by Charles Tatum
I am the first to admit I know next to zilch about the era of swing and big bands, but Anthony Mann retells the life of Glenn Miller through some excellent tunes and great performances by James Stewart and June Allyson. It is just plain difficult not to like a film like this.James Stewart is great as the late bandleader. Miller is a broke musician, always pawning his trombone in order to make ends meet. He and his piano player buddy Chummy (Harry Morgan, then named "Henry") are always looking for the next gig that will make them famous. Miller is always politely playing the same old stuff, but he would rather do his own arrangements, following the music he hears in his head and never seems to capture onstage.
Behind every great man is a great woman, and June Allyson is Helen, Miller's wife. Their initial encounters are funny, as the affair is one sided. They dated briefly, then parted for a few years, yet Miller still refers to Helen as his girl. After convincing her to marry him spontaneously, the young couple stay in New York City, with Miller playing in the safe shows there.
With Helen's unwavering support, Miller eventually completes "Moonlight Serenade." Watch for a hilarious scene as the melancholy ballad is turned into (Stewart's line) "a hoochie coochie number." Miller starts his own band, but it breaks up after Helen miscarries. Meeting with a ballroom booking agent, the band gets back together, and Miller's sound finally takes off, resulting in huge record sales and unlimited musical success. Of course, things are going too perfectly...
Miller is commissioned as an officer into World War II, and as most people know, was eventually labelled as missing when his plane did not complete a trip over the English Channel. Over the years, a report surfaced that his plane was accidentally destroyed when flying over a bomb dump. Glenn Miller was just 40 when he disappeared.
As I wrote, I do not know much about this field of music, but here is a list of the "special guests" who perform in the film, even I recognized a few names: Frances Langford, Louis Armstrong, Ben Pollack, Gene Krupa, The Modernaires, The Archie Savage Dancers, Barney Bigard, James Young, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw, Cozy Cole, and Babe Russin. Among the numbers featured are "Moonlight Serenade," "String of Pearls," "In the Mood," "Pennsylvania 6-5000," and "Chattanooga Choo Choo." All of these are done well, although I just have never been able to warm up to "Pennsylvania 6-5000."
Director Mann balances the life events and the music well. Allyson is not as annoying here as she was in another Mann-Stewart collaboration- "Strategic Air Command." She holds her own against Stewart's Miller. Both are fine and work well together. Harry Morgan is relegated to the best friend role, but is given a funny car obsession and he is good. The Louis Armstrong number in the jazz club is a standout, no wonder the Beats went in for it, what with the spinning colored gel wheel and all.
The Technicolor and sound are crystal clear. This was a big film aiming to please the audience, so there are a few scenes that seem to be added because this is a biopic. The Millers' lives seem too perfect, but this is a minor qualm. Allyson's tear stained face as she listens to Miller's final arrangement of her favorite song is fantastic.I always seem to get Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller mixed up, but not anymore. Anthony Mann has realized a story that may not have been too interesting on paper, but is greatly realized on the screen.
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originally posted: 03/12/03 12:34:59