TB: Our latest theme focuses on bandleader Glenn Miller. This weekend we are going to look at a film in which Miller and his orchestra appear, although Miller is playing a fictional character. And then next weekend, we will look at a somewhat fictionalized but still faithful music biopic about his life that was made after Miller’s death.
JL: This is a pleasant wartime follow-up to SUN VALLEY SERENADE that instantly references the earlier film’s smash hit recording of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in its opening rehearsal setting. However we only get a few rifts before a new song is introduced, the boppy, if bland for the post-R&R generation, “People Like You and Me” that promotes the war effort. Mack Gordon and Harry Warren wrote this and other songs, the two big hits on the Billboard charts being “Serenade in Blue” and “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” the latter I will get to in more detail later. “At Last,” originally written for but not used in the previous film, would be a hit for other artists over the years, including Etta James’ R&B rendition in 1960.
TB: “At Last” had become Miller’s signature tune by this point in his career, so it’s understandable that it is used as a theme song right from the start of the movie. In fact, I am surprised it didn’t appear in SUN VALLEY SERENADE but that was a Sonja Henie vehicle. This time around, we have what is for all intents and purposes a Glenn Miller picture. Even if one of the studio’s handsomest actors (George Montgomery) and a starlet borrowed from MGM (Ann Rutherford) technically play the main story.
JL: It is fascinating to see Harry Morgan of future M*A*S*H fame appear in both this movie with the real Glenn Miller (even though I can’t recall seeing them together on screen) and then again later with Jimmy Stewart playing Miller in THE GLENN MILLER STORY.
TB: Yes, I found that a bit ironic. Of course when Morgan appeared in ORCHESTRA WIVES he was just starting as a contract player in Hollywood. And he had no idea Miller would die before the end of the war and that there would be a film about Miller’s life ten years later where Morgan would be cast as one of the band members. But yeah, Harry Morgan is a link that connects both productions.
JL: Equally interesting is that the real Miller looks, acts and sounds nothing like Stewart, aside from those familiar glasses. Stewart’s Miller is very methodical, while Miller himself is more “oh shucks” easy going, if still playing a serious and straight-faced band leader named Gene Morrison here. Although his role is third-billed, it would have been interesting to see what his Hollywood career would have been like had he survived the war.
TB: My theory is that Fox executives didn’t feel Miller was exactly leading man material. They brought Montgomery in to handle the love scenes with Rutherford. Sort of like how Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell were assigned to portray fictional lovebirds in BRIGHAM YOUNG (1940) while Dean Jagger played what should have been the lead character. If Miller had survived the war and made other pictures, my bet is he would have continued to do supporting roles like bandleader Xavier Cugat did at MGM. But this is all speculation on my part. Probably Miller would have had his own weekly TV series like Lawrence Welk did.
JL: With Miller pretty much taking a back seat in the story, the main focus is on musical fan Connie (Rutherford) and trumpet player Bill (Montgomery). Their whirlwind marriage (and not even knowing each other’s name when the decision is made) prompts her to start a brand new life as one of the characters described in the title. Initially the working title was ORCHESTRA WIFE with the focus mostly on her.
TB: I think they made the right decision to pluralize the title. It becomes more of an ensemble picture, with emphasis on all the band members and their wives without really losing the main love story. The actresses who play the catty wives are very good, especially Carole Landis who at this time was one of studio chief Daryl Zanuck’s regular girlfriends. Landis easily steals the scenes she is in with the other gals, and while Rutherford is a decent enough actress she doesn’t have to carry everything on her own.
JL: Unfortunately Connie knows nothing of Bill’s earlier relationship with band singer Jaynie (Lynn Barrie, whom we saw earlier in SUN VALLEY SERENADE).
The other wives (Virginia Gilmore, Mary Beth Hughes and Landis) spill the truth during a bridge game. Thus, we get our expected obstacle to put the question of “will they live happily ever after?” in doubt. In disgust for being the last-in-the-know, Connie bolts out, then returns later to confront both Janie and Bill about their past together and responds “Perhaps it is all part of being an orchestra wife. If that is so, I don’t want to be an orchestra wife.”
TB: I had to laugh at some of Connie’s actions, because clearly she is immature and in way over her head. The other wives make mincemeat out of her, and Connie’s response seems only to become more melodramatic. I would expect this behavior from Rutherford’s well-known character Polly Benedict, lashing out because boyfriend Andy Hardy fell for guest star Judy Garland or Lana Turner! But anyway, back to our story…
JL: Later Bill starts to cool off when Connie seeks forgiveness for her jealousy and she has to resort to an absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder approach with more time away. This involves her kind-hearted doctor father (Grant Mitchell) in a memorable scene towards the end.
TB: What are your thoughts specifically about Rutherford?
JL: Without a doubt, Ann Rutherford is the star here and she is easy to relate to; my favorite scene has her on the attack against the fellow wives as catty “cats,” which they obviously are, and adding “but you can take your claws out of me.” However I must confess that most of the cast is merely adequate (good but not great acting).
TB: What do you mean?
JL: Not sure if anybody gave interviews in later years recalling their experience on this film, but my overall vibe is that this was viewed by more than one as another-Fox-picture-to-do on their contract. Aside from the above mentioned Harry Morgan, we also have Fox studio familiar Cesar Romero as a fellow band performer.
TB: You may be right that they saw this as just another studio assignment. But the music is so exceptional and the overall energy of the picture is so good, especially that outdoor number in the park near the beginning, that I think it becomes more than just routine moviemaking. They really seem to be having fun on screen, in many of the scenes. Not just the musical numbers, but all of it. I have to say I love Miller’s real-life band and I am glad they are prominently featured during the performing of Miller’s big hit tunes. Even though Montgomery and Romero are tossed in on the side, their stuff definitely being dubbed.
JL: For the musical numbers with the band, we see Marion Hutton, the Modernaires, Ray Eberle, Buddy Hackett and heard-on-soundtrack is Johnny Best doing George Montgomery’s trumpet playing.
Even if the performances are largely okay, the basic story is a surprisingly good one that isn’t tapped enough in musicals, being true-to-life. It addresses life on the road. There is a key scene of Connie having to borrow a nightgown because of her rush marriage and inexperienced with this way of life. Also, we see the problems of infidelity among traveling entertainers. Obviously the Hayes office would have only approved the script after plenty of blue pencil scratch-outs since there is much hinting but no actual accusing here.
TB: Good points. I agree that there is much realism in this picture. In many regards it is not as corny as the 1954 biopic which is a sanitized version of Miller and his mates on the road.
JL: Like any good musical, it ends with a spectacular finish involving the Kalamazoo song, featuring all of the performers heard on the popular 78rpm disc. This brings me to the real scene stealers of the number: the Nicholas Brothers. Unfortunately they are not seen with Glenn Miller, as was also the case of the earlier SUN VALLEY SERENADE “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” but they certainly outperform the previous effort with twice as much gusto and are literally doing back flips. This brings our production to a rousing climax, after tidying up all of the romantic business earlier (which ultimately is a whole lot about very little).
TB: Thanks Jlewis. This film may currently be viewed on YouTube.