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The Glenn Miller Story was a box office smash in 1954, just ten years after the celebrated composer had disappeared overseas in December of 1944. Although American popular music had moved away from swing and the big band sound after WWII, The Glenn Miller Story sparked a revival of interest in the 'King of the Swing Bands,' his passion for music, and his meteoric rise to the top of the charts, eventually earning him recognition as one of the greatest American composers of all time.
In some ways, it wasn't surprising to see Hollywood lionize this popular musician who had appeared as himself in two of the better swing films of the forties, Orchestra Wives (1942) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941). So it was only fitting that one of tinsel town's most likable stars - James Stewart - play the famous bandleader. The actor's performance was a major factor in the film's success and Stewart truly fit the character to a tee, conveying the humble personality, wit, and charm of the trombone player turned composer. His teaming with June Allyson was also an inspired choice in portraying this real-life marriage as the perfect fairy tale romance. During their three films together (the other two films were Strategic Air Command (1955) and The Stratton Story(1949), Allyson and Stewart epitomized the ideal American couple and studio publicists were happy to build their promotional campaigns around these wholesome symbols of domestic bliss.
In preparing for the role, Stewart already knew how to play the piano from lessons in childhood, which proved useful in conveying Miller's creative process and personal style. As for the actor's trombone playing, he was dubbed by the musician Joe Yukl. At first, Stewart insisted on playing the trombone himself because he didn't want to look like he was faking it. However, it soon became apparent that he was woefully inadequate for the task so he agreed to plug up his mouthpiece and concentrate on learning the correct hand positions on the instrument. In Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life by Jonathan Coe, the actor said he and Yukl "worked out the tunes I had to play with a series of photographs and with the musician showing me the position of the slide, and how long it stayed there. He'd stand to one side of the camera. The music was up above the camera. I'd watch the position of his trombone and match it.'
All the hard work paid off, however, because Stewart took home a handsome paycheck in the end, thanks to a signed guarantee with the studio for a percentage of the box office grosses. The Glenn Miller Story was ranked fifth for the year in profits, and the actor made over a million dollars from the arrangement with Universal with this film alone.
Director Anthony Mann was at the peak of his collaboration with Stewart; The Glenn Miller Story was their fourth film. Their creative partnership had begun in 1950 at Universal Pictures with Winchester '73 and would continue with Thunder Bay (1953), a drama concerning a clash between fishermen and oilmen, The Glenn Miller Story, and an excellent western, The Far Country(1954). But only The Glenn Miller Story met the studio's financial expectations. Oddly enough, the biopic was considered a risky venture at the time because other musical biographies like The Fabulous Dorseys (1947) had proved to be box office bombs and besides, Glenn Miller had been out of the news since his disappearance ten years before. It's also true that Mann never cared much for the film (he took on the job as a favor to Stewart), stating that it was terribly theatrical, focused too much on the musical numbers, and lacked any real drama or story. Audiences felt otherwise and joined June Allyson in a good cry at the film's bittersweet climax where she breaks down while listening to Miller's rendition of her favorite song, "Little Brown Jug."
A perfect example of Universal's A product, The Glenn Miller Story is full of memorable moments such as the scene in which Miller is finally inspired to create his signature, up-front clarinet sound for "Moonlight Serenade." Mann develops and executes this sequence with both understated beauty and a love for the composer and the music. The director's collaboration with the great cinematographer William Daniels employs a visual color arc that goes from drabness (Miller's early struggles) to the heavenly colors of artistic and commercial success and marital bliss. Daniels' gifts are particularly apparent in the sequence set in the Harlem nightspot, Connie's Inn, where his evocative use of color also has thematic relevance. Perhaps the only faults The Glenn Miller Story can be cited for are the obvious liberties that were taken with the band leader's career and a tendency to become overly sentimental at times. But since the movie alternately swings and serenades its audience so expertly, does it really matter?
Music buffs will particularly appreciate The Glenn Miller Story because it is loaded with several musical contemporaries of Glenn Miller: the great drummer Gene Krupa, Ben Pollack, Louis Armstrong, Frances Langford, and the group The Modernaires. And of course, there is all that great music - "String of Pearls," "Pennsylvania 6-5000," "Tuxedo Junction," "In the Mood," and "Basin Street Blues" to name just a few. Miller's personal friend, Chummy MacGregor (played in the film by Harry Morgan, a future regular on TV's M*A*S*H*), served as technical advisor on the movie and Henry Mancini handled the musical arrangements. The Glenn Miller Story was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Score, but lost to Adolph Deutsch and Saul Chaplin for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers(1954).
Producer: Aaron Rosenberg
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Valentine Davies and Oscar Brodney
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Costume Design: Jay A. Morley Jr.
Film Editing: Russell F. Schoengarth
Original Music: Glenn Miller (uncredited)
Principal Cast: James Stewart (Glenn Miller), June Allyson (Helen Berger), Harry Morgan (Chummy (as Henry Morgan)), Charles Drake (Don Haynes), George Tobias (Si Schribman).
C-113m. Closed captioning.
by Richard Steiner