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Monday, May 17, 2010




Universal Makes Boxoffice Music


We assume a lot about moviegoers in the fifties. What can I do but speculate here about a public's reaction to The Glenn Miller Story? First, there's what we know for truth, borne out by revenues the likes of which Universal-International hadn't amassed before. Some of the biggest hits of back then are ones we seldom talk about now. The Glenn Miller Story was a right attraction at a perfect moment. It got people back into theatres who'd given up movies for barbecuing and evening softball. And said prodigals brought their kids, 1954 being a year when virtually every potential customer remembered Glenn Miller and wanted to see (and even more so, hear) his life story. Universal's biopic revived memories of what was pleasant about recently past war years (well, ten years seems recent to me anyway). Youngsters who'd courted against backdrops of Miller melodies now attended as married couples. Fault lines dividing teens from musical tastes of elders were opening, but fissures remained narrow enough for showmen to manage a family audience and enjoy consensus among pleased patrons. Who foresaw a year's later surly youth busting up prized swing records in The Blackboard Jungle? Decca had out a soundtrack for The Glenn Miller Story in tandem with the pic's release and selections from that zoomed up Hit Parade charts. The late bandleader was selling again just as Al Jolson had when Columbia told his story in 1946, that one being template for Universal's go at Miller's life, warts of which were scrubbed in deference to family and fans who viewed Glenn as Mister Congeniality among music-makers. And who better to play him than James Stewart at his easiest going?






Lots prefer Jim as neurotic in accordance with modern embrace of genres darkened, his westerns and Hitchcocks exploring avenues more to misanthropic likings. The Glenn Miller Story is a Stewart/Anthony Mann collaboration (along with Strategic Air Command) cultists put in a sack and tossed to rivers. That was decades after Glenn Miller socked over bigger grosses ($7.5 million domestic) than any of their other teamings. There's no use (or need) defending its sentiment, the by-numbers rise to fame having little to do with facts of any band man's history. It was, as with Jolson, all about the music. Plus that aspect of Glenn Miller's life they wouldn't fudge, his tragic end in an air crash that everyone in 1954 recalled or had heard about. This for a finish guaranteed a solid femme turnout and wrung oceans of tears to wash down tunes folks loved hearing again. LIFE magazine stunted the openings to photograph women crying as they watched The Glenn Miller Story that February, along with couples adrift upon clouds of romance (two shown here hand-holding) as Stewart and perfect movie wife June Allyson renewed their screen vows.
















Who needed gloves-off biopics in 1954? Those were just around the corner in any case. MGM's Love Me Or Leave Me of the next year was unrelentingly harsh, and I'll Cry Tomorrow from the same company added jiggers of alcohol to a getting toxic mix. The Glenn Miller Story plays like pabulum beside these (and never mind further ones down the line). Nothing unpleasant happens short of Miller's plane going down, and that takes place offscreen. Stops are out, however, for Allyson's response. Here is grief clinically enacted by an actress for whom such display was expected highlight of all her performances, a trio of which co-starred Stewart. People still attended movies in 1954 to weep as much as laugh. Universal saw that reaffirmed in their other blockbuster from the same year, Magnificent Obsession. Most frustrating perhaps is The Glenn Miller Story's dawdling on titular figure's slow climb to fame. A first half and part of the second is more about reverses and pawnshop detours, these forestalling songs we're there to hear. Best perhaps to tune in for its last forty or so minutes, because that's where most all the Miller standards get loving recital. How potent a shot of adrenalin did his music get for being heard again here? I was just born when Universal released The Glenn Miller Story, but an Ebay search reveals multiple soundtrack releases through what remained of the fifties. There were albums, extended play 45's, and Decca's stereo reissue of its platter in 1956. The film would become an object of moviegoing nostalgia, as Universal happily discovered in 1959 when a Sindlinger & Co. poll revealed The Glenn Miller Story was the U-I backlog picture audiences most wanted back in theatres.






























