that wasn't true, but if Ethel thought maybe some hanky-panky was going on, she could enjoy the situation."
More off-camera drama was provided by the fact that Donald O'Connor had separated from Gwen Carter, his wife of ten years, and she and Dan Dailey had begun dating. After filming wrapped, the O'Connors divorced and Dailey and Carter were married.
Although now considered a prime example of a big, splashy musical of its period, There's No Business Like Show Business was not well-received at the time by the public, who probably felt that the Berlin/Merman style had become outdated. The movie was Oscar®-nominated for Best Costume Design, Color (Charles Le Maire, Travilla and Miles White), Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman) and Best Motion Picture Story (Lamar Trotti).
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Director: Walter Lang
Screenplay: Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron, based on a story by Lamar Trotti
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Editing: Robert L. Simpson
Art Direction: John DeCuir, Lyle R. Wheeler
Costume Design: Travilla, Miles White
Cast: Ethel Merman (Molly Donahue), Donald O'Connor (Tim Donahue), Marilyn Monroe (Vicky), Dan Dailey (Terence Donahue), Johnnie Ray (Steve Donahue), Mitzi Gaynor (Katy Donahue), Hugh O'Brian (Charles Biggs), Richard Eastham (Lew Harris), Frank McHugh (Eddie Dugan).
by Roger Fristoe