Musical

James Chapman

Cinema's period of greatest mass popularity during the 1930s and 1940s coincided with the heyday of the big band era in the United States and Great Britain. The popularity of the dance bands rivalled even that of stars of the silver screen as dance halls and airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic resonated to the combination of swing, blues and ballads that characterised big band music. The most successful bandleaders became celebrities in their own right: Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw in the United States, and Ambrose, Geraldo, Henry Hall, Jack Hylton and Joe Loss in Britain. All these, and many others besides, appeared in films, often in supporting roles but sometimes in star vehicles that were designed to showcase the musical talents of the bandleaders and their orchestras. This cross-over between film and popular music has, however, been almost completely ignored by film and cultural historians. Normative histories of the classical Hollywood musical of the 1930s and 1940s have privileged the backstage musical and the integrated musical, while interest in the British musical has focused primarily on stars such as Jessie Matthews and on the musical comedies of Gracie Fields and George Formby. The aim of this chapter, therefore, is to provide a contextual history of the big band musical in US and British cinema, focusing especially on the strategies which filmmakers adopted for combining moments of musical performance with classical narrative formulas.1

It is impossible to understand the context of the big band musical, of course, without first understanding the context of big band music. The dance bands (sometimes referred to as swing bands and in Britain, confusingly, as jazz bands)

were a phenomenon of the interwar period which emerged from a particular set of historical circumstances. The dance bands of the interwar years were very different from those before the Great War, which had played waltz, tango and foxtrot music for audiences in respectable dance halls. After the Great War smaller dance bands began appearing in nightclubs, restaurants and hotels, specialising in faster, more frenetic music such as the quick-step, the hoochy-coochy and the Charleston. The popularity of the new dance bands, especially in Britain, is surely attributable to the sense of relief and release felt by many young people after the war. 'People are dancing as they never danced before, in a happy rebound from the austerities of war', the Daily Mail observed in February 1919, 'But the dancing is not quite as it was in the dim old years before 1914'.2 The success of the dance bands was enhanced by the emergence of cabaret, a craze which started in New York at the end of the war and came to London during the winter of 1921-2. Cabaret evolved from vaudeville or music hall, in that it involved comedians, novelty acts, dancing girls and musicians, but it was a late-night activity that only started after the theatres had closed. What is clear is that while the dance craze was a phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic, the original impetus came from the United States, and as such it provides an early example of the 'Americanisation' of popular culture that has been such a cause of concern for British cultural commentators since the 1920s.

It is important to distinguish between dance music and jazz, for, although the two were undoubtedly related, drawing upon some of the same influences and sharing some common practitioners, they do represent different traditions and styles of popular music. Jazz, which itself evolved from ragtime, is usually taken to refer to a type of American popular music originating in New Orleans around 1914 and associated, initially at least, with black musicians. Jazz was characterised by heavy syncopation and strong rhythms; it also foregrounded improvisation ('jamming'). A jazz band comprised five key instruments: clarinet or saxophone, cornet, trombone, drums and piano. It was a predominantly (though by no means exclusively) black idiom, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington being the foremost US jazz musicians of the 1920s. The dance bands, however, were predominantly (though, again, by no means exclusively) white, which might account for their more broadly based popular appeal, at least in the segregated southern states of the US. Dance music was more formalised than jazz; it was orchestrated and offered little scope for improvisation. By the 1930s the dance band, or dance orchestra, was generally established as being comprised of three sections: reed instruments (saxophones and clarinets), brass (trumpets and trombones) and percussion (drums, double-bass played pizzicato and piano). The distinction between jazz and dance bands, however, was not a rigid one: Count Basie, the black American pianist-bandleader, would fit easily into either category. And after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band played a season at the Hammersmith Palais in 1919 and introduced jazz to British audiences, many British dance bands began calling themselves jazz bands, even though they would not have been recognised as such across the Atlantic.

