In 1919, Molly Donahue (Ethel Merman) and Terence Donahue (Dan Dailey) are a vaudeville team that travels a great deal. They have three children, Tim (Donald O'Connor), Steve (Johnnie Ray), and Katy (Mitzi Gaynor), who join their act on stage to sing and dance as The Five Donahues. When the children mature, the popularity of the parents declines.
Molly is concerned about her children: "You start worrying about your kids the day they're born, and you never stop. Even after they bury you, I bet you never stop worrying."..."I want them to have an education... a real education. They have to learn arithmetic and spelling and geography."
Terence: "You never went past the sixth grade... and it was probably the fourth grade, because you said it was the sixth."
Molly: "My age is the only thing I lie about, and I don't add on, I take off."
Terence: "All right, the sixth grade, but there's nothing wrong with your arithmetic. You can whistle 'Mandy', do an 'Off to Buffalo', and count the house at the same time, and tell me within five cents how much is out there."
Molly: "That's not arithmetic."
Terence: "You're darn right that's not... that's higher mathematics."
Tim meets hat check girl Vicky Hoffman (Marilyn Monroe), falls in love, and the family act starts to disintegrate. Molly asks Vicky, "Fit Lew Harris into this picture, will you?" She replies, " Lew did everything for me. Maybe he did have some ideas, that doesn't mean I always agreed with them. There was never anyone for me but Tim." Steve leaves the show to become a priest. Johnny Ray's acting is so bad, leaving the movie would have been preferable. Then Katy meets handsome Charles Biggs (Hugh O'Brian). In the end, the family reunites during a splashy production number finale and sing "There's No Business Like Show Business".
The twenty year history of the family's struggles on and off stage has a thin plot. It is mostly a vehicle for a catalogue of vibrant and rousing Irving Berlin songs. A flamboyant and gaudy musical comedy, it is entertaining, if not inspired. The movie is 20th Century-Fox's first Cinemascope musical and must be watched in the widescreen format. Often the screen is filled with six people side by side, so a pan and scan fullscreen version should be avoided if possible.
Others in the cast include: Richard Eastham (Lew Harris), Frank McHugh (Eddie Duggen), Rhys Williams (Father Dineen), Lee Patrick (Marge), Robin Raymond (Lillian Sawyer), Chick Chandler (Harry), Nolan Leary (Archbishop), Gavin Gordon (Geoffrey), Isabelle Dwan (Sophie Tucker), Charlotte Austin (Lorna), Donald Kerr (Bobbly Clark), and many others. Lamar Trotti, and Henry and Phoebe Ephron wrote the script. Alfred Newman composed the incidental music. Walter Lang directed.
There are 15 Irving Berlin songs. Marilyn Monroe sings "Heat Wave" and "After You Get What You Want You Don't Want It". Ethel Merman sings "Let's Have Another Cup O'Coffee", "When They Play a Simple Melody", "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody", and "There's No Business Like Show Business"--which is also performed by the entire cast. "Lazy" is performed by Monroe, Gaynor, and O'Connor. Dan Dailey Sings "You'd be Surprised". "A Sailor's not a Sailor ('Til a Sailor's Been Tattooed) is sung by Merman and Gaynor. "A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)" is sung by Monroe and O'Connor, who also dances. Merman and Dailey sing "When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam", which is later reprised by Gaynor and O'Connor. Johnnie Ray sings "If You Believe". "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is sung by Merman, Dailey, O'Connor, Gaynor, and Ray--and later by the entire cast.
THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS was extremely expensive to make, attracted a large audience, but did not make a profit at the time. The title is taken from the famous song previously used in the musical ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950). Most critics don't rate this movie very highly. Marilyn Monroe didn't want to make this film, but agreed when Fox promised her the lead in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1957). Nonetheless, it's one of the best Hollywood musicals, looks great and the music is wonderful in four-track stereo surround sound.