The Glenn Miller Story is Just Dynamite!
By Kristin Battestella
James Stewart stars as Glenn Miller, a poor musician courting Helen Burger (June Allyson) in this 1954 biopic. Miller pawns and borrows instruments as needed between gigs - which he’s usually tossed from thanks to his radical, jazzed up arrangements. When Glenn and piano man Chummy (Harry Morgan, Dragnet, MASH) finally get a steady tour with the band, success comes calling- only to be followed by more pawnshops. After years of ups and downs, adoptions, and scrimping and saving; solid acclaim finally arrives thanks to ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and the ‘Glenn Miller Sound’. When war breaks out, Captain Miller and his entire Orchestra enlist and embark on an overseas tour. The boys entertain the troops through the blitz- literally- before a pre-Christmas tragedy intervenes in 1944.
“He’s not dead, he’s missing!” So says Bea Arthur as the Glenn Miller obsessed Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls. When asked if she’s a fan in the fifth season episode ‘Dancing in the Dark’, Dorothy responds, “Are you kidding? I was in the search party!” Today’s younger generation probably only knows ‘In the Mood’- if you’re lucky and they know Miller at all. Although, I suppose I’m a bit of an over fan; my husband says people our age aren’t supposed to like Glenn Miller. When I say put on a record, he chooses one from thirty years ago when I’m thinking 1930s! Unfortunately, as of yet, I’ve been unable to find Miller’s headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, though I have searched for it on a trip or two. There’s simply so much more to this World War II MIA casualty than to be forgotten by contemporary audiences, and The Glenn Miller Story highlights the famed musician from his humble rise and big band heights to career success and his final military service.
Naturally, The Glenn Miller Story is not quite a traditional fifties musical as we might expect, nor is it actually that accurate for a biography. Embellishments on the stories behind Miller staples like ‘String of Pearls’, ‘Pennsylvania 65000’, and ‘Little Brown Jug’ are reaching just a bit towards the love story and over dramatization. Even so, frequent Stewart director Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River), and writers Valentine Davies (Miracle on 34th Street, It Happens Every Spring) and Oscar Brodney’s (Tammy and the Bachelor) Oscar nominated tale is still light hearted, toe tapping, and charming. Though only ten years removed from his tragic crash, The Glenn Miller Story doesn’t capitalize, but rather celebrates an American rags to riches story with great people and awesome tunes. Even with said liberties on the facts and the not a musical per se label, the innocent romance, musical scenes, and dynamite compositions are balanced together wonderfully. We have concert sequences and stage performances to accent the human story, and as superior as the music is, it doesn’t replace the focus on the man and his dreams. The Glenn Miller Story also breaks a few 1954 taboos and features black and white musicians playing together- even though there are segregated club scenes, too. I can see some die-hard Miller enthusiasts actually being upset with The Glenn Miller Story; the entire presentation is actually pretty unrealistic. There are obvious errors, timeline confusions, musical anachronisms, and more embellishment than the real deal. I wouldn’t recommend this for the formal classroom either. Here we have a film about one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and you hardly ever hear any musical terms! So what if parts of The Glenn Miller Story are completely ridiculously, fifties faults, and marshmallow? This is still an endearing little encapsulation of great pre-war music and mid century sentiment, and it’s an absolute delight!
He’s Jimmy Stewart and he’s Glenn Miller. We instantly like golly gee Glenn because he certainly has a touch of George Bailey, doesn’t he? Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Harvey, Rear Window, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I’ll stop…) is himself- the actor and veteran we know and love- and yet, he is also completely in the vein of Miller’s look, persona, and mannerisms. Miller is a man often down on his luck and low on cash, but he never lets that interfere with his seemingly outrageous dreams. Yes, Stewart is obviously not playing diddily on that slide trombone, but so what? It sounds good; looks good, the man and the music come across perfectly and wonderfully embody an iconic American success story. It’s just amazing how a little pair of glasses can make such a big difference! Of course, the June Allyson romance is a little too Wonderful Life as well, and Allyson doesn’t have much to do beyond being the sassy, good little woman doing all the Mrs. Miller inspiring behind the scenes. However, Allyson does have that button cute style and does sassy so well- heck, she practically made a career out of playing Stewart’s good little woman with Strategic Air Command and The Stratton Story. Unfortunately, there are a lots of great tunes that aren’t heard because room was made for laying the sappy on so thick, but The Glenn Miller Story is still a fine introduction for a younger casual big band fan or a trip down memory lane. This is how a rock bio should be! Who needs all that sex, drugs, and rock n roll thrust on us today when we can have music and stars like this? Not to be outdone, surprise appearances by the likes of The Modernaires, Gene Krupa, and Louis Armstrong add more fun to The Glenn Miller Story. In that regard, there is a lot of footage and musical history that you can’t get anywhere else.
And let’s talk some more about that charming music, because it just needs a paragraph all its own! From the opening bars of ‘Moonlight Serenade’ sweeping in with the credits to the tear jerking ‘Little Brown Jug’ finale, Joseph Gershenson (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Henry Mancini’s (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) Oscar nominated adaptation and scoring of Miller’s tunes are like a character unto themselves in The Glenn Miller Story. Even with such a heartwarming story, this is an incredible film just to listen to- for the budding forties music fan or those unfortunately unaware, it is simply amazing to hear so many great songs and realize, well, that these are great songs! Though it can be frustrating that all the songs aren’t named onscreen, there are so many recognizable hits and melodies both lingering in the underscore or being played to the hilt with full orchestra arrangements. I simply adore the totally feigned serendipitous appearance of ‘I Know Why and So do You’ and there’s a great dance routine to accompany ‘Tuxedo Junction’. ‘Over the Rainbow’ and ‘At Last’ are here as originally envisioned without Judy Garland and Etta James, and ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ arrives just in time to rally the troops. Damn this show gets me every time! I want to cry, I want to get up and dance, gosh darnnit I can’t help myself. If you don’t want the sappy embellished story, you can always pick up this hit soundtrack. Though obviously the compositions here are rerecords and some original Glenn Miller Orchestra names and musicians are entirely missing from The Glenn Miller Story, these tunes are still ten times better than the quivering pop drivel of today.
To accent all the solid sounds, The Glenn Miller Story also has fun fifties scenery, great club locales, and sweet, classic décor. Oh, the cars, the hats, the candlestick phones! Men in dinner jackets and fedoras, gloves, flashy showgirls, and cool color slides. Yes indeed, it is a little more fifties than some of the earlier decades supposedly portrayed, but it all still looks just golden. Those turntables and newspaper montages, sigh. That house, sweet Jesus and those great old-fashioned microphones! The wartime styles, real military footage, and a forties Christmas…If this film doesn’t put a smile on your face, bring a tear to your eye, or have you tapping your toe, nothing will.
Again, The Glenn Miller Story will be too dated or picture perfect rather than true biography for many. For nostalgia lovers, music fans, budding big band connoisseurs, and classic film aficionados, however, this little ditty is tough to beat. Relive that Glenn Miller sound anytime of year with The Glenn Miller Story.Remember, after all, “He’s not dead, he’s missing!”