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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Miller Machine At Full Throttle

Orchestra Wives (1942) Goes Behind Big-Band Scenes

A cruelest scene in Blackboard Jungle has rotten juves smashing a gentle school teacher’s prized collection of swing on shellac. Bust-up of 78’s stood for chasm between grown-ups who’d been through it all and kids that, many said, had it all handed to them. Sides were chosen, each picking music to exclusion of the other as gulf widened. 45 singles sought level that was kids and fifty cents or thereabout they’d spend for latest rock and roll. Adults chose LP’s which were priced higher and customized for mature listening. Sinatra got his 50’s spike via High-Fi albums. Sadness for many was swing on decline as 40’s turned to 50’s and novelty songs went up the chart. Nostalgia for Big Bands was intense, even as bands themselves gave way to risen costs and thinning crowds. 1954’s The Glenn Miller Story tapped into that longing and took Universal over the moon. 20th Fox waded in on conviction that there was Miller money enough for everybody by reissuing combo of Sun Valley Serenade with Orchestra Wives, both starring the departed bandleader and wall-to-walled with his sound. Victor was the “diskery” behind a pair of LP’s, new to the market said Variety (5-13-54), “since there wasn’t a (previous) soundtrack album on either film” (that not correct, as Victor got out a 78 set when Orchestra Wives was new).

Orchestra Wives told of life inside bands, specifically Miller’s, him but faintly disguised “Glenn Morrison” here, surrounded by sidemen known by most (at least in 1942) to be his. Maybe Fox underestimated fan awareness of Miller membership, for even now, 20th personnel subbing on instruments stick out like bandaged thumbs, especially as they’re merged with real-thing musicians who look the authentic part. Caesar Romero at the piano is spared close exam at the keys, while George Montgomery’s trumpet tooting was said to draw razzes from guys who knew from performance. Jackie Gleason makes a smartest move by avoiding his instrument altogether and sticking to comedy (for life of me, I can’t even remember what he was supposed to be playing in this Fox-faux band).

Miller is a benign maestro, as was case in previous Sun Valley Serenade. He underplays, coming off quite modern in fact. Bandleaders were liked and sought out in movies no matter the bad actors some of them were, as what mattered where sounds they made were sweet? A few, like Kay Kyser, had personality to burn, so it was richer field he’d plow at RKO so long as vogue lasted. Miller, however, was King of music’s tall (and till) hill who'd certainly have done more films if not for military service, then premature end in a vanished plane. Fox shot more numbers with his group than was used in Orchestra Wives, this stuff gold dust when records were reissued later on. I would assume that if filmed outtakes were extant, there’d be access, but don’t recall any showing up on DVD’s for Wives or Sun Valley.

Were band-following girls the groupies of their era? Orchestra Wives at least sanctifies their mating with marriage, though overnight nature of couplings marks swing clearly as aphrodisiac. Ann Rutherford is a small towner who weds/beds George Montgomery mere hours after hearing him play, while femme body around the bandstand pant to rhythm made by bad boys and their horns. What were families to make of daughters spirited off by such pied piping? I’ll bet many a Dad saw white slaving at core of what these gypsies practiced, and could wonder if county magistrates weren’t obliged to polish up their Mann Act as many a Betty Sue got lured over state lines and into motor courts where band busses stopped. Plain folk saw plenty to suspect in troubadours on constant move, a same view attaching here as with vaudevillians who were figured by small towns to travel for sole purpose of despoiling innocence (in fact, many did feed on the corn-fed, per more than one Marx Bros. account from the road).  Did Glenn Miller maintain vigil on morals of his boys? I could picture close calls or rush for a county line under right, or better wrong, circumstance. How many weddings among musicians were shotgun induced? Orchestra Wives raises such questions without necessarily answering them.

Miller on tour was caravan of publicity for Orchestra Wives. Hits from the film became so as the picture traveled parallel with the band. Swing music lent itself to synergy, all cash roads leading to Glenn Miller live, on radio, jukeboxes, or theatre screens. Orchestra Wives could have done with more of him and less of a story where new-wed Ann Rutherford is target of bitchery from titular trouble makers Carole Landis, Mary Beth Hughes, Lynn Bari, all familiar from Fox kennels. What contradiction musicals could be --- clicking solid with song, but choked on story --- runny egg white spoiling healthy yolk. Still, Orchestra Wives holds interest in dated ways, showing at least how private lives of band membership were perceived when swing was hottest, curiosity rife then, if cooled since. To matter of 50’s revive of interest in Glenn Miller, there was big hypo that was stereo in 1958 when members of the band came together, along with Tommy/Jimmy Dorsey’s crews, to do salute albums with wall-bouncing separation of sound. This was swing like it had never been heard when the tunes were new and Miller was leading them.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Accurate point regarding script vs songs. Try to imagine, say, Fred Astaire's best musicals -- "Top Hat", "Swingtime", "Damsel in Distress" -- without the song and dance. They'd be unwatchable; the stories are ridiculous, as is the dialogue. Astaire himself admitted the books of his Broadway shows were awful. It's as if the writers decided to kick up their feet, knowing that audiences were there strictly for the music.

3:50 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Find myself thinking of "A Hard Day's Night", where the Beatles are constantly fleeing mobs of teenyboppers. They're briefly seen hanging out with some Vegas-type dancers at a TV studio, but no hint of anything beyond smug schoolboys whose highest ambition was just to impress girls.

I recall that in "Help" (and here too?) it was decreed going in that the boys would not be shown in relationships or romances. Was such the norm for idols playing themselves (unless famously married)?

4:18 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

Let's not forget that seeing the Miller band in one of the Fox pictures would have given audiences then a thrill with just the sound alone - outside of seeing the band in person, it was really the only way to hear it recorded in hi-fi. Even new remastering of the original 78 parts can't match what you get off those nice optical tracks on 35mm.

As late as 2001, Sun Valley, Idaho was still showing "Sun Valley Serenade" for the tourists. I wonder if they still do this and what kind of deal they worked out with Fox to do it.

"At least 200 days a year, promptly at 5 p.m., the film is shown at the theater-size Opera House on the grounds of the Sun Valley resort.

And for the past 12 years, hotel manager Dick Anderson said, it has aired on Channel 55 of the resort's in-house closed-circuit television system 16 times each day, 365 days a year — an estimated 73,000 times so far."

If it's still showing on a big screen, I'd be tempted to visit Sun Valley, Idaho just to see it!

9:25 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Love Miller's Clark Kent look in OW!

6:24 PM  
Blogger shiningcity said...

Interesting that one of the biggest members of the big band club, Ozzie Nelson, helped to ease the tension of his generation by giving smiling approval to son Ricky's latest rock & roll hit following each TV episode in the late '50's. Sort of, don't worry, the kid's music is okay. Of course, Ozzie's generation could have easily danced to most of Ricky's music.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

Back in my college days at a chain store selling VHS tapes, Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives were two of the most requested classic movies that hadn't been released yet. (others: The Razors Edge, Leave Her To Heaven, The Gangs All Here...Fox movies were hard to come by unless you had AMC).

Where the heck is SVS on DVD, let alone blu ray? As far as I know only OW made it to DVD in the US (no blu yet...that seems like that would be an ideal release for a company like Twilight Time).

I love the backstage bitchery and various story threads in Orchestra Wives. Compared to other Fox musicals of the 40s the script feels like Shakespeare.

11:47 PM  

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