The big band era coincided with technological changes in the music industry which undoubtedly helped in disseminating their music and thus enhancing their popular appeal. The two key innovations were the gramophone and radio. Hitherto, the dissemination of music (both popular and classical) had been through the sale of sheet music. The technology for musical recording had already existed for a generation: Thomas Edison had patented the phonograph, a machine for dictation, in 1877, the Berliner Gramophone Company had been established in Philadelphia shortly afterwards, and Columbia Records was formed in 1887. The first commercial on-disc musical recordings were available by the turn of the century, and they gradually increased in popularity so that by the early 1920s the first million-selling records appeared in the US (the first is usually reckoned to have been the dance tune 'Dardanella' recorded by Ben Silvin and His Orchestra). By the late 1920s over a hundred million records were being sold each year in the United States. Moreover, recorded music was heard not only in the home but also, following the invention of the juke box, in ice-cream parlours, social halls and other public places.

The rapid development of radio broadcasting during the 1920s also assisted immeasurably in the dissemination of dance music. The first commercial radio broadcasts in the US took place in 1920; by 1927 there were 708 commercial radio stations across the country. The first nationwide radio network, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), was established in 1926, quickly followed by another two, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). The first remote radio broadcast of a dance band took place in 1921 when Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra performed from the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. Exposure through the airwaves was of enormous benefit to the bands, and is no better exemplified than by the case of Glenn Miller. Miller had spent over a decade as a trombonist and arranger before forming his own band in 1937. It was only when Miller's orchestra was heard on coast-to-coast radio, first from the Raymore Ballroom in Boston and later from the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, that its popularity took off and record sales soared.3

The situation was rather different in Britain, where the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), formerly the British Broadcasting Company, enjoyed a monopoly. Unlike the US radio companies, the BBC eschewed commercial sponsorship and advertising and was funded instead by licence fees. The number of licence holders increased from just over two million in 1927 (when the Corporation was founded) to some nine million by the outbreak of the Second World War, when it was reckoned that 98 per cent of the population could listen to a wireless set.4 Until 1937 the policy of the BBC was inextricably connected with its first Director-General, Sir John Reith, who believed zealously that the medium should be used to educate, inform and entertain (in that order) and who turned broadcasting into a personal mission to bring moral and social uplift to the masses. Although Reith's own preference was for classical music - in August

1927 the BBC began broadcasting Sir Henry Wood's Promenade Concerts, probably the single most important development in bringing classical music to a wide audience - dance music received a perhaps surprising boost during his tenure at the BBC. Indeed, Reith approved of dance music (though not of jazz), which featured prominently in schedules throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In

1928 the BBC Dance Orchestra was created, directed first by Jack Payne (whose signature tune, 'Say It With Music', quickly caught on with the public) and then, from 1932, by Henry Hall (whose signature tune was 'Here's To The Next Time'). Hall quickly became a popular radio personality, extending the horizons of his appeal through a series of 'guest nights', some of which were rebroadcast in the United States.

It would be no exaggeration to say that by the 1930s a cult of the bandleader had emerged. The most successful among them were capable of earning lucrative salaries: when the British bandleader Ambrose moved to the Mayfair Hotel at a personal salary of £10,000 a year he became reputedly the highest paid bandleader in the world. The popularity of the bandleaders is evident, moreover, through the ways in which they permeated into other areas of cultural production, appearing, for example, in magazines and on cigarette cards. Given that the film industry has never been slow to exploit the popularity of musical artists, it was surely only a matter of time before bandleaders appeared in the movies.

British bandleaders began appearing in films during the early 1930s. The usual trajectory was to appear first in short items for one of the newsreel topical magazines, typically performing one number, before graduating to supporting roles in feature films. For example, Geraldo (English by birth, though sometimes assumed to be Argentinian due to his Latin looks and exotic stage name) appeared with his 'Gaucho Tango Orchestra' in a series of Pathetone and Pathe Pictorial items throughout 1931 and 1932. He then made his feature debut in Road House (1934), a musical melodrama directed by Maurice Elvey, based on a play by Walter Hackett about a music-hall star who falls on hard times following personal tragedy. Similarly, Joe Loss and His Orchestra appeared in no less than seven British Lion Varieties during 1936, before graduating to feature films with Let's Make A Night Of It (1937). This film, directed by Graham Cutts, was a comedy musical starring the Americans Buddy Rogers and June Clyde as a husband and wife who run competing nightclubs, and which also featured Sidney Lipton and His Band. The strategy of these feature films for incorporating the musical numbers was similar to Hollywood's backstage or show musicals in that a diegetic space (such as a music hall or a nightclub) would be created where it was natural for performance to take place. The narrative would be interrupted temporarily by moments of musical performance, but the films were not structured around the bands, who remained essentially supporting attractions.

