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The advertising slogan for Orchestra Wives (1942) was "It's Hep! It's Hot! It's Hilarious!" and although that sounds antiquated to modern ears, the swing music that inspired it was the most popular sound of the era, and Glenn Miller and his Orchestra was the most popular band. At the peak of his fame in 1941, Miller signed a contract with 20th Century Fox, and he and his band appeared in their first film, Sun Valley Serenade. Unlike other films in which bands appeared briefly and were incidental to the story, Miller's band was incorporated into the plot, and performed several songs including "Chattanooga Choo Choo." The film was a hit, in large part because of the popularity of the Miller Orchestra.
In early 1942, Billboard magazine named Glenn Miller the top recording artist for the third year in a row, and that spring, the band headed to Hollywood to appear in their second Fox film, Orchestra Wives. This time, the band was not only a part of the story, it was essential to it. The film shows the excitement and tedium of a band's life on the road: the adoring crowds, the one-night stands, train rides, hotels, late-night Chinese dinners, and the wives who are part of the caravan. Small-town girl Connie Ward (Ann Rutherford) is a fan of the Gene Morrison (Glenn Miller) band, especially trumpet player Bill Abbott (George Montgomery). When the band comes to town, she meets and falls instantly in love with Abbott, and impulsively marries him. But joining the sorority of bitchy, gossipy orchestra wives and encountering her husband's former girlfriend, the band's singer (Lynn Bari), puts a strain on the marriage.
Along the way, the band introduces several songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren that became Miller standards: "Serenade in Blue," "People Like You and Me," and the ballad "At Last," which had been written for and cut from Sun Valley Serenade. The breathtaking finale is the swingy "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo," which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song (it lost to Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," from Holiday Inn), and features the spectacular dancing of the Nicholas Brothers. There were also snatches of other Miller hits, such as "Moonlight Serenade," which plays over the opening credits, and "American Patrol." Pat Friday, who had dubbed Lynn Bari's vocals in Sun Valley Serenade, again provided Bari's singing voice. Miller trumpeter Steve Lipkin dubbed the trumpet for Montgomery (some sources say it was Johnny Best, Bobby Hackett or Billy May), Chummy McGregor played piano for Cesar Romero, and bassist Doc Goldberg pounded the bass for Jackie Gleason. Among Miller band members who also played speaking roles in Orchestra Wives were sax player and singer Tex Beneke and drummer Moe Purtill, who played orchestra husbands Phil and Buddy. Singers Ray Eberle and Marion Hutton (the lookalike sister of actress Betty Hutton) also had a few lines in the film.
The short, balding band equipment manager was played in the film by George "Bullets" Durgom, who had once been Miller's real-life "band boy," and had a knack for spotting talent. He later became the personal manager for several celebrities, including Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, who is unbilled as the bass player of the band. Gleason had been a vaudeville and nightclub comic before going to Hollywood with a contract at Warner Brothers. His film career never took off, and it was Bullets Durgom who suggested that he should go into television. Other unbilled future television stars had small roles in Orchestra Wives: Dale Evans, who made her film debut as one of Connie's soda shop friends, and Harry Morgan, who played the soda jerk who takes Connie to the fateful concert where she meets Bill.
Fox's marketing for Orchestra Wives was targeted toward Miller fans, and heavy on the jive talk. The Miller Orchestra went on a nationwide summer tour, playing the songs from the movie. By the time the film opened in September of 1942, Miller's recording of "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" was already at a top hit. A month later, both "Serenade in Blue" and "At Last" joined it on the charts. Reviews credited the music for the film's success: "Glenn Miller and his orchestra give this musical all they've got, and that's a lot, in the opinion of just about everybody who goes for swing music, and if that isn't everybody it's a reasonable facsimile, according to radio polls, juke box ballots and record sales," wrote the Motion Picture Herald critic. Variety raved, "This is the best picture yet made about a band organization. Hot music and sexy intrigue are coupled in a major piece of adult entertainment which will roll up exceptional grosses. Into its rhythms and exhilarating tempo is fitted a dangerously gossipy yet constantly humorous narrative reminiscent of the play The Women." Even negative reviews, like Bosley Crowther's in the New York Times, took note of the film's appeal: "Hepcats and other such fauna who are 'sent' by Glenn Miller's honeyed swing will be the most likely recipients of Twentieth Century-Fox's Orchestra Wives, which was wafted into the Roxy on wings of song and little else yesterday. For once more the Hollywood tailors have draped the shivering shoulders of a popular band with a trifling little story which is as ridiculous as a zoot suit and has no more shape or distinction than one of those forbidden garbs."
In spite of Orchestra Wives' box office success, it was Glenn Miller's last film appearance. The U.S. was at war, and Miller joined the Army Air Corp's Special Services, organizing a band of military musicians to entertain the troops. In December of 1944, his plane headed from England to France disappeared over the English Channel. Neither the plane nor Miller's body was ever recovered. Fortunately, the two films in which the Glenn Miller Orchestra appears provide a vivid record of the band's enormous appeal.
Producer: William LeBaron
Director: Archie Mayo, John Brahm (uncredited)
Screenplay: Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, story by James Prindle
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Editor: Robert Bischoff
Costume Design: Earl Luick
Art Direction: Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright
Music: Songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren
Cast: George Montgomery (Bill Abbott), Ann Rutherford (Connie Ward Abbott), Glenn Miller (Gene Morrison), Lynn Bari, (Jaynie Stevens), Carole Landis (Natalie Mercer), Cesar Romero (St. John "Sinjin" Smith), Virginia Gilmore (Elsie), Mary Beth Hughes (Caroline Steele), Nicholas Brothers (Specialty Dancers), Tamara Geva (Mrs. Beck), Frank Orth (Rex Willet), Tex Beneke (Phil Mercer), Moe Purtill (Buddy Steele), Jackie Gleason (Ben Beck), Henry ("Harry") Morgan (Cully Anderson), Dale Evans (Hazel).
by Margarita Landazuri