(Best sung to “Little Brown Jug”)
Music once was full of brass;
Dance halls dripped with the sound of class.
Rock and roll had yet to grow,
But folks all knew Glenn Miller, though.
Ha, ha, ha, what a sound,
The kind to make Miller’s band renowned!
Ha, ha, ha, songs that stay,
The kind today’s elevators play!
MPAA rating: G
My mom has been urging me to check out more Jimmy Stewart movies lately, which I don’t mind since he’s one of my favorite actors, with a natural likability rivaling Tom Hanks. My latest exploration of his filmography is The Glenn Miller Story, which I hadn’t thought to see before because I didn’t know who Glenn Miller was. I’m sorry for my youthful ignorance now because it’s really an excellent role for Stewart and focuses on a style of music I rarely consider.
For those like me who may recognize Glenn Miller’s name but don’t know who he was, he was a big band leader in the 1930s and ‘40s whose band’s famous recordings include “Moonlight Serenade,” “In the Mood,” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” I was familiar with almost all of these songs, especially “Little Brown Jug,” which I learned to play on piano as a kid, but because most of them don’t have lyrics, they’re typically relegated to background music, making them recognizable but not necessarily known. Yet before rock and roll got off the ground in the ‘50s, this jazzy orchestra music ruled the dance halls of America, and like Stewart’s Lindbergh biopic The Spirit of St. Louis, it was made at a time when people still remembered these pre-war events.
The film recounts Glenn’s early struggles, such as repeatedly pawning his trombone in between shows, and his eventual rise to stardom, always in search of “the sound” that would set his band apart. It also focuses on his romance with Helen Burger (June Allyson), whose initial wariness of Glenn’s rootless vocation melts into wholehearted support of his dream. Stewart is his usual lovable self, letting his charm overshadow his character’s frequent inconsiderate treatment of others, which is more out of preoccupation than malice. He also does a fine job pretending to play the trombone. Allyson, though, almost outshines him, bringing considerable warmth to the usual encouraging spouse role and making me like her as an actress even more than I already did from Good News. I was also surprised to see a young Harry Morgan of M*A*S*H fame, and an abundance of famous musicians who knew Miller cameo and perform, though due to that youthful ignorance I mentioned, I only recognized Louis Armstrong.
What I especially liked about The Glenn Miller Story is that it didn’t fall into the problem I usually have with musical biopics. Most biographical films like this (think Ray, for instance) typically leave me with a more negative impression of its subject than I had before, exposing marital infidelity and drug use that taint their public image. It may be true, but it’s sad. Glenn Miller doesn’t do that, probably due to when it was made, instead depicting the music and romance of its title character without aiming to blemish his legacy. If I had a greater love for the big band style, this movie would easily make my list, but even if it just misses the cut, I greatly enjoyed its story and lead performances. My mom likes it even more, since she grew up with her parents listening to this kind of music, and it always puts a big, nostalgic smile on her face to hear it again. I feel bad now for putting off seeing it and not knowing of the talented Glenn Miller.
Best line: (Helen, several times) “Honestly!” (I’ll think of this movie now every time I hear that.)
Rank: List Runner-Up (a very high one)
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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