Another strategy which British filmmakers, especially, followed in their attempts to showcase musical performance was through the vehicle of the revue musical. This typically consisted of a series of 'turns' (in the language of British music hall) featuring different performers (singers, dancers, comedians, novelty acts) strung together with the flimsiest linking narrative (typically revolving around putting on a show or making a radio broadcast). The arrival of talking (and singing) pictures at the end of the 1920s had led to a short cycle of virtually plotless revue musicals from the Hollywood studios, such as MGM's The Hollywood Revue (1929), Warner Bros.' The Show of Shows (1929), Fox Movietone Follies (1929) and Paramount on Parade (1930). As so often, British cinema imitated Hollywood, but did so with lower budgets and inferior production values. The British equivalent of Hollywood's all-star revues was Elstree Calling (1930), produced by British International Pictures (BIP), which consisted mainly of musical and comedy items from stage shows of the day introduced by compere Tommy Handley. Lacking the lavish production values and visual spectacle of its Hollywood equivalents, Elstree Calling is now something of a curio item interesting chiefly for two reasons: Alfred Hitchcock (then contracted to BIP) was one of several directors employed on the production; and the film is quite possibly the first ever to refer directly to television (the linking narrative concerns a television broadcast of the revue, some six years before the BBC began regular television transmissions). Unlike Hollywood, however, which soon developed more sophisticated ways of integrating performance and narrative, the revue musical remained a feature of British cinema throughout the 1930s. As Stephen Guy points out it is tempting to assume that this kind of stagey film was a convenient and cheap stop-gap in the early 1930s when studios were struggling to find enough sound material, but they are quite evenly distributed over the whole decade. While there was undoubtedly a percentage of tiresome, unpopular quota quickies, such as the 'Revudevilles', the continual production of this type of variety film suggests they remained crowd-pullers throughout the entire decade, a point borne out by numerous positive reviews.5

The revue musical offered a ready-made vehicle for dance bands in that there was no need to write them into a dramatic narrative structure. Indeed, the format of the revue musical was such that the bands simply performed their numbers in the same manner as they did in short topicals for the newsreels. One of the better examples of the genre was Calling All Stars (1937), produced and directed by Herbert Smith, which featured Ambrose and His Orchestra alongside a host of other performers including the harmonica player Larry Adler (now best known for having written and played the theme tune for Genevieve in 1953), the American vocalist Elisabeth Welch and the music-hall comedy act Flotsam and Jetsam. The linking narrative revolved around a gramophone company that was making recordings of the acts, though the film avoids too many dull scenes simply of the band performing its numbers by including some unusual novelty acts, such as 'Gimble and his Cymbal', which provide bizarre visual comedy to accompany the music. But while Ambrose and His Orchestra are featured prominently (they perform six numbers), within the context of the film they are still essentially attractions or 'turns'; the narrative is not structured around the band.

Films that made bands the focus of narrative interest were less common, though there were some attempts to foreground the bandleaders themselves as stars rather than as supporting attractions. Producer Julius Hagen paid Jack Hylton and His Band over £1,000 a week, plus a percentage of the profits, to star in She Shall Have Music (1935).6 The film is a pleasantly amusing romantic musical in which Hylton becomes involved in the romantic affairs of an American heiress (played by June Clyde) while working on an ocean liner. There are a total of thirteen musical numbers, with different vocalists, though the staging and performance becomes rather repetitive and tiresome as the various romantic trysts and misunderstandings are continually interrupted for yet another musical moment. Nevertheless, the film is interesting for the way in which it plays upon the romantic appeal of the bandleader (one of the numbers is called 'Why Did She Fall for the Leader of the Band?'), and in this sense might be compared to the altogether more polished Astaire - Rogers musical Swing Time (1936) in which a bandleader, played by Victor Moore, is Fred's rival for Ginger's affections.

