There’s No Business Like Show Business (Blu-ray Review)13 Aug, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Stars Ethel Merman, Donald O’Connor, Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey.
When Paramount Pictures launched VistaVision in 1954 with the Irving Berlin musical White Christmas, that movie’s initial metropolitan runs actually commenced in mid-October. In fact, when I finally got to see it myself in a small Ohio town six weeks later on Thanksgiving, it was probably close to being played out. Paramount’s Christmas picture that year was actually the Martin & Lewis 3 Ring Circus — while, ironically, the holiday Berlin extravaganza that played theaters in mid-late December was this Fox CinemaScope/stereo extravaganza with six co-equally billed stars: Ethel Merman, Donald O’Connor, Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey, the great wailer Johnnie Ray (his only movie) and Mitzi Gaynor (who, even when I was a kid, was always more my “yen” type than Monroe). This was an exceptionally formidable mid-’50s lineup, but a studio had to do something when going up against Kirk Douglas and a Disney squid in the same Christmas’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Monroe is kind of a appendage here (sub-category: banzai) to what is overridingly a story of “The Five Donahues,” a showbiz family that manages to keep on performing with humungous production budgets even after vaudeville dies. Yet her bumping/grinding “Heat Wave” number was such a conversation piece at the time that you can see why Fox Entertainment has also included Business on its new $99.98 Forever Marilyn Blu-ray box of seven Monroe features (five are premieres) when three of her Fox titles not on it are Niagara, Bus Stop and Let’s Make Love, each a front-and-center showcase. But it’s an irresistible set (more on this in a minute).
MM also performs Berlin’s “Lazy” with much more of a sexual sack-time dimension than Bing Crosby gave it in Holiday Inn, but mainly she’s around to serve as the hatcheck girl who becomes the squeeze of rascal-ish Donahue son O’Connor. Thanks in part to her costuming throughout, Monroe comes off as perhaps too much woman for this most regular-guy-ish of all tappers, but then again, she was too much woman for Joe DiMaggio at around the same time in real life. She’s the one on O’Connor’s mind when he performs his standout number here: “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)” — a Berlin tune that went to Billboard No. 16 for Eddie Fisher in early ’55, with his wife-to-be Debbie Reynolds giving him (uncredited) echo chamber accompaniment over at RCA Victor. Those were the days.
I don’t have that many cinematic guilty pleasures, figuring that if a movie gives me pleasure, I’m not about to feel guilty about it. But this may be one. In absolute Fox musical fashion, the nine zillion Berlin numbers are efficiently, but not very artfully, connected by a tissue of script material that asks us to believe, for starters, that Dailey and Merman would have had sex enough times to produce three children (this was before the prospect of Merman marrying From Here to Eternity’s Fatso Judson, or Ernest Borgnine, in real life was not even twisted-imagination material). Ray, one of my favorite singers ever, was about as unlikely as movie material as Liberace would become in the following year’s Sincerely Yours, so the Business script has no alternative to turn him into a presumably sexless priest who sings a mortifyingly embarrassing spiritual at a party while dad Dailey cries in his (literal) beers. We’re also asked to accept that Gaynor could be the product of Merman’s loins (though I have noticed on the DVD of the same year’s TV special of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes that the latter’s legs were better than expected).
But it’s tough to deny affection for a movie that finds a way to combine four or five production numbers of 1911’s Alexander’s "Ragtime Band" (Berlin’s first major hit) into one (dig those wild Johnnie Ray color schemes that either set of his tux or are set off by it). There’s also that final scene when, Merman, just wrapping the title tune on stage in a performance, glances offstage to spot her prodigal, long-lost son O’Connor in the wings and — catching her breath when she’s emotionally reeling — somehow “goes on the with THUHHHHHHHHHHHH show.” Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, who was my best friend on our campus newspaper, used to do a magnificent imitation of this scene when we were in college — but he still conceded that its spoof-able elements notwithstanding, there was indeed something grand about it. This finale was also a good way for the “Berlin musical” (of which there were many) to go out amid fast-changing times. By the following August, even the nearby grocery store in the militantly WASP-y community where I grew up was selling 45’s of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,” and Berlin was soon, it has been said, haranguing radio stations not to play Elvis’s rendition of “White Christmas.”
In addition to the previously released black-and-whites Some Like It Hot and The Misfits (UA titles that Fox now controls), the Forever Marilyn set contains two movies that were originally shot in Technicolor (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, How To Marry a Millionaire and River of No Return) and two shot in less stable DeLuxe Color (Business and The Seven Year Itch). Content-wise, it is a glorious package in terrible packaging, though all are being sold individually as well. Predictably, the Technicolor trio makes for cleaner views (and, in fact, the compensatingly vibrant Business is the one that shows the most imperfections on my 57-inch screen). But at both 57 and 37, I have rarely seen any Blu-ray that has knocked me out much more than the substantial chunks I’ve seen so far of Blondes — which, simply by default, has never been one of my ultra-favorite Howard Hawks movies. Reassessment may be on the horizon.