Lavish, colourful and dazzling, Walter Lang’s 1954 musical There’s No Business Like Show Business makes the point conveyed in its title empathetically. It’s a musical about musicals, a nostalgic overview of an entire genre – maybe much of what it covers had been said before, but surely never in such a sumptuously extravagant manner. Budget wasn’t a constraint; this was Fox’s first CinemaScope musical and, like many films shot using the technology during its earliest days, it had a budget of over $4 million and a running time of almost two hours.
No Business (as I will now refer to it for brevity’s sake!) certainly takes advantage of the new CinemaScope format. The sentimental story centres on Molly and Terry Donahue (Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey), a husband and wife vaudeville act, and their three children. The vaudeville act allows for multiple musical set pieces that do little to advance the plot but a lot to encourage a good-time sing-along. And there must’ve been a lot of that, as the score is built around some composer Irving Berlin’s ‘greatest hits’, including the title song, originally written for the stage version of Annie Get Your Gun, which also starred Merman. There are just two new Berlin songs (“A Man Chases a Girl Until She Catches Him” and “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor ‘Till a Sailor’s Been Tattooed”).
Monroe was reportedly reluctant to be cast in another musical, but Fox persuaded her to take the role by promising that her next lead would be in The Seven Year Itch. Monroe acquiesced. Perhaps Fox thought that Merman alone wasn’t a big enough box office draw – it’s true she never achieved the success in Hollywood she did on Broadway – but she was fresh from the 1953 film adaptation of Call Me Madam (also directed by Lang). Reportedly she wasn’t keen on Monroe – whose reputation for lateness and difficulty already preceded her – but was philosophical about her casting: ‘Hell, she’s the one we need to sell the picture’. But although Monroe is probably the main reason why the musical remains as well-known as it is today – a quick Google search mainly pulls up a series of stills featuring the actress – it doesn’t really feel like a vehicle that showcases her talents. She doesn’t show up until 29 minutes in, and her ‘storyline’ is really just a plot driver. It’s easy to see why she objected to another blonde bombshell role.
Mitzi Gaynor (playing Merman’s daughter Katy) made it three female leads, but in spite of the overcrowding, each actress gets a chance to shine and there’s suitable differentiation between the (admittedly stereotyped) characters. This female trio probably wouldn’t have worked in anything but a musical – the show stopping moments allow each to have their chance in the limelight. In fact, one of the film’s best numbers is the aforementioned “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor”, which ‘stars’ both Gaynor and Merman. But still, this is Merman’s film. The vaudeville numbers suit her bold singing style and persona, she’s a matriarch who’s not to be messed with.
At the time of the film’s release, critics were unimpressed with Monroe’s turn. Bosley Crowther claimed in The New York Times that her ‘wriggling and squirming… are embarrassing to behold’; similarly Time magazine observed: ‘Marilyn… bumps and grinds as expressively as the law will allow’. It’s true that this is a ‘typical’ Monroe role – Vicky Parker is a sexy, breathless blonde with a dash of vulnerability – and although it got the actress to Wilder, it probably did more to cement her bombshell image, rather than the acclaim as a serious actress that she craved. It doesn’t help that No Business isn’t a particularly great film. It’s entertaining, but the characterisation is problematic, as is the plot, and it’s mostly held together by a series of big show tunes that are visually spectacular but ultimately hollow. Audiences weren’t keen either. Although the film eventually turned a profit, it wasn’t a box-office sellout. Perhaps filmgoers were jaded by the relentless upbeat optimism of musicals of this ilk, perhaps Merman really wasn’t a big draw… either way, it’s a film that’s grown in importance during the years – partly because it sits within the legend of Monroe – but also because it showcased the potential of CinemaScope and the genre.
Some notes on the costumes
Marilyn’s wardrobe was designed by long-term collaborator Travilla. Merman and Gaynor’s were by Charles Le Marie. This divide not doubt contributed to Merman’s cool reception to Monroe, especially as the show-stopping costume number was centered around a song originally intended for Merman. “Heat Wave” probably contains most of the ‘wriggling’ that Crowther was so opposed to and indeed, Monroe’s skimpy costume for the song certainly leaves little to the imagination. Joe DiMaggio was so unimpressed that he refused to pose for pictures with his new wife whilst she was wearing it on his (admittedly rare) set visits.
Travilla’s “Heat Wave” costume is flamenco inspired, and features a full palm-print skirt with a shocking pink lining and a waterfall-style slit, cut to the top of the thigh. The skirt was held in place by a wide waistband with a tiny belt that covered Monroe’s belly button – it was this seemingly insignificant detail that got the design past the censors (see how it was added on after the original sketch!). A bandeau bra with an asymmetric shoulder strap and a white, flower-bedecked hat (worn over a black turban) completed the look. There’s something of Carmen Miranda in the aesthetic if not the moves, apparently the designer had a love for Spain and flamenco styling, and the costume was directly inspired by his trips to the region.
Marilyn’s other standout piece is a bodystocking-style cocktail dress with strategically placed starburst embroidery and a rosette detail at the waist. The formal aspects of the long sleeves and high neckline were more than offset by the allusions to nudity and the thigh-high split. A bejewelled feather headpiece was the finishing touch, a final statement of glamour with intent. This dress meant business, as did anyone wearing it.