The most unusual of the British big band musicals was Music Hath Charms (1935), produced by BIP and designed as a star vehicle for Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra. It was supervised by Thomas Bentley, a former Dicken-sian impersonator, who in the previous year had directed Will Hay's first starring feature, Those Were the Days, a nostalgic recreation of the music-hall culture of the 1890s. The film adopts an innovative strategy for incorporating music and narrative. Opening with a quotation from seventeenth-century dramatist William Congreve ('Music hath charms/To soothe the savage breast/ To soften rocks/And bend a knotted oak'), the film explores the influence that music has on the wider world.7 Hall plays himself, and the film begins with his orchestra singing 'Many Happy Returns' on his birthday. Driving to work, Hall is recognised by another motorist, but instead of wanting an autograph, as Hall assumes, the man declares 'You've ruined my daughter!' This causes Hall to ponder the effect that his music has on people's lives. The film then juxtaposes scenes of Hall and the orchestra rehearsing at Broadcasting House with numerous subplots which dramatise how his music affects people in both trivial and important ways. Rather than ruining people's lives, music is shown to remedy problems. Thus, a young man who is facing a breach of promise case brought against him by a former fiancée realises that he is still in love with her after listening to Hall's music; a married woman on an ocean liner contemplating an affair decides not to do so because of the music; a pair of lost mountaineers are brought to safety when they hear radio music through the fog which guides them to a mountain hut; and, most bizarrely, a native uprising in a remote colonial outpost is averted when tribesmen on the warpath hear radio music and start dancing to it.

Music Hath Charms is difficult to categorise in generic terms, combining as it does elements of music, comedy and drama, and as it follows multiple lines of narrative. This point was made by Film Weekly, which nevertheless was quite favourably disposed towards the film:

Here is one of the problem pictures of 1935. It is difficult to place, for it contains music, comedy, farce, fantasy and even a mild thrill or two; and, in presenting these ingredients, it breaks all the rules of film construction, slipping from one mood to the next with engaging nonchalance.

It is best regarded as a screen revue built upon unconventional lines, since, at this valuation, it has the recommendation of originality, and offers good light entertainment.

The best moments are a commendable attempt to present a popular bandleader and his 'boys' in a different way. There is, perhaps, too strong an aura of the 'B.B.C.' about the incidents, as well as some of the settings, yet there is much that is amusing in the basic idea of showing the possible effects of Mr Hall's music upon varying types of people in odd corners of the world.8

The comment about the 'aura of the BBC' is interesting, for, in hindsight, Music Hath Charms exhibits what can only be described as a very Reithian ideology. The theme of the film is the social utility of music. It asserts that music provides more than mere entertainment, and has the potential to act as a force for social cohesion and moral uplift. Personal tragedy, divorce and even colonial unrest, are averted through the power of music. Moreover, this music is broadcast to the world by the BBC. The film emphasises the varied social composition and geographical spread of the BBC's audience ('All kinds of people listen to us, from the North Pole to the Equator', Hall remarks at one point). The film needs to be seen against the background of a BBC that broadcast to a wide audience not only at home but also abroad: the first broadcasts of the BBC's Empire Service had begun in 1932 and a Foreign Service was to follow. It is tempting, therefore, to regard Music Hath Charms as nothing less than cultural propaganda for the BBC.

