Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.
This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of the most iconic big band leader of all time from his early days of struggle, through his meteoric rise in the charts, all the way to his involvement with the USO in WWII. It’s a (slightly) fictional take on a true story full of trumpet blasts, crisp high hats, and thundering toe taps from a crowd that just can’t get enough of the stuff.
Glenn Miller’s story, like maybe all great musicians, starts in a pawn shop.
With a smile that poverty can’t seem to wipe off his face, Miller steps into a familiar pawn shop to buy back his trombone. It’s one more chance for him to make his mark as a musician. He’d be back in the shop to sell it back for lunch money, and it wouldn’t be the last dance he has with pawning his instrument, but his story begins with his luck down and his horn in hock.
In that way, this is also the true American story – one where you stare at the pearl necklace you’d love to get your sweetheart as you’re thumbing empty pockets. It’s a story of a man rising to prominence and wealth (in every sense of that word) through talent and pluck alone. It’s the story of a young man from a small town with big dreams that come true.
There’s no doubt why the studios would salivate over the story of Glenn Miller. He created a musical style that mirrored a national pulse, struggled to do so, gladly took his fame to the fighting men and women of WWII, and, because of that selflessness, lost his life when his plane was lost somewhere over the English Channel ten days before Christmas in 1944. All the ingredients are there to celebrate and mourn.
It seems somehow fitting that a year after Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records to record an album for his mother, the film starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson which re-introduced the human side of Glenn Miller to the American public debuted to giant success. The success was so strong that the film would reach back in on itself in order to re-launch the Glenn Miller Band which continues to tour this day.
While the film is entertaining from beginning to end – mostly because of the casting of Stewart and Allyson alongside situations that seem almost to have sit-com levels of harmlessness – it’s really the music that’s captivating. In that, director Anthony Mann truly understood the appeal of Glenn Miller. Sure, his life was interesting, but to people of the time (and to times to come) Miller’s was a name on a headline from the music charts. He was a name on a wax record you were saving up to buy. The true stars of the film are “Moonlight Serenade,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “In the Mood,” and “Little Brown Jug.” The true star of the film is the ghost of Glenn Miller – his immortal spirit in song flowing through every frame.
In that sense, it’s an extended music video featuring all the songs jazz and big band fans love. However, as a biopic it’s a lightweight look at making it big that almost seems absurdly simple. The scene that exemplifies this most is when Miller calls up his college sweetheart, who he’s seen once in 2 years, and tells her to get a ticket to New York so they can get married. She’s already engaged to another man, but Miller’s optimism (channeled perfectly through Stewart) is such that he sees her saying, “Yes,” as a foregone conclusion.
And it is.
While Miller’s story of musical and romantic success has all the trappings of a rags to riches situation, Miller as a character is so damned optimistic (bordering on a preternatural knowledge of his own inevitable victory) that it’s impossible not to look at a situation of starvation without having a song in your heart for him.
The beauty of the film is in its innocence. Stewart and Allyson are incredibly magnetic figures – the type of Golden Era actors that could make a bank robber who ducked into a theater to get away from the cops stop in his tracks and forget what he was doing long enough to get arrested. Although the plot continues without much true complication, it manages to sneak in a few moments that tie earlier scenes together and give them meaning. This pays off in the final moments of the film when Miller’s being lost to the English Channel meets the vulnerable response of his loving wife.
Even then, in the face of such great loss, there is a hint of hope reaching beyond it all.
And the band plays on.
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