The Donahues, Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terence (Dan Dailey), were a vaudeville act for decades, and had started out as a successful husband and wife team in the 1910s. As time went on, their act increased by three, and their children would appear alongside them onstage but after a few years of dragging them around railway stations the couple decided to send them to school. They didn't get on too well, though, they were fine students, it's just that they wanted to be in show business with their parents, and by and by they were, creating an act known as The Five Donhaues...
This unimaginatively Cinemascoped family drama was designed to showcase as many Irving Berlin songs as they could possibly pack into its two hour running time, and in that respect it was very successful. However, in spite of the quality of the tunes somehow this is not thought of as one of the all time classic musicals of its day, as while there are highlights the story is pure soap opera and the numbers are frankly vulgar. Look at the "Alexander's Ragtime Band" sequence which introduces the family, mounting the song on a succession of stagings that represent some nations of the world.
You haven't seen anything till you've heard Donald O'Connor, as wayward son Tim, adopting a Scottish accent to put a Highland fling on Berlin's venerable song, which is every bit as ghastly as it sounds. And this is a pattern that continues throughout, with the drama enlived with the odd comic line and a lot of sentimentality as you would expect, but the musical setpieces among the tackiest of the fifties. Ethel Merman was always an acquired taste as one of the loudest singers of all time and you don't forget that here, but seeing her belting out the tattoo song with Mitzi Gaynor (as daughter Katy), complete with sailor suits and sideburns (!) is an image many could have done without.
I haven't mentioned the biggest star here, and she plays the brash Tim's love interest Vicky Parker: Marilyn Monroe. Her big number is no less over the top than the others, but has gone down as one of her better ones, and it's "Heatwave" which she performs in a bikini while surrounded by supposedly Mexican dancers; it's still gaudy, but Monroe sells it. Vicky was a role written especially for her, which explains why she seems crowbarred into the plot in what is essentially a beefed up supporting part, and the scenes where she is romanced by Tim have you feeling total sympathy for Vicky as O'Connor is forced to play him as a wisecracking womaniser and you grow tired of him pretty quickly.
And yet, it all builds up to a reconciliation that is surprisingly affecting, though not after we have to sit through the ups and downs of the Donahues. This includes the older son, Steve, as essayed by the legendarily troubled crooner Johnnie Ray in what was his only film role of any note, who enters the priesthood. He never quite explains why, but the way Ray interprets the role we can assume it was because he was gay; anyway, piling on the turmoil is what this film is all about - well, other than offering up some blaring showtunes - and there's no bigger turmoil than Tim. He is obviously an alcoholic, and after breaking the hearts of his family and Vicky he goes missing on opening night, no less. Even the most cynical viewer will be moved by what happens at the end, yet it will also have you wishing the rest of the film had been of this quality. Or perhaps by this time the movie has beaten you into submission.