The survey was taken to measure viability of reissues against tempting alternative of television sale. Rival companies were gearing up for post-48 surrender to the one-eyed monster and exhibs were apoplectic. Hadn't Universal been the small theatre's best friend? Now they looked for the company to stem a coming tide of recent features to home screens and promised favorable dates if only U-I would share vaulties with them rather than TV stations. Sindlinger spent four weeks canvassing venues large and small to determine which Universal oldies patrons would spring admissions to reacquaint with. 53 potential titles were fielded. Perhaps numbers were inflated for publicity's sake, but twenty-three million were said to want another round of The Glenn Miller Story (Bosley Crowther doubted such a figure, and said so in a New York Times column), and that was sufficient to put U-I in full blast selling mode, their energy on the pic's behalf being equal to that applied toward new releases. A New York trade press luncheon saw Universal execs bandying estimates of $3.5 million in fresh rentals to come, plus claims they'd spend more pushing Glenn Miller's revival than was expended for recent hit Pillow Talk. If the picture were made today, it couldn't be improved upon, said marketers, so labs got out 100 new prints and a rush was on for bookings starting March 1960. By the time The Glenn Miller Story penetrated theatres, Warners was closing deals for many of their post-48 biggies and Fox would follow suit with their own historic NBC Saturday Night At The Movies deal the following year. 1960-61 would open video barn doors and even The Glenn Miller Story, for all a public's willingness to come see it again, would be announced for airwave availability in December of 1963.














There was one more theatrical reissue for The Glenn Miller Story, a surprising twenty-five years after Universal's 1960 rollout. James Stewart had worked compatibly with the studio's sales force merchandising a package of Alfred Hitchcock features back in theatres for 1983, and it was the actor who proposed The Glenn Miller Story's encore as possible follow-up. Stewart remembered stereo tracks having been recorded in 1954 and felt these might now be a lure for paying crowds to hear the venerable show as never before. A scouring of studio vaults bore little fruit, however, and it looked as though Decca's song masters for the 50's soundtrack albums would be close as they'd come to a stereo Glenn Miller. According to Universal publicity, a late-in-the-day pass through a Chicago storage depot yielded hitherto unknown recording of the entire feature and basis for an all-encompassing Dolby mix (not that I swear by veracity of this studio sanctioned info, and would welcome corrective to same if anyone knows better re these tracks and what exposure they had from 1954 to present day --- and does Uni's DVD derive from true stereo masters?). 1985 was late for tendering a 50's feature to TV saturated customers. In this case, the multi-channel track was justification to go forward with theatrical dates. Fresh poster art emphasized Dolby enhancement (above), and Universal got its refurbished GMS a berth at the Cannes Film Festival held in May 1985. Stewart brought leading lady June Allyson along to thump for what both referred to as a personal favorite, receiving twenty minute's ovation at the fest unspooling. That Cannes reception encouraged the pair's continued touring with The Glenn Miller Story, Stewart presumably greased with a profit share per his original 50's deal with U-I, but black ink would not flow. A miserable $79,342 in domestic rentals was all this reissue could muster. Twenty years of televised access to The Glenn Miller Story had taken a toll in spite of stereophonic refreshment.

23 Comments:

Blogger J. Theakston said...

The three-track stereo tracks for GMS are definitely legit— they were run off of a mag fullcoat print interlocked with the projectors at theaters that played in stereo.

GMS was also one of the first films at Universal to go into production with the newly-tooled viewfinders for the 2-1 aspect ratio. They shot it full-aperture and reduced the image in the Technicolor printer to obtain a finer-grained color film (sort of a precursor to VistaVision). Unfortunately, new prints didn't reduce this larger image and cut off the left portion of the picture.

9:27 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jack, I was actually hoping to hear from you about the stereo question, as you are a recognized expert on the subject, as well as matters of screen ratio. Once again, you've supplied great info not to be found elsewhere. Thanks!

9:40 AM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

I was digging around a bit after listening to some Glenn Miller recently and watching "Orchestra Wives" again.

According to Wikipedia, there's a movie theater in Sun Valley, Idaho that plays "Sun Valley Serenade" for free public admission every day of the year.

I wonder if it's shown from a 35mm print? That would be fun to see (and hear) on a big screen.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Tennis Girl said...

Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorites and wonderful in anything he tried.
Robin

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I read an article by Artie Shaw on the occasion of that '85 reissue, where Shaw said the movie's masterstroke was casting nice-guy extraordinaire Stewart as Miller, who in real life was "a cold fish" (Shaw's exact words). Apropos of which, my dad saw Miller in person and said he was amazed how foul-mouthed the man was (granted, standards of profanity were way different then, but my dad was a marine and no bluenose where language was concerned).

