Essential: ORCHESTRA WIVES (1942)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Essential: THE GLENN MILLER STORY (1954)

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TB: This weekend we conclude our theme on Glenn Miller, looking at the musical biopic that Universal made about the famous bandleader’s life. THE GLENN MILLER STORY was produced nine years after Miller’s disappearance. (His plane had been shot down over the English Channel in December 1944, during the final year of the war.) By this point, Miller’s music was being reissued and he was just as popular as ever.

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Glenn and his wife Helen are played in the movie by James Stewart and June Allyson, who previously teamed up at Metro for THE STRATTON STORY (1949). Under director Anthony Mann, they would pair up again a year later for the aviation drama STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND (1955). But the Glenn Miller biopic is probably the one people think of most when they think of Stewart costarring with Allyson.

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TB: Recently Jlewis had a chance to look at the film again. And as we talked about it, I thought he brought up some interesting and valid points.

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JL: Honestly…to quote a favorite expression of June Allyson’s Helen Burger Miller…I should not go on and on about the way this musical biopic takes Hollywood liberties with real life, but they do add a certain charm to the proceedings and are a key reason I have watched this fluff a couple times over the decades.

Most often discussed in print is the running joke, later part of a tearful ending, about how Helen loved “Little Brown Jug” and Jimmy Stewart’s version of Glenn Miller disliked it and only had it played in his final concert.

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Yet the real Miller certainly thought highly enough of it to score a major hit in 1939. Then again, there is this peculiar arrangement in which all of the Miller hits are presented with no sense of chronology at all; a version of “Over the Rainbow” is heard in a mid-thirties scene set well ahead of THE WIZARD OF OZ introducing it. (I goofed in my earlier review of SUN VALLEY SERENADE by getting Stewart’s scenes conducting of “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade” mixed up in my mind since it had been a while since I watched this, but that is, again, due to the rather clumsy way the Miller discography is presented here.)

TB: I maybe think the reason they’ve taken such liberties with the sequence of hits is because this is supposed to be more of a general medley or ‘greatest hits’ feeling, instead of a detailed chronology of how the songs came to be. Though we certainly do have key scenes with Glenn and the band composing and performing the songs for audiences hearing them for what was probably the first time. It’s just a rather loosely structured presentation of the songs, but it in no way interferes with the celebration of this music. For anyone expecting to get an accurate history about Glenn and his band, they will probably be a bit disappointed. In addition to the chronology of tunes being slightly ‘off,’ the filmmakers also take liberties with historical facts as related to Miller’s military duty.

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JL: I suspect that the film received its full cooperation from the U.S. military by showcasing just how integrated it had become by 1953, the year it was filmed, rather than the way it actually was in 1942-44, more segregated. I am sure that director Anthony Mann was well aware of this anachronism but also accepted it in order to make a noble statement on the direction America should go in the mutual acceptance of all races.

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Even though Miller’s band itself was strictly Caucasian, every effort is made to present him as “color blind” as possible, taking his wife to see Louis Armstrong (playing himself) on the night of their honeymoon and both in awe of his talents. By the way, that speakeasy scene is beautifully executed with a color filter wheel spinning and changing the facial appearances of the cast in a fascinating rainbow of lights. Maybe it too makes a statement about how we all are of one “color” as humanity? Oh… the wonderful subliminal messages of movies….

TB: Interesting comment. One thing I took from my viewing of this film is how much Glenn connects his music to his wife. Yes, we see him on the road with the guys in the band, and we have him interacting with Armstrong and other notable musicians, too. But Helen is always close by and his love for her is equal to his love for music. She’s not one of these neglected orchestra wives like we saw in the 1942 movie from 20th Century Fox that featured him in the cast.

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TB: Let’s get back to the story functioning as a sort of time capsule. Any other historical discrepancies you noticed?

JL: Well, Frances Langford and the Modernaires reportedly did not perform with Miller in wartime England (although they did in the States) but, of course, they knew that themselves when they agreed to perform with Jimmy Stewart’s Miller. Again, there is an overall sense that all of the inaccuracies have been done deliberately and not accidentally.

TB: What makes you say that?

JL: There was absolutely no intention to make a straightforward documentary here. THE GLENN MILLER STORY is really a Hollywood “valentine” made to an icon who sold as many records as Elvis and the Beatles, presented in the way millions of Americans wanted to remember him. They knew they were getting something that bordered on fantasy and simply did not care, making this a huge blockbuster in its day and eagerly purchasing the LP album put out by Decca a top seller on Billboard for ten weeks…and honestly (as Allyson’s Helen would say), are the more recent musical biopics like BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY and ROCKETMAN any more accurate than THE GLENN MILLER STORY?

TB: I don’t think so.

JL: Although Stewart is the star and Henry Morgan and George Tobias give great support (along with other familiars, like Marion Ross of Happy Days having a minor role), June Allyson is the true “heart” of this film and, honestly, I consider this the best performance I’ve seen of hers.

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TB: I think there’s a reason why Stewart chose June Allyson to be his leading lady again, and why he would go on to make another film with her. She has a unique way of centering a story, even when she is not exactly playing the most central character. It’s one of her strengths as an actress.

