December 24, 2018
Director Anthony Mann’s The Glenn Miller Story stars James Stewart as famed bandleader whose plane disappeared over the English Channel during World War II. The biopic really gets going in the second half thanks Mann’s staging of the musical numbers and Stewart’s cooly commanding performance.
Stars James Stewart, June Allyson, Harry Morgan, Louis Armstrong.
Notwithstanding Thunder Bay (oil drilling) and Strategic Air Command (self-explanatory), the surprising outlier in the fruitful James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaboration (read: five highly-regarded Westerns as well) is The Glenn Miller Story. If that is, a movie as popular as the last was really can be an outlier — one that even managed to kick off something of a Miller boom nearly a decade after the famed bandleader’s airplane death over the English Channel during World War II. For all of its narrative goo — and hour one has as much as you’ll find in any musical biopic — GMS is one of those mid-’50s releases that transformed James Stewart from superstar into to something of an institution. The emblematic Miller glasses that the actor dons and his own controlled performance as the trombonist bandleader really transform him his image.
I was disappointed to miss the picture during its February 1954 release when I was 6, despite already having had Miller pretty well “covered” by all the 78s I inherited from my parents and my Aunt Carol, which I’d already played to death in my bedroom (had to change that damned needle every 10 plays) by the time I started kindergarten. Permanently burned in my brain are “In the Mood,” “American Patrol,” “A String of Pearls,” “I Know Why” (utilized magnificently in The Shape of Water), “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” a ‘B’-side I’ve always liked (“Sleep Song”) and so on a few times over. If I’ve come to appreciate Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw on a purely musical level, there’s something more elusive about the Miller classics that captures the World War II era zeitgeist better than anything.
As it turned out, I ended up seeing 1956’s The Benny Goodman Story first (I was immersed in BG, too) — it the only movie ever directed by Valentine Davies, who penned its Miller predecessor at Universal and was burdened by a leaden lead performance by Steve Allen. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for a few Davies screenplays, most notably Miracle on 34th Street and the baseball cutie It Happens Every Spring (which I’d be curious to see remade with more up-to-date special effects). But his two musical biopics ask a lot, and in GMS’s case, asking it as early as the opening pawnshop scene. It is here that Stewart/Miller notices a string of pearls in an establishment run by schmaltzy Sig Ruman, who really pours on the joviality here as your basic anti-Rod-Steiger kind of hock-it proprietor. Also coming early is the script’s planted seed to establish that Miller will spend the entire movie working on the right arrangement for “Little Brown Jug,” when actually, it was one of the first huge hits he enjoyed once his band started clicking big-time nationally in the late 1930s.
Add to this a lot of co-star June Allyson (better in small doses, the great Good News excepted), and you also begin to feel the much evident iron hand of widow Helen Miller on the production. With so much to dig out from, it’s quite the testimonial to director Mann and cinematographer William Daniels (Stroheim’s Greed, a slew of Garbo pics, Valley of the Dolls, Rat Pack larks; say, what have you done lately?) that the picture works as well as it does. In fact, once it gets going (there’s a serious shortage of music in the first, say, 45 minutes), we’re talking an unambiguous net plus. Almost all of this has to do with Mann’s staging of numbers once the picture gets around to it and to Stewart’s cooly commanding performance.
Of the first, the outdoor staging of two big numbers for soldiers positively soars with nostalgia, especially when welcome ringer Frances Langford joins The Modernaires for “Choo Choo” — though I do wonder about whatever inside-baseball stuff led to the exclusion of franchise singers Marian Hutton and Ray Eberle from the movie. Meanwhile, Stewart is a marvel at suggesting Miller’s discipline and drive while still maintaining all kinds of traits “Jimmy.” (In reality, Miller was something of an authoritarian, and Gary Giddins notes in his recent Swinging on a Star Bing Crosby bio that he had an anti-Semitic streak, though he did regard Louis Armstrong as unmatched.)
Stewart himself turned curmudgeon-ish in later years when his hitherto camouflaged reactionary streak became more “out there” — something addressed a little by Blu-ray bonus commentator (and filmmaker) Jim Hemphill. The latter spends most of his voiceover talking about Stewart and Mann (solo and in tandem) while giving very little to Miller’s own career — a shortcoming he addresses late on by simply conceding it is beyond his field of expertise. This is OK, at least with me, because he’s quite illuminating on the filmmaking team, which busted up to such a degree in 1957 over Night Passage (a Western eventually directed by James Nelson and saved by splendid Technirama eye-massaging) that Stewart barely mentioned the collaboration in later years, despite Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie, to name my three favorites of their dual output. Hemphill gave me an added appreciation for a director I sometimes take for granted in his discussion of Mann’s sometimes subtle camera placements.
The Blu-ray is in 1.85:1, and I’m not going to get into the purist nitpicking of whether it should be at a 2.0 aspect ratio, which was one of Universal-International’s ways to go in those early days when wider-screen movies (both anamorphic and non-) took over exhibition; I’m too old to fight yesterday’s battles and just want to enjoy these things (within limits, of course). I’ve noticed some tepid, though not really negative, chat room responses to the mastering and color quality here, but this release looks pleasing enough to my eye, especially in the performance sequences.
Also featured on this release is the 1985 reissue print that had stereo tracks for the musical numbers — recorded but not used in ’54 because not enough theaters yet had the right equipment. Since GMS won the Oscar for sound recording and the Decca soundtrack album went to No. 1, this is no small deal. The re-issue print is about four minutes shorter, but because the excisions are mostly June Allyson material, I’m glad to have the movie both ways, above and beyond the more robust sound. For her part, Allyson does have a much-admired final scene here.
After years of being able to get foreign-region Blu-rays of Universal product but relatively few from the U.S., it seems that the dam has broken, thanks to Shout! Factory and Kino Classics (just got the latter’s new one of 1955’s Foxfire, the Jeff Chandler-Jane Russell potboiler that became the last three-strip Technicolor feature). This could prove to be new life for Douglas Sirk (who’s already well-represented on All-Region reach imports) and certainly Audie Murphy. Even now, we can tell you to don on your track shoes because fast moving Tarantula! (in both senses) is coming from the former around tax time in what I hope is a more satisfactory rendering than the grainy Region ‘B’ release. Depending on how much the delayed fine print from the tax cut kicks in, it might provide an apropos opportunity to say, “Sic ’em.”