Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

Continuing our series of Hollywood jazz and swing movies, we come to one of the most popular film bios, Universal's The Glenn Miller Story. Although full of the usual historical inaccuracies and laughable dialog, the film combines great storytelling, a wonderful love story and superb music, resulting in top entertainment.

The real Glenn Miller (1904-44) was a talented trombonist, arranger and a sharp businessman who plied his trade for years as a sideman (Ben Pollack, the Dorsey Brothers, Red Nichols and Ray Noble) led several unsuccessful bands, then hit a style and sound that captured the country. At the height of his success, he gave up the great riches and celebrity to serve the war effort leading a great service band to entertain the troops. He would lose his life immersed in this endeavor.

This real Miller was stern, taciturn and removed from his musicians. James Stewart as Glenn is portrayed as affable, hardworking and likable. (Hollywood didn't have any use for the real Miller). The respected critic and writer, George Simon, a good friend of Miller praised June Allyson's portrayal of Helen Miller and the accurate bond between them as shown in the film. The film pulls all the right strings and deserves the continued success it has enjoyed these 50-plus years.

First and foremost is the music. It is expertly played by some of the best Hollywood studio players (many Miller alums) such as Willie Schwartz (portrayed in the film), John Best, Zeke Zarchy, Babe Russin and Paul Tanner (both appear in the film), Mannie Klein and Rolly Bundock. Joseph Gershenson, Universal's music director supervised the adaptations with a great assist from Henry Mancini. Henry had a short stateside stint with the Air Force band and worked with Tex Beneke's postwar Miller band. He was very familiar with the style. Mancini also contributed a beautiful ballad, Too Little Time, which was used as a recurring love theme in the film. Glenn's first name band association was with Ben Pollack. Ben appears as himself getting to show some of his great drum work. (He had a similar role in the Benny Goodman Story.) The one and only Louis Armstrong appears in a great jam session sequence when Glenn and Helen are just married and go to Harlem to hear Pops. (Glenn, like every musician in the 20s, idolized Louis). Helen, not aware of jazz asks "Who's He?"-Glenn's terse response is "Why, Louis Armstrong!" Louis and his All-Stars (Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Marty Napolean, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole) play Basin St. Blues. Babe Russin, Gene Krupa ( Glenn's Red Nichols band mates at the time) and Glenn sit in.Unfortunately, this scene has been edited and we miss some great blowing by Pops. (He would record this version twice for Decca and keep it in his shows for many years). Gene and Cozy do some neat drum battling during the sequence. Joe Yukl, a big band and studio veteran who replaced Glenn in the Dorsey Bros. band, did the trombone work and coaching for Stewart. (Jimmy does a decent job of faking the slide work).

Surprisingly, Tex Beneke was left out of the film. Perhaps due to bad feelings on the part of Helen and the Miller estate. Tex had led the Miller band but had a falling out with the family. Jerry Gray was only mentioned once and other standouts such as Ray Eberle, Marion Hutton, Bobby Hackett, Bill Finegan, Billy May and Ray McKinley were omitted. (I guess the studio wanted to save some money on talent). Paula Kelly, Hal Dickinson and a new version of the Modernnaires appear during an Air Force concert sequence. Vocal Star Frances Langford (no Miller ties) sings Chatanooga ChooChoo with them. Perhaps they were trying to show the guest star format Glenn had with the Army Air Force band. (Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby had guested). Chummy MacGregor, Glenn's longtime pianist, is given a meaty role played by Harry Morgan (then known as Henry, before Dragnet and MASH). Chummy was a technical adviser on the film and in real life was nothing like the jovial Morgan portrayal. Si Shribman, a Boston ballroom owner and booker, was a real "angel" to the Miller band during its struggling years. In typical Hollywood fashion, Si (played by George Tobias) hangs around the Miller family like a Dutch uncle for the rest of the film. Don Haynes was a friend of Glenn's and served as his personal manager and lieutenant in the Air Force band. He is played by Charles Drake. Don's wife, Polly, was also a dear family friend and worked for Glenn as personal secretary and office manager. She is played by a young Marion Ross. (This was long before Happy Days. I don't think she had any lines). Veteran character actor Barton MacLane appears as General Arnold, a friend and ally of Glenn's AAF Band.