JL: I do love a great many of her films even if few are classics, including many earlier MGM musicals where she brings an emotional, maternal quality to her performances not unlike Judy Garland’s in a way. However Stewart, when lacking a strong female support, can come across as too analytical and self-absorbed at times (even though he is capable of great performances himself as both Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock proved). Allyson’s performance prevents us from thinking of him as too stiff and disciplined. We the viewers view Stewart’s Miller through Allyson’s Helen, through her eyes and through her view point.

TB: I can’t disagree. Let’s go over the courtship scenes at the beginning, which are wonderful. If we’re to believe what we’re shown on screen, Glenn and Helen’s early period together as a couple was not without its share of problems. Stewart and Allyson do quite well playing the bumpier stuff in the relationship. Apparently, the Millers had broken up for awhile, before they reconciled and were finally married.

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JL: When he disappears and reappears, expecting her to marry him right away, we are as shocked as she is…and we feel just like she does with a mixture of surprise and that fuzzy warmth she can’t fight when he is around. We love the fact that she deliberately presents herself to him with curler ribbons in her hair at 2 AM in the morning to show how annoyed she is with his timing.

TB: Definitely a memorable scene.

JL: We want her to take that leap of faith with him and know she will. We also see how the band gets financed by her unique way of saving and balancing checkbooks (Allyson often played practical ladies like this before, aiding struggling men like klutzy Peter Lawford in GOOD NEWS).

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JL: When Glenn leaves for the military, we are again experiencing it all through her more than we do through him. Likewise, when George Tobias’ Si Shribman suggests that Glenn’s death is a “test,” we ask just as she does “what kind of test?”

TB: Because she is anchoring the story this way, we become more involved in the outcome. We realize that he won’t return from the war and she must grapple with powerful emotions when that happens. We are experiencing all the highs and lows of her marriage to Glenn, right along with her. In this regard, it’s sort of a melodrama, more than it is a musical biopic. Incidentally, I am kind of surprised that Universal didn’t assign house director Douglas Sirk to this project instead of Anthony Mann who was more known for crime films, westerns and adventure flicks. Perhaps because Stewart liked working with Mann and they collaborated on other features. But I do wonder how the film’s more melodramatic aspects might have been conveyed visually if Sirk had been placed in charge. Any more comments you’d like to add?

JL: All in all, this is likely a more accurate re-telling of the Miller story from a personal private-life angle than, say, THE SOUND OF MUSIC is of the Von Trapp family. My guess is that the real Helen Miller was just as pleased with June Allyson’s performance as Maria Von Trapp was with Julie Andrews. In both cases prettier actresses are preserving them for posterity.

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There are some interesting candid photos online of Helen on the set, so she was well aware of how her and her late husband’s lives were presented. All of the basics are there: they married in 1928 and she found out after an illness on the road that she couldn’t have children so two were adopted.

TB: Incidentally, Stewart had adopted his two stepsons after he was married in 1949. So I am sure the adoption scenes in the movie meant something special to him, personally.

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JL: A couple other details are presented correctly and the great strength in any biopic is capturing the overall feel of a famous figure’s life. Glenn Miller studied under Joseph Schillinger who is indirectly referenced. Ben Pollack (playing himself) was among the first major bands he performed with in 1926, followed by Red Nichols in 1930 (and Nichols got his own biopic later through Paramount, THE FIVE PENNIES).

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It was through Nichols that he became friends with Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa (also appearing as himself here). Unless I missed it, no mention is made on screen about the Dorsey brothers (i.e. Miller performed with both them and Bing Crosby before he too became a household name) or Ray Noble (Miller’s first movie appearance was with Noble in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1936). His first band lasted several months in 1937-38, the second being the one responsible for the explosion of hits in 1938-42 pre military. Life on the road was hard and the film presents this quite well with cars breaking down in the snow and Miller showing up at a gig with muddy trousers.

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In addition to Ben Pollack, Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, the Modernaires and Frances Langford, we get other big band performers playing themselves here, if much older in 1953 than they were in the ’20s-40s setting of our story.

TB: Langford also played a younger version of herself in Columbia’s musical drama about singers entertaining the troops during WWII, called PURPLE HEART DIARY, in 1951. She seemed to be able to continue her own movie career this way.

JL: There aren’t a lot of major feature films that feature such names as Cozy Cole (shown with Armstrong and probably the highest profile name in the credits for modern jazz enthusiasts), Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Johnny Best, Arvell Shaw and Babe Russin and I am eternally grateful that Universal-International preserved them all in living color despite their appearances basically being brief cameos.

It should also be mentioned, however, that several were already veterans of the screen, as well as veterans of the Universal studio since they appeared in Universal short subjects like the popular “Name Band” musical 2-reelers that were distributed alongside the Woody Woodpecker cartoons, “Variety Views” and other ‘extras’ before features like this one. The Modernaires had appeared with Woody Herman and Blue Barron in two vintage shorts of 1948 and ’52.

TB: The Modernaires had also turned up in Fox’s musical biopic on the life of Jane Froman, WITH A SONG IN MY HEART, in 1952.

JL: Krupa was in DRUMMER MAN (1947) and a short film billing him outright in ’49. Ben Pollack first appeared in a Universal “Meltone Brevity” way back in 1934 with future TV host Ed Sullivan. Too bad Universal didn’t add any of these to the DVD of this film as Warner often does on their DVDs.

TB: Thanks Jlewis for taking the time to discuss THE GLENN MILLER STORY today. And as you noted, it’s available on DVD from Universal home video.

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