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.