Sunday, August 30, 2009

It Turns Out There Are Other Businesses Like Show Business

I love musicals. Some of the greatest films ever made are musicals. However, there is a sub-genre of musicals that are some of the worst. Such is the case with a movie I watched last night, Walter Lang's There's No Business Like Show Business. An epitome of sorts of this kind of musical from, shall we say, a "certain era". An era where just watching people sing and dance about on screen was good enough. Where songs didn't need to have any relevance whatsoever to the plot and where the film was merely an excuse for people to ham it up and put on big numbers. They usually involved costumes made with big feathers. So much mugging so little time! A time when singing was a different form altogether, a form that is so full of warbled inflections. It makes me shudder.

In Show Business Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey star as "The Two Donahues", two vaudeville performers who frequently incorporate their children in their act. The entire first 30 minutes is so bereft of plot that all it is is wall-to-wall production numbers. That mightn't be so bad if they weren't all songs by Irving Berlin, whose songs err on the side of twee mashes of sentimentality and pointlessness. In a day when musicals are cutting out songs that enhance and contribute to the plot, it's so frustrating watching old musicals wherein barely a single song serves any purpose other than to make Irving Berlin more royalty cheques.

Scenes are just interrupted by characters telling a crowd of party goers "I have a surprise for you!" and then a musical sequence proceeds. For no reason at all! And one that we've already heard, too! (for what it's worth, the song is the redundant "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam'".) "Heatwave" and "Lazy" are fun though. These sort of movies are also really bad when it comes writing. I know realism isn't their strong suit, but characters emotions come and go in a flash while scenes play out all the time like this paraphrased moment:

"I don't like you."
"But I'm a good person!"
"Looks like I was wrong. You're wonderful!"

The movie perks up once Marilyn Monroe shows up, which is so often the case. Her singing scenes are far more interesting than those of the rest of the cast with their far more classical musical style. In fact, the movie is better in general whenever they're not singing! I also wondered if the character of Stevie (played by Johnnie Ray) was supposed to be coming off as gay. He doesn't want to go on dates and spends a lot of time "going for walks" through the city at night. He's "like a poet" says Merman. MmHmmm. Of course, there's a scene that comes off as a "coming out" moment and yet... and yet... it turns out the shocking truth that may surprise his parents is that he wants to be... A PRIEST! Oh those 1950s family values. MmHmmm, indeed. His father doesn't approve, but his female siblings prove supportive.

"You raise your kids... and then this! Why? How come? ... I'm not disappointed Steve. It's a wonderful thing. I'm just not used to it yet. But I'm proud. Very proud."

Heather Small would be, oh yes, "proud"!
I know there was a big audience for this sort of musical "back in the day", but watching it today makes me pine for the musicals like West Side Story, which came about at the end of the decade. As it stands, I'll take my disco version of Ethel Merman's "There's No Business Like Show Business" and be on my way. D+


Bobby said...

That film seems like a remake of a standard issue MGM musical from the late 30s/early 40s. Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey were in the Sophie Tucker and Charles Winninger roles, Donald O'Connor and Mitzi Gaynor took over the young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland roles and Marilyn Monroe replaced early Lana Turner.

Also, when one son (Johnnie Ray as Jackie Cooper) announces that he wants to become a priest, the parents react as though he wants to have a transsexual operation. WTF?

Glenn Dunks said...

Indeed. The sort of musical in which the characters are performers and merely spend the movie performing numbers for an unseen audience. Just feels so pointless.

The coming out as a priest thing is so very bizarre though. I woulda thought that was a good thing back then, no?

Jake said...

You've made me want to see it! The priest subplot sounds truly weird -- kind of The Jazz Singer in reverse.

On another note, what's with the C grade for Shopaholic? I was counting on you to go into bat for that one.

Glenn Dunks said...

Jake, it's sort of ditched after a brief while. Once they've "accepted" him as a priest they just sort of don't care about it anymore.

I thought Shopaholic was the definition of "mediocre".