My dad also suggested that the movie had a great deal to do with Miller's posthumous reputation. Popular as Miller was, he said, he wasn't as big as others -- Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Kay Kyser, etc. In my dad's view, The Glenn Miller Story is what elevated Miller in hindsight to the quintessential sound of the Big Band Era.

One persistent mystery about the movie is the total absence of Tex Beneke. The movie even hands off his signature hit with Miller, "Chattanooga Choo-Choo", to Frances Langford. From what I heard, Helen Miller herself insisted on freezing Tex out; she hated him and resented the way he took over the band after Glenn's death. Does anyone know if that's true?

12:51 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Another great piece! I love the solid research you invest into this stuff, but it's your thoughtful reflections on the story behind the story that makes this site so wonderful. My brother and I were a couple of baby boomers who loved Stewart and all those gritty Antony Mann westerns, but were amazed our own parents listed the Miller picture and STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND among their all time favorites (my dad was an Army Air Corps vet and worked in the aviation industry, so that sort of explained the latter... but still!) Objectively, both of these films seem so slight here in the 21st century, their popularity, out of context, mystifying. But, as you point out, back in the fifties, what better shows to drag Mom and Pop away from the Philco? Keep up the good work, John! And, oh yeah, now I'm even kinda sorry I missed that eighties theatrical revival!

1:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Had not really occured to me, Jim, that "The Glenn Miller Story" elevated Miller's persoanl image to the extent it did. And that Artie Shaw comment is most interesting ...

Dave, I do appreciate the compliment, and would add that I kind of like "Strategic Air Command" myself. If only Paramount would issue a nice wide DVD ...

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding Tex Beneke's taking over the Miller band--he did this with Helen Miller's full consent and approval. Unfortunately, friction arose because Beneke wanted to keep the band's music evolving to keep up with the times, whereas Mrs. Miller wanted to keep it strictly as a revival band playing Glenn Miller's arrangements exactly as they were in the late 30s and early 40s. As holder of the copyright, Mrs. Miller won out. But I have to think that Tex Beneke's approach was more in keeping with what Glenn Miller would have actually wanted.

I cannot say I agree with your father's theory, Jim, about The Glenn Miller Story and Miller's popularity generally. While it is true that Jimmy Dorsey's Deccas were out selling Miller's Bluebirds by the early 40s, I think Miller was at the top of the heap the terms of popularity and record sales just before then. Also, Miller's label, RCA Victor (parent of Bluebird), always had a knack for keeping Miller's back catalogue in print and in the public eye. They even had a special "Collector's Series" of 78's in the early 1950s with striking maroon on silver labels. (Of course, label mates Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw were also well represented in this series by their hits). RCA Victor kept these in print as 78s gave way to 45s, "electronically re-channeled for stereo" LPs, back to Mono for multiple LP sets reissuing Miller's complete Bluebird/Victor output, compact disks remastered from the original metal parts, and whatever format will come next. Just like they did, and do, for Elvis!

I think the fact that Miller's back catalogue continued to sell briskly is what inspired Universal-International to make the biopic, and not the other way around.

John, you make the point about The Glenn Miller Story being followed by biopics with darker themes (Love Me or Leave Me, about 1920-1930's singer Ruth Etting, and I'll Cry Tomorrow, about late 1920's-early 1930's singer Lillian Roth.) But shouldn' t The Glenn Miller Story be compared to The Fabulous Dorseys or The Eddie Duchin Story? These last two dealt with performers who were still fresh in the public mind for their music, whereas I would argue that Etting and Roth were then in the public mind more for their personal travails than their music.--Mark Hendrix

2:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Artie Shaw's other comment was, "It would have been better if Glenn Miller had lived and his music died."

I seem to recall this movie and "The Benny Goodman Story" running pretty frequently on local TV when I was growing up.

3:30 PM  
Anonymous Dan in Missouri said...

Universal brought The Glenn Miller Story to Show A Rama in Kansas City to promote the 1985 re-release. Show A Rama was a big industry trade show for the midwest before the ShoWest events.
June Allyson came and was warm and friendly and very easy to find and talk with.
Universal promised that it would be a wide release; but it was not.

5:41 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

This film was, for a while, the only one of the James Stewart-Anthony Mann vehicles that was available on video. And STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND was the film that followed it!

