Tuesday, July 31, 2012

IRVING BERLIN'S THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS: Blu-ray (Fox 1954) Fox Home Video


By 1954 Marilyn Monroe’s overall popularity had sufficiently crested at Fox so that she could be considered for co-starring in Walter Lang’s lavishly mounted Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business; an elephantine extravaganza whose colossal production values basically mask a threadbare excuse to squeeze in as much talent and songs from the composer’s catalogue as run time and money will allow. There are really two conflicting plot elements at play in this super production – the first in Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s nimble minded screenplay is it’s attempting to tell the familial story about internal strife and struggle on relatively intimate terms. The second is that the story also has to function as a splashy/sexy musical for Marilyn Monroe who, questionably, is its star. The resultant movie isn’t entirely successful at sustaining this balancing act – although there is enough mind-blowing profligacy evenly spread throughout to anesthetise even the most ardent critic from finding too much fault along the way.
The film’s title, of course, derives from one of the most popular songs Irving Berlin ever wrote, first immortalized by Ethel Merman on the stage in Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. That Merman was overlooked to recap her iconic role in MGM’s film version seems an oversight Fox is hell-bent on rectifying in this film. And truth be told, There’s No Business Like Show Business is really much more Merman’s movie than it is Monroe’s.  We don’t meet Monroe’s character, Victoria Hoffmann until 25 minutes into the movie, and even then rarely get to see her except in a few well-placed frothy and escapist production numbers inserted to spruce up the rather lugubrious narrative.
Our story begins in 1919 with the Donahues, Terrance (Dan Dailey) and Molly (Ethel Merman) who are big time headliners on the Vaudeville circuit.  Ten year old Steven (Billy Chapin), six year old Tim (Donald Gamble) and four year old Katie (Mimi Gibson) are put in the care of kindly Father Dineen (Rhys Williams) while their folks are on the road. But after Tim masterminds a daring escape from the school that is foiled by Dineen, he encourages Terrance and Molly to take a more proactive stance in their rearing. One by one the children enter the act until the entire family is headlining at New York’s Hippodrome as The Five Donahues. Despite being very close knit, Molly senses that the children are slowly moving away from the family unit.
Tim (now played by Donald O’Connor) is a fairly wily womanizer whose latest fling with chorine Lillian Sawyer (Robin Raymond) is doomed after he falls head over heels for sultry chanteuse Victoria Hoffmann (Marilyn Monroe). Molly asks Terrance if he tried talking to Tim about girls yet, to which Terrance glibly replies “Yeah, but he wouldn’t give me any phone numbers. Are you kidding? That would be like me teaching Dempsey how to fight!”  In the meantime, the introspective Steve (now played by Johnnie Ray) has gone off for a long soul searching walk at night and Katie (now played by Mitzie Gaynor), having dumped her devious date (Alvy Moore), has also left to do the same. Steve and Katie return home well after midnight, incurring both Terrance and Molly’s concern. Katie requires six dollars to pay for her taxi, but Steve informs the family that he has decided to become a priest; a vocation he feels compelled to pursue. Terrance is outraged by what he perceives as Steve’s impromptu choice but Katie encourages prudence and a kind word, saying that Steve may someday become a cardinal.
In the meantime Tim stumbles in very drunk, having made a valiant attempt to woo Victoria that was rejected outright. Molly takes Tim upstairs and attempts to sober him up by repeatedly dunking his head in the sink and then putting him to bed. Days later, Terrance and Molly decide to throw Steve a farewell party as he prepares to enter the church. Publically they’re all smiles, but later share a good cry together – still believing that Steve is giving up his innate talents as an entertainer.
The Four Donahues leave for Florida to continue their winter bookings. There Tim is reunited with Victoria (rechristened Vicky Parker) who is scheduled to open their act. In the interim, Vicky has made remarkable progress in her career, thanks to the influence of producer Lew Harris (Richard Eastham). After Tim gets the family to change their act – because one of the numbers is a big part of Vicky’s opener – the two become social and then friendly, all the while with Tim wishing for more. But Vicky’s not about to blow her connections with Lew for Tim and this leads to some very unhealthy friction between the two.  Molly labels Vicky as the bad influence even though Tim is clearly the one who is investing too much of himself in their relationship. When Tim gets drunk yet again and wraps his car around a tree Terrance decides to go to the hospital and lower the boom.
