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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954)

You can get a taste of just how square Eisenhower’s America had become when ‘pop’ singing sensation Johnnie Ray, in his only film role, sings ‘If You Believe’ before leaving the family act to join the priesthood. This Irving Berlin number, written in ‘32 for the stage musical FACE THE MUSIC, originally gave Mary Boland a ripe opportunity to send-up cult evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. (She sang it atop an elephant.*) But in ‘54, it’s sung ‘straight,’ a truly felt spiritual for Ray’s spastic performing style. But then, this thru-the-decades ShowBiz family saga, about the Five Donahues (Ethel Merman, Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor, Donald O’Connor & Ray), is about as square, wholesome & corny as they come. (It makes De Mille’s GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH/’52 look experimental.) Hokey as it is, it’s rather entertaining, with a mix of performers & Berlin tunes that works surprisingly well. Marilyn Monroe is the sexy outlier who winds up, somewhat preposterously, with O’Connor, but at least it’s still early Monroe, before Josh Logan, the Strasbergs & The Method made her so damn self-conscious. Mitzi Gaynor is generically bland & perky, as usual, but Merman’s honest coarseness helps humanize her. (According to Gaynor, they were instant buds, grousing together over Monroe’s constant delaying tactics.) If only the arrangements of songs, sets & story construction weren’t so darn clunky. O’Connor’s big solo comes with a chorus of creepy ‘undead’ statues. Yikes! And even with a score of Berlin standards on display, plus a dozen used willy-nilly in the background, they still manage to serve up ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ a half dozen times. Is that why Merman and Monroe don’t have a duet? What a missed opportunity!

DOUBLE-BILL: *(Okay, this is an Audio Only Double-Bill.) Alas, Mary Boland left no memento of her role in FACE THE MUSIC, though she can be heard warbling to hilarious effect in a few films. Fortunately, the complete score was recorded on a 2007 ENCORES! Cast Album with Judy Kaye doing Boland proud.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Merman’s legendary Mama Rose in GYPSY on B’way was lost when Roz Russell got the role in Mervyn Leroy’s 1962 film embalming. But you can see what might have been watching BUSINESS. An early scene with the kids in a train station and a late backstage confrontation with Monroe match up closely with bits of GYPSY and tell the tale. It could have really been something . . . but not with Leroy.

CONTEST: A billed but unseen artist in this film is also billed but unseen in a Buster Keaton silent. Name the artist & the Keaton movie to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

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