Hollywood, for once, followed the trend set by British studios in recruiting American bandleaders into films during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Although bandleaders had been making short films from the early 1930s, it was not until later in the decade that they appeared regularly in feature films, again usually in supporting roles. Benny Goodman appeared in Hollywood Hotel (1938), directed by Busby Berkeley for Warner Bros. Based on a radio programme of the same title, it followed the tried-and-tested narrative strategy of a troubled radio broadcast in which the bands performed their music on air. Goodman's trumpeter Harry James, who was also featured in the film, formed his own band in 1939, and Artie Shaw appeared in MGM's Dancing Co-Ed (1939), a star vehicle for the 19-year-old Lana Turner about a college girl who succeeds in show business.9

RKO made a concerted attempt to turn radio personality Kay Kyser into a film star. Kyser had formed his first band in 1926, but it was not until 1938 that he achieved national fame when NBC began broadcasting his Kollege of Musical Knowledge, a one-hour musical quiz show which Kyser presided over in the persona of 'the old professor'. NBC had strong corporate links with RKO, which sought to exploit Kyser's appeal as both a musician and a comedian. The five films in which Kyser starred for RKO between 1939 and 1943 comprise the most varied screen repertoire of any of the bandleaders who appeared in movies, as they followed different generic formats. His first vehicle, That's Right - You're Wrong (1939), was an amusing spoof of the film industry which ingeniously acknowledged the problems faced by film studios in devising appropriate vehicles for bandleaders.10 Kyser signs a film contract on the basis of his radio fame, but the studio bosses then have second thoughts about his box-office potential and a conniving producer (played by Adolphe Menjou) tries to force Kyser to break his contract by forcing him to undergo a series of ludicrous screen tests (in Shakespearean costume and as a Venetian gondolier). Kyser's second film, You'll Find Out (1940), was a comedy thriller in the style of Paramount's Bob Hope - Paulette Goddard vehicles The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), set in a spooky old house and featuring horror stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre. Playmates (1941) co-starred John Barrymore, shortly before his death, in a bizarre comedy about a has-been actor trying to make a comeback by adapting Shakespeare to dance music. My Favorite Spy (1942), produced by Harold Lloyd, was a topical wartime thriller in which Kyser becomes involved with a spy ring and which bears comparison to Paramount's Bob Hope comedy My Favorite Blonde (1942).11 Finally, Around the World (1943) was a fictionalised account of Kyser's real-life tour to entertain Allied troops in Australia, India and North Africa, which again featured him tangling with Nazi spies. After leaving RKO,

Kyser made films for MGM and Columbia before retiring from showbusiness in 1950 and becoming a Christian Scientist.

Undoubtedly the most successful of the American bands by the early 1940s was the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The famous Miller 'sound' - achieved by having a clarinet playing above but in harmony with four saxophones - brought a new romanticism to familiar standards such as the swing favourite 'In the Mood' as well as Miller's own themes, including his signature tune, the ballad 'Moonlight Serenade'. One commentator has even described the Miller Orchestra as 'the greatest pop band the world has known'.12 The Miller Orchestra appeared in two films for 20th Century-Fox in the early 1940s. The first of these, Sun Valley Serenade (1941), directed by studio journeyman H. Bruce Humberstone, was essentially a star vehicle for Sonja Henie, the Norwegian ice skating star who had won gold medals at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Winter Olympics before embarking on a film career in Hollywood and becoming an American citizen in 1941. Henie was to ice what Esther Williams was to water, and she had become one of Fox's leading box-office attractions in the late 1930s in a series of films, such as Thin Ice (1937), Happy Landing (1938) and My Lucky Star (1938), which used light romantic storylines as vehicles to showcase her displays of skating. By the early 1940s, however, Henie's star was on the wane, and the introduction of another non-film attraction in Sun Valley Serenade might be seen as an attempt to bolster its box-office potential.

The plot of Sun Valley Serenade is built around a romantic triangle in which the arrival of a Norwegian refugee, Karen Benson (Henie), disrupts the putative romance between pianist Ted Scott (John Payne) and vocalist Vivian Dawn (Lynn Bari, who sings her own songs). Ted and Vivian are both members of a band led by Phil Corey (Miller), which is playing a winter season at the luxurious Idaho ski resort of Sun Valley. The setting locates the film in the sub-genre of what Rick Altman has termed 'the fairy-tale musical', one which is 'set in distant aristocratic locales (palaces, resorts, fancy hotels, ocean liners) treated in travelogue fashion'.13 Although the story is little more than an excuse to showcase the talents of the performers (Henie has two ice-dance routines, the Miller Orchestra performs several of its hits as well as new numbers written for the film such as 'It Happened In Sun Valley'), this was seen as an asset rather than a weakness by Bosley Crowther, senior film critic of the New York Times:

