There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954, Walter Lang)

A flimsy, superficial story about a family with a history in showbusiness provides an excuse to put on a series of old-fashioned showtunes, including the title number, You’d Be Surprised, the best-forgotten A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (‘Til a Sailor’s Been Tattooed) and a seemingly hundred-minute version of Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Yet somehow it got a best-story oscar nomination, beaten out by a Spencer Tracy western.

The women were good in this, at least. Ethel Merman (more of a stage actress, only her second movie since the 30’s) plays the mom. I see she did an early version of Anything Goes and a movie called Alexander’s Ragtime Band – remind me not to rent that one. She and Dan Dailey (It’s Always Fair Weather, My Blue Heaven) play vaudeville performers who weather out the decline portrayed in Cradle Will Rock, start performing at movie theaters, and gradually expand their act as they have children who grow into Donald O’Connor (couple years after Singin’ in the Rain), Mitzi Gaynor (Donald’s gal in Anything Goes), and a horribly wooden Johnnie Ray, in just about his only movie role.

Drama (barely): Donald falls for young upstart Marilyn Monroe then he and Mitzi follow her on tour instead of sticking with the parents, Johnnie leaves showbiz entirely to become a priest, and they all happily reunite for a revival show at the end. Katy and I were not impressed. The same group – director Lang, writers the Ephrons, cinematographer Leon Shamroy – made Desk Set a couple years later.

Desk Set (1957, Walter Lang)

Walter “no relation to Fritz” Lang had just come off a couple big musicals and been nominated for an oscar (George Stevens beat him with Giant). Written by Phoebe and Henry “parents of Nora” Ephron (Carousel) and shot by Leon Shamroy (Caprice, Leave Her to Heaven, You Only Live Once) in glorious Cinemascope. Seems odd for an office comedy which all takes place indoors, but it looked really nice so I’m not complaining. Katy liked it, too.

This massive wide shot of the research department, where the bulk of the film takes place, looks so sad shrunken down to web-size:

Katharine Hepburn heads the research department at a TV network, with her loyal coworkers Peg The Older One (Joan Blondell of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Footlight Parade, Nightmare Alley), Ruthie The Cute One (Sue Randall, whom I thought I recognized, but this was her only film before a busy ten-year TV career) and Sylvia The Nondescript Blonde (Dina Merrill of The Magnificent Ambersons [not the Welles], Beyond a Reasonable Doubt [not the Lang] and Catch Me If You Can [not the Spielberg]).

The girls, L-R: Hepburn, Blondell, Randall, Merrill. Notice anything about the actresses’ names when they’re strung together like that?

All is running smoothly until Spencer Tracy shows up muttering about computers and waving a measuring tape all over the place. Rumors fly that he’s planning to replace the girls with machines. Finally the mammoth computer is installed (thanks to the movie’s marketing partner IBM) along with its brittle operator (TV’s Neva Patterson), and worst fears come true when the researchers all get pink slips in their next paycheck. But it turns out everyone got pink slips – the computer in accounting is malfunctioning. IBM didn’t have the whole product-placement thing figured out yet – humorous or not, you’re not supposed to show your major new technological innovation causing massive problems at the company that installed it. To make up for that, Tracy explains that none of the girls will lose their jobs, and in fact their work will be easier than ever thanks to the new computer – a giant lie.

Wikipedia: “At that time IBM had not quite finished establishing its dominance over the computer market, but computers were already starting to replace whole offices of clerical workers, and most Americans did not know much more than that about computers. This movie would prepare them for what computers were about to do to their society.”

I know how Tracy feels. This weekend it took the Flying Biscuit twenty minutes to make my sausage biscuit because “the computer was down”. What computer??

Secondary conflict: Hepburn’s boss (Gig Young of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and the George Sidney Three Musketeers) is also her occasional boyfriend. He’s a loser manager who can’t even do his own budget reports, getting Hepburn to secretly do them for him, and she’s a total brainiac, so it figures at the end she’ll dump the loser in favor of socially-awkward computer egghead Tracy.

Spencer Tracy knows a thing or two about a thing or two. Hepburn’s boss/boyfriend listens intently while she flashes a ghastly expression:

Why not buy it from Amazon?
Desk Set DVD