Disillusioned and utterly ashamed of himself, Tim checks out of the hospital and all but disappears from the family. Molly initially blames Terrance for Tim’s departure; then comes to her husband’s aid as he sinks deeper into his own depression over having miscalculated his father/son relationship. Meanwhile, Katie has begun a romance with Charles Gibbs (Hugh O’Brien); the producer of the latest show she and Vicky are appearing in together. The show was to have also included Tim. In his absence, Molly enters the cast and makes a success of the part. Terrance leaves home in the dead of night, determined to locate his missing son and restore their fractured relationship. Steve, now a priest, comes to the family’s aid, searching every new lead in the hopes of finding Tim safe and sound.
At a benefit for the Hippodrome, Molly is forced to share a dressing room with Vicky whom she has come to bitterly despise and blame for Tim’s falling out with the family. However, Molly cannot bring herself to hate Vicky, particularly after she hears her side of the story. As they say, “the show must go on!” Molly takes to the stage alone to belt out a rousing rendition of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ only to discover Tim waiting for her in the wings along with Steven and Katie. Having done a lot of growing up in their absence, Tim has enlisted in WWII as a soldier and will probably be sent overseas. Terrance arrives and the family, tearful but happy once more, are reunited on the stage to perform an impromptu version of their biggest hit, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ before breaking into the film’s title tune once again.
There’s No Business Like Show Business is a highly enjoyable bit of super kitsch despite its maudlin trappings, primarily because the cast are all pros at the top of their game. They sell this gaudy bunk like high art and, more often than not, manage to convince us of as much along the way. From a purely nostalgic perspective, we get to see and hear Ethel Merman belt out one of the most popular entertainment anthems of all time like nobody else really can. Dan Dailey and she are believable as the oft’ harried parents of this musical dynasty. And there is at least one moment (occasionally two) for each of the film’s stars to brilliantly shine in the extensive Irving Berlin repertoire.  Everyone appears in the title number and in Alexander’s Ragtime Band – the latter an utterly gargantuan number that takes us around the world. Merman and Dailey do a Germanic rendition; Mitzi Gaynor, with a sultry Parisian flair and Donald O’Connor excels in the campiest of Scottish lampoons. But the standout belongs to Johnnie Ray – who eschews the intercontinental theme to electrify us with a contemporary jazz version. Ray also gets a plum solo ‘If You Believe’ – a rousing spiritual straight from Tin Pan Alley.
In retrospect, it’s really Marilyn Monroe who is undernourished by the film’s musical program. She begins strong enough with the sassy ‘After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It Anymore’, but then has a hard time living up to that opener. Her next appearance is in the ill-fated tropical themed ‘Heat Wave’ one of the most egregiously awful versions of that Berlin standard. Monroe then appears with O’Connor and Gaynor in ‘Lazy’ – shot as a rehearsal that simply fails to ignite. The unevenness of Monroe’s musical performances make There’s No Business Like Show Business an odd inclusion as part of Fox’s Forever Marilyn Blu-ray box set – especially with two other seminal works from Monroe (Niagara and Bus Stop) still absent from hi-def. Don’t get me wrong. I like There’s No Business Like Show Business. But I don’t quite see it as a Marilyn Monroe movie. It’s more a musical with Monroe on the side.
This film has always looked solid on home video, thanks primarily to its original limited theatrical engagement and preservation efforts along the way. But Fox’s Blu-ray reincarnation is a travesty. Why? Well, my best guess is that they’ve used the same tired digital source elements directly imported from the 1997 DVD release. There’s just no excuse for the image to be this weak – period. Not only is contrast lower than expected, colours that were robust before are now muddy and dull. Fine detail is virtually lost in every scene and grain is exponentially exaggerated to the point where it looks digitally gritty. There’s also video noise in fine background detail. This is awful – pure and simple. What a sham and a shame! The audio is DTS 5.1 and marginally improves from the Dolby tracks on the DVD. Extras – yep, you guessed it. None!  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
0

A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: 

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's passing, renown U.K. author and columnist Julie Burchill delivers a fascinating revisionist's theory on the legend's final days at High 50. Click on this link to explore.  http://www.high50.com/archives/culture/marilyn-monroe-lives-50-years-on-julie-burchill-rewrites-history

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