Too often a musical picture is all cluttered up with plot. But this time the wily producers have found the blessing of simplicity. They have constructed no more of a story than you could hang a pair of ice skates upon -nothing more than a tiny triangle which sets Miss Henie as the refugee ward of the piano player with the Sun Valley orchestra and thereby brings her into conflict with the beautiful singer in the band. The rest is just music and snowflakes - Glenn Miller's orchestra playing frequently and well, some truly extraordinary skiers, doubling for Miss Henie and John Payne, chasing one another down the hills, and, last but not least, a beautiful ice ballet in which Miss Henie and a glittering chorus perform enraptured dances upon a sheet of dark mirror ice.14

For Crowther, therefore, the attractions of the film (the music and the skating) were sufficient to make it work as entertainment - an interesting observation given that much critical writing on the musical has generally seen the integration of narrative and performance (as in the classic Astaire-Rogers films) as representing the genre's artistic maturity.

For their second film, Orchestra Wives (1942), directed by Archie Mayo, Miller and his orchestra were allowed a more prominent narrative role. This was different from the fantasy musical environment of Sun Valley Serenade, bearing more relation to the show musical in that it offered a glimpse behind the scenes of a successful touring band. Connie (Ann Rutherford) marries Bill Abbott (George Montgomery), the star trumpeter of a band led by Gene Morrison (Miller), but finds it difficult to adjust to life on the road and falls out with the wives of other band members. Crowther was rather less impressed with this film, complaining that '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'.15 Unlike Sun Valley Serenade, Crowther felt there was insufficient spectacle to compensate for the thin plot. Moreover, the elevation of the orchestra from supporting attraction to being central to the narrative did not succeed. 'Mr Miller and his assorted virtuosos are killers when it comes to making jive', Crowther remarked, 'but it takes more than wind and willingness to support a ninety-seven minute film'.16

By the mid 1940s there were signs that the heyday of the big band era was over. Two events in particular seem, in hindsight, highly symbolic. On 14 December 1944 Glenn Miller, who had joined the US Army to entertain troops, was lost when an aeroplane carrying him across the English Channel disappeared in fog. If Miller's death represents the symbolic end of the big band era, events put in train in the United States a few years earlier were of longer-term consequence. Hitherto the bandleaders themselves had been the stars, but their ascendancy was challenged in 1942 when Frank Sinatra, a singer first for Harry James and then for Tommy Dorsey, decided to embark on a solo career and became the most successful recording artist of his generation. The slow demise of the big bands was largely a generational thing: those who had grown up on the dance music of the 1920s and 1930s were now approaching middle age, while their children responded to different styles of popular music. The bands persisted into the postwar period, but faded away during the 1950s when they were displaced by other types of music, first rhythm and blues and then rock 'n' roll. Jazz, which to some extent had been displaced by the big bands, enjoyed a boom in the 1950s and has continued to maintain its own following long after the demise of dance music.

With the big band era coming to an end, the vogue for films featuring bandleaders also ceased. They still appeared occasionally in supporting roles - Ted Heath and His Band appeared in Ealing Studios' Dance Hall (1950), for example - but the heyday of the big band musical had passed. And yet, paradoxically, the most successful films about the big bands were still to come.

From the mid 1940s, and for another decade, there was a vogue in Hollywood for musical biopics, films based (often quite loosely) on the lives of real musical artists. The trend was started by the phenomenal success of Columbia's The Jolson Story (1946), a lavish Technicolor biopic charting the rise to fame and fortune of Al Jolson, which earned $8 million in domestic rentals and became one of the biggest box-office hits of the decade.17 The Jolson Story established the formula for the showbusiness biopics to follow: it provided a sentimentalised, sanitised account of its subject's career, presenting Jolson as a pioneer who creates his own style and who triumphs over adversity, effectively retelling his life story as a fulfillment of the American Dream in which individualism and self-confidence bring about career success. The film revived Jolson's own career and led to an almost equally successful sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). United Artists was the first studio to produce a biopic of bandleaders with The Fabulous Dorseys (1947), directed by Alfred E. Green. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey played themselves in the film, which presented them as falling out with each other and spending their lives bickering until being reunited by their father's death.