I'm talking about Argentina, where UIP (that distributes both Paramount and Universal films) never bother to have it issued on VHS. They were available by companies that copied the American edition and added Spanish subtitles.

Comparing the artwork for the VHS with the non American original posters I have to say that the design is flat and, as usual, very unappealing.

The other films by Anthony Mann were available on television because they would play them in constant rotation in Action film Saturday marathons (They were called, in Spanish, Sábados de Super Acción, and I have contact with people that actually put them on the air). Later, they were issued on video (never by the copyright holders, who didn't care to loose business opportunities) and I was finally able to see quality versions, far superior than what TV had been having access until then.

The last time I saw this film (called MUSICA Y LAGRIMAS in Latin America) was on TCM. My mother in law was ridiculing it from beginning to end and found hilariously idiotic the pseudo kaleidoscope use of color in the scene where Louis Armstrong invites the musicians to come to the stage to play with him.

Of the leading duo, I prefer THE STRATTON STORY.

6:09 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Here's another one of those I-wish-I-could-remember-where-I-read-it stories. Maybe fifteen, twenty years ago I read an interview with a WWII vet who had served on a bomber crew based in England. On one run, for some reason, his plane didn't make it to their target and had to return to base. It was strict regulation then that if you weren't able to get your bombs to the target, you had to drop them into the English Channel on the way home; nobody wanted a bomber landing -- or worse, crashing -- in England with a live payload.

This time, after the bombardier had let go, the tail gunner noticed, too late, that a smaller plane, in unauthorized airspace and flying well below them toward the Continent, was blown out of the sky by the concussion of their discarded bombs. The date and time matched up, so this vet was sure that he and his bomber crew were the only ones who knew what had happened to Glenn Miller's plane.

6:31 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader Griff e-mailed the following observations ....


Dear John:

I recall reading about the big promotion at Cannes for THE GLENN MILLER STORY with Stewart and Allyson, and it seems to me that U made a substantial push for a European theatrical reissue of the movie. However, if the film had any major reissue playdates in the U.S., I must have missed them; I don't remember the revival of picture even playing in Manhattan. [By comparison, in '83 & '84, the reissued Hitchcocks were everywhere.] John, do you have any information on how the picture fared in its overseas re-release in the mid-'80s?

Stewart some years later teamed with Universal to promote the video release of HARVEY. I had thought that picture predated his profit arrangement with the studio. Possibly something was negotiated for the sake of the video release -- HARVEY, though well liked for Stewart's performance, was not a success in its theatrical release.
_________________

Was the IAMMMMW entry the recent record for visits (and responses) for the site? A great story about finally going to see the picture... and finding a theatre showing a pan-and-scan print of the Ultra Panavision epic. A great nightmare tale.

Thanks again for all the wonderful insights.

Best regards,
-- Griff

6:37 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff, I've got no figures for the European 1985 run of "The Glenn Miller Story," and like you, I have no memory of the film playing anywhere around me that year. Universal must have bailed out of a wide release pretty early on.

Stewart seems to have co-operated with Universal in promoting his earlier films for them. Remember the audio commentary he did for the laser disc of "Winchester '73"? I assume he was in for a percentage of those LD sales.

Jim, that's an amazing story about the fate of Miller's plane. Is anyone else familiar with this account?

Dan, I assume that Show-A-Rama was the same confab where "Dr. No" was launched with exhibitors in 1963. There's a previous Greenbriar post that goes into that ...

And Mark, you sound like a real authority on the Miller record catalogue and distribution of same. I appreciate your taking time to pass along all this information.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Carrie said...

Interesting article! Saw the film recently in widescreen HD - would love to see it (and hear it) on BluRay for the next generation.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Another amazing column! Thanks!

The 1980's VHS release of THE GLENN MILLER STORY was, I think, very successful. It was one of the first VHS tapes I bought and I seem to recall other people excitedly buying it the old Tower Records in Manhattan. I now have the DVD and know what I will be watching this week!

11:03 PM  
Anonymous Chet said...

Trivia: Helen Miller sued Decca Records in the late 1950s over the "Glenn Miller Story" soundtrack album. Her claim was that she had never agreed to its release and had been deprived of profits due to people buying the Decca soundtrack rather than Miller's original recordings on RCA. She won her case and Decca was forced to give her a cut of what they had made on the album's sales over the years.

