Big Band in the Movies Introduction
From the mid 1930s the Big Bands were extraordinarily popular on recordings, radio, in the fashionable hotels, the great ballrooms, the big theatres, the posh niteries, and in the movies. The Big Bands had brought to dance bands (which had been around a long time) an extremely exciting and personal touch.
During the "Swing" era, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Xavier Cugat, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Les Brown, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Ray Anthony, Cab Calloway, Kay Kyser, and many others were highly visible bandleaders. And several major pop and jazz singers were vocalists with the Big Bands before they went out on their own. For example:
Frank Sinatra (with Harry James and then Tommy Dorsey)
Doris Day (with Bob Crosby and then Les Brown)
Peggy Lee (with Will Osborne and then Benny Goodman)
Ella Fitzgerald (with Chick Webb)
Rosemary Clooney (with Tony Pastor)
Anita O'Day (with Gene Krupa and then Stan Kenton)
Lena Horne (with Noble Sissle and then Charlie Barnet)
Betty Hutton (with Vincent Lopez)
Dorothy Lamour (with Herbie Kay)
Alice Faye (with Rudy Vallee)
Perry Como (with Ted Weems)
The so-called "King of Swing" himself, Benny Goodman, and his orchestra are featured in a 1937 Warner Bros. musical, Hollywood Hotel. His aggregation at the time included such luminaries as Gene Krupa, Harry James, and Ziggy Elman, who later had their own bands. Goodman's quartet, also featured in the film, had future bandleaders Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson. The full orchestra plays an abbreviated version of that quintessential Swing era arrangement of "Sing, Sing, Sing" in the film.
In the five-night lineup there are some TCM premieres such as the 1941 feature Las Vegas Nights, which spotlights Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. Frank Sinatra had recently joined the band as well as Jo Stafford, Buddy Rich, Ziggy Elman, and Connie Haines.
Another TCM feature premiere is Rhythm Romance (1939) highlighting the then recently formed Gene Krupa orchestra. That film's original title was Some Like It Hot, but was changed later for obvious reasons. Also premiering on TCM is the 1944 Pete Smith short "specialty" that looks at the official Swing era dance craze "jitterbugging" (derived from the Lindy Hop). Betty Hutton when she was with Vincent Lopez's band was promoted as "America's No. 1 Jitterbug". And yet another TCM premiere short is a nod to one of the several "All Girl Bands," as they were then called. This one is Rita Rio and her orchestra. (No, not Rio Rita.) Shortly thereafter Rita went to Hollywood and was transformed into Dona Drake, appearing in a number of feature films over the years.
Look for Harriet Hilliard Nelson as the vocalist in Ozzie Nelson's band in two shorts on our roster, Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra #1 (1939) & Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra #2 (1943). The couple later starred for years on radio and then TV in their own situation comedy, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
Some of the features and shorts present a group of several bands such as in the feature Jam Session (1944), Headline Bands (1946), a TCM premiere short, and the bands and singers star-packed feature Reveille with Beverly (1943).
We have tried to come up with a broad cross section of reigning Big Bands of the time, not only the "Swing" outfits, but also the so-called "Sweet" and "Novelty" orchestras. And there are smaller groups on board. Of course, every major band isn't included but not by design. Some did not make films and a few titles were not available to us, having been contracted elsewhere.
All of the band shorts featured during the five-night period are listed in TCM's Now Playing guide and on the web site schedule for July (every Wednesday night) since they are an integral and important part of the salute. There are indeed some gems coming.
by Rudy Behlmer
P.S. I bought my first Big Band record when I was a boy during the late 1930s. It was the 12" 78 rpm RCA Victor two-sided rendition of Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing". That purchase ignited my ongoing interest. Years later when I was doing "live" television I was fortunate to direct, among other music-related shows, the one-hour weekly Ray Anthony Show for two seasons in 1956-57 on the ABC-TV network. For many years Ray had a marvelous band. And The Four Freshman vocal group was a featured component of the TV show along with guest stars.