Probably the most fondly-remembered of musical biopics, however, is Universale The Glenn Miller Story (1954), which was both a critical and a popular success. The film was directed by Anthony Mann and starred James Stewart, a director and actor better known for the series of tough Westerns they made during the 1950s: Winchester 73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954) and The Man From Laramie (1955). Mann directed with an eye for period detail, especially during the first half of the film which charted Miller's years as a struggling musician, while Stewart achieved a good visual likeness of Miller (his trombone playing being dubbed by Joe Yukl). The narrative ideology of the film is again the fulfillment of the American Dream: that anyone can become successful through hard work and self-belief. 'I'm not going to be a side man all my life, a trombone player. I'm going to have a band all of my own, I'm going to play my own kind of music', Miller tells his fiancée Helen (June Allyson). 'It's hard to explain, but a band -a band ought to have a sound all of its own, it ought to have a personality'. This theme was recognised by Bosley Crowther, who observed that the film 'follows the customary lines of a rags-to-riches story in the "typical American" vein'.18

Figure 1 James Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story achieved a good likeness of the celebrated bandleader

The Glenn Miller Story mythologises Miller's life and career, showing him playing in a jam session with Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa (appearing as themselves) in a New York nightclub on his wedding night, and making the discovery of his famous 'sound' a happy accident when a trumpet player splits his lip and Miller rescores the part for clarinet. The second half of the film focuses on Miller's years of success and his wartime service. Mann experiments with different ways of staging musical numbers: 'String of Pearls' and 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo' are presented as straightforward performances (the former at the Glen Island Casino in 1939, the latter in an aircraft hanger in wartime Britain), while 'Tuxedo Junction' is imaginatively presented as the Miller Orchestra records a film soundtrack.19 The sequences of Miller in the army are further examples of myth-making, with incidents such as Miller playing blues rather than martial music at a passing-out parade and the band carrying on with 'In the Mood' when a buzz bomb explodes nearby. The ending of the film has Miller's family and friends at home shortly after his death listening to a live broadcast by the band, which is carrying on without him. The ending twists historical fact to bring the film to a tidy conclusion as Miller's wife listens to a broadcast of 'Little Brown Jug', her favourite song. In the film Miller had disliked the song and had refused to record it, whereas in reality the tune had been one of his first big hits. The reason for this change in the film is that the song becomes a device for linking the public narrative (Miller's success) with the personal narrative (his relationship with Helen): the public broadcast carries a personal message.

Other biopics of bandleaders followed, including The Benny Goodman Story (1955), in which newcomer Steve Allen played the bandleader, and The Gene Krupa Story (1959), with Sal Mineo in the title role, though none of them quite matched the popular appeal of The Glenn Miller Story. In these films the big band era already belongs to the past, and is being looked upon through the distorting lens of affectionate nostalgia. The bandleader biopics, and The Glenn Miller Story especially, therefore provide an appropriate coda to the history of the big band musical.

Notes

1. The backstage musical, or show musical, is one where the musical numbers are motivated by stage conventions in that they are presented either as rehearsals or as performances. During the 1930s this form was represented by the films of Busby Berkeley at Warner Bros. The integrated musical is one where musical numbers are used to further the narrative through situations where characters break spontaneously into song and dance. It is exemplified pre-eminently by the Fred Astaire -Ginger Rogers vehicles of the 1930s and by the Arthur Freed - Gene Kelly productions at MGM from the mid 1940s.