My sister, who has worked at a retirement community for seniors for many years, has told me that Glenn Miller's was always the favorite of all the big band music they played there. I say "was" because she tells me that, more and more, the music the community's residents prefer is shifting away from big band and pop standards and toward 1950s rock and roll!

11:11 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon has more to say via e-mail about Glenn Miller's last flight ...


Dear John,


Fascinating to learn of the popularity of this picture in its day! I'm surprised (in the classic sense that I didn't know and didn't imagine), yet not surprised (in the sense of it not making sense, especially as you contextualize its contemporary audience.)


Nothing to contribute here except to wonder if you'd heard what I've heard regarding the actual reason for Miller's demise. I remember reading that it was not uncommon for planes returning from a bombing run to Europe to dump leftover munitions over the English channel on the way back to Great Britain. Apparently a young pilot (of that time) did so, and years later he correlated this with the downing of the aircraft that bore Miller back over the channel, and realized to his horror and regret that both coincided almost exactly, and the theory was born that in dumping their stuff, they might have dumped it right on Miller's plane and blown it up. Have you heard this one? I know it was unlikely enough (in the sense of the saying, "What are the odds of that happening?") to be possible, and it might now be held as a given. When I studied music in college, one of my teachers who was also the leader of the symphonic band there was a Miller fan, and he told me that Miller's innovation was the way he massed the clarinets and saxophones together. I'm sure it would be more apparent to me if I had one of Miller's arrangements here to hear, but I don't! However, "In the Mood" is still a classic that almost demands you to get up and start swing dancing! The ending, with its climbing, artfully-delayed climax and release at the end, is surely one of the best-remembered recordings of the '40s. Henry Mancini got his start with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, although (without being a good boy and doing my due diligent research) I'm going to say he joined it after Miller's passing. Mancini found his own voice as an arranger as his plush arrangements for his own classic film scores still testify, but he never lost his unpretentious methodology common to many expert arrangers. He wrote a wonderful tutorial called "Sounds and Scores", which due to the technology of the day had a sleeve with several 45 rpm discs (as I recall), and these in turn featured extended excerpts from some of his outstanding pieces originally written as underscore for the TV series "Peter Gunn", among others. You could look at Mancini's original scores in the book and follow along as you played the 45's. Pretty darned cool! A later edition might finally have moved the excerpts to one CD, which would certainly have been a big improvement in ease of listening.


Craig

9:33 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I guess I'll weigh in here one more time, since I seem to be the only one of us who actually saw that '85 reissue of TGMS in the theater. It played a fairly well-attended gig here in Sacramento at the Tower Theatre (the very one that had given its name to Tower Records), and I must say the reissue print, indeed the film itself, was a revelation.

As one of those Baby Boomers whose parents took him to see it in 1954, I had no recollection of how very good the movie is -- certainly those "twenty years of televised access" had done no service to the beauty of that 1950s Technicolor or the deftness of its construction, building as it does to the emotional payoff of June Allyson hearing "Little Brown Jug" on the radio. And the Dolby remix of the music was -- there's no other word -- spectacular. This must have been what it was like to hear Miller's band live at the Glen Island Casino or the Meadowbrook Ballroom.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Sean said...

Any thoughts on (What I remember as) the success/buzz of the G.M.Orchestra's 1983 "In THe DIGITAL Mood" might have had on Universal doing the 1985 Re-release? I seem to recall it getting quite a bit of press back then but that could have been because it was early in the days of digitally recorded music.

11:05 AM  
Blogger 42nd Street Memories said...

A testament to the old theory of getting people into the theater and keeping them there. I saw the 1960 reissue at the RKO Palace in NYC. Co-feature was a vampire western Curse of the Undead, also on the bill were two Oscar winning shorts The Bespoke Overcoat(30 min) and Disney's The Wetback Hound (18 min). That's a 4 hour show and I bet there were coming attractions too. A good day.

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Bernd said...

Don't remember whether it was 1985 but this movie definitely played Vienna, Austria around then and did quite well. Don't know about other European cities though...

Bernd

5:48 AM  
Blogger Cladrite Radio said...

I'd say Miller dying at the height of his popularity had as much to do with his rise to the head of the Big Band pack as anything. An early(ish) death has enriched the legacy of many of a performer.

4:30 PM  

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