The film was expertly directed by Anthony Mann. Writers Valentine Davies and Oscar Brodney came up with some fine real life story lines. One standout scene is Glenn and the early Miller band struggling to get to a dance date in wintry New England. These kinds of headaches fell upon every "road" band of the era. The scene with Glenn and a few of the boys getting the dance going while overcoated horn players add their parts in quickly is very effective. Another episode during the Air Force days shows Glenn and the band playing In the Mood and competing with an air battle overhead. The band keeps playing thru the air raid signal and receives a thunderous ovation when the signal is lifted. This scene has been recounted by many of the Army Air Force band members.

The famous Miller "sound" of clarinet lead is given the typical Hollywood tratment. In real life, Glenn had tried this sound briefly in experiment. His first try was with Ray Noble, having trumpeter PeeWee Erwin play above the saxes. In Glenn's early 1937 band he had the great Irving Fazola on clarinet. Faz was not a great saxophonist, so Glenn had him double the tenor lead to create a pleasant unison voicing. Later Glenn started to use this sound more, until it became his trademark and established the band's "sound".

In the movie we get the trumpet man playing lead, but when he sits down he bangs his horn on a music stand cutting his lip! As a trumpet player I cringe at the scene. All horn men know enough to take their horn away from their lip when navigating a precarious spot. Anyway, Glenn decides he can have Willie Schwartz play the lead on clarinet. (That really happened.).We see Glenn up all night in Si's office rewriting the parts (with the help of much coffee!). Actually all he had to do was give Willie the trumpet part. They're in the same range! But it makes great theatre and the next night at the dance, the kids go wild over the new "sound!" These Hollywood takes on the facts are what make these bios so enjoyable and such guilty pleasures.

Another silly scene has Glenn and Helen out at a nightspot to hear Glenn's Moonlight Serenade .We get a raucous girl singer and a voluptuous chorus line belting it out! Glenn and Helen cringe. Silly, but charming. Little Brown Jug was one of Glenn's early hits (1939). In the film it is a favorite of Helen's, but Glenn thinks it's kind of corny. It is used as the final number played by the AAF band after Glenn's dissapearance. That final scene with Helen, Chummy and family listening to the Christmas broadcast is very touching and beautifully played by June Allyson and Harry Morgan. We can go on and on with the wrong dates, times, places and personell but the Miller Story is a wonderful story that touches the viewer with the great sounds of the big band era and the inspiring story of the bandleader who became a hero. That final flight Glenn took from London to Paris is played with great authenticity and drama.

All the great Miller hits are heard in various forms including In the Mood, Tuxedo Junction, St. Louis Blues March and String of Pearls). The soundtrack album originally on Decca with Louis doing Basin St. and Dark Eyes (not in the movie) has been available since the film's release. (It is now available on an MCA cd). The DVD version is available from Universal. The Glenn Miller Band still tours and records. The baton has gone from Tex to Ray McKinley to Buddy DeFranco and currently to Larry O'Brien. I'm sure there will always be a Miller band just like there will always be a Boston Pops.

Glenn Miller made his mark on American popular music. It's a tragedy we didn't get to see what he would do in the post-war years. (The AAF band gave us a small idea). This movie spawned more of the Hollywood bios. Next time we'll look at the Benny Goodman Story.

Hope this post put you In the Mood.


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Craig Swank said...

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz - recently at the conclusion of the Glenn Miller Story talks briefly about the disappearance of Miller's flight - saying that an airman came forward who was flying back to Great Britain from France or Europe somewhere on a 'cancelled' bombing mission - The Bombers dispatched their bombs high over the channel before landing and it said airman says they did see a very small aircraft at a lower elevation - and believed a bomb did make contact and destroy the plane accidentally - the same day which Miller was flying

Who knows?