Normative histories of the musical include Rick Altman (ed.), Genre: The Musical (London; New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987) and Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical (London; Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1982). It is symptomatic of the neglect of the big band musical that Feuer's filmography includes the biopic The Glenn Miller Story but not the two feature films in which Miller appeared with his orchestra, Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives. What little has been written about American bandleaders in films is to be found in fan and nostalgia magazines. See, for example, Hal Erickson, 'Glenn Miller: the man, the music, and the movies', Classic Images 213 (March 1993): 44-7, and 'Kay Kyser: the old professor in Hollywood', Classic Images 217 (July 1993): 28-C6. For the British musical, see Stephen Guy, 'Calling all stars: musical films in a musical decade', in Jeffrey Richards (ed.), The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema 1929-39 (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 1998): 99-118. Guy, however, makes only passing mention of the bandleaders Ambrose, Jack Payne and Henry Hall.

The big bands themselves have attracted little attention from either a musicologi-cal or a social history perspective. In the historiography of twentieth century popular music, significantly more work has been forthcoming on jazz and rock 'n' roll than on the dance bands. For much of the background information in this chapter I have referred to general music histories, particularly David Ewen, All the Years of American Popular Music (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977) and Ronald Pearsall, Popular Music of the Twenties (Newton Abbot; London; Vancouver: David & Charles, 1976), which deals with Britain. Anecdotal, interview-based histories of the US and British bands can be found in two volumes by Sheila Tracy, Bands, Booze and Broads (Edinburgh; London: Mainstream Publishing Company,

1995) and Talking Swing: The British Big Bands (Edinburgh; London: Mainstream Publishing Company, 1997).

2. Quoted in Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Long Weekend (London: Faber and Faber, 1940): 34.

4. Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom Volume II: The Golden Age of Wireless 1927-1939 (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1965; 1995 edn): 235.

6 Linda Wood, 'Julius Hagen and Twickenham film studios', in Richards (ed.), The Unknown 1930s: 48.

7. The quotation is from Act I, Scene 1 of Congreve's The Mourning Bride (1697), which is misquoted as The Morning Bride on the title card of the film.

8. Film Weekly 376, 28 December 1935: 26.

9. Shaw and Turner were briefly married in real life (1940-41). Harry James later married Betty Grable (1943-65).

10. The title of the film was one of Kyser's radio catchphrases, in which he presided over a comedy quiz where contestants won if they gave the wrong answers.

11. Kyser's My Favorite Spy should not be confused with a Bob Hope film of the same title in 1951, which was the third instalment in a loose trilogy that also included My Favorite Blonde (1942) and My Favorite Brunette (1947).

12. Anon., Thousand Eyes: The Magazine of Repertory Cinema 11 (June 1976): 17.

13. Rick Altman, 'The musical', in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996): 300.

14. New York Times, 6 September 1941: 20.

15. New York Times, 24 September 1942: 23.

17. Clive Hirschhorn, The Columbia Story (London: Pyramid Books, 1989): 141.

18. New York Times, 11 February 1954: 33.

19. Intriguingly, this number had not featured in either of the films in which the Miller Orchestra appeared. The sequence takes place in a recording studio with a monochrome film projected on a screen of two male dancers and one female dancer performing a staged routine against a stylised railroad station set. This routine, performed in the film by the Archie Savage Dancers, is clearly modelled on the routines performed by the Nicholas Brothers in the two Miller films. It is particularly similar to the sequence in Sun Valley Serenade where the brothers dance with a young Dorothy Dandridge to the tune of 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo'. The most likely reason for having a different number in The Glenn Miller Story is that it was made by a different studio than the films in which the Miller Orchestra had appeared. However, there is another intriguing possibility. 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo' was usually performed with a vocal by sax player Tex Beneke in conjunction with the singing group the Modernaires, and, indeed, Beneke had sung it in Sun Valley Serenade. However, Beneke does not appear in The Glenn Miller Story, having fallen out with the continuation Glenn Miller Orchestra, which kept on performing after its leader's death. In the film, 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo' is performed by Frances Langford with the Modernaires. Similarly, in Orchestra Wives the Nicholas Brothers dance to the tune of 'I've Got A Gal in Kalamazoo' which features a vocal by singer Marion Hutton, who does not appear in The Glenn Miller Story either.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment