Film Reviews (Seriously) – SUN VALLEY SERENADE and ORCHESTRA WIVES
With the recent passing of Anne Rutherford, I was reminded of one of my favorite movies to feature her, Orchestra Wives (1942). Since the main draw of that film is Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, I thought I would look at both Glenn Miller films for this installment of FR(S).
The 1990s had grunge. The 1980s had pop metal. The 1970s had disco. If a different musical style can define each decade, then the 1940s would be the decade of the big band sound. And if each decade’s signature genre can be represented by one act (Nirvana, Bon Jovi, and Donna Summer in the respective genres and decades above), then no other act epitomizes the big band sound better than The Glenn Miller Orchestra. With great respect for other legends (Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, etc.), Glenn Miller, based on today’s audience, is the most successful of the big band leaders. What music lover, or even a casual music fan, can’t identify In the Mood from the first eight notes? Who doesn’t know at least some of the lyrics from Chattanooga Choo Choo? The longevity of Miller’s popularity and the easy recognition of his music is a testament to his talent as a musician and as a bandleader. Most people associate the combination of Hollywood and Glenn Miller with The Glenn Miller Story (1953), starring James Stewart as Miller and June Allyson as his wife, Helen. But more than ten years earlier, Glenn Miller (with his orchestra) was the centerpiece of two musical-romantic-comedies, both of which were small on plot but big on band.
Sun Valley Serenade (1941) stars Miller and his orchestra as the Phil Corey Orchestra, a struggling band looking for a break. That break comes when the current band playing behind temperamental primadonna singer Vivian Dawn (Lynn Bari) does not play to her liking during an audition. As a result, she has them promptly dismissed. Corey and company are in the right place at the right time, and with a solid sound, a little hustling of Vivian’s promoter by band manager Nifty Allen (Milton Berle), and a little flirting with Vivian by pianist Ted Scott (John Payne), the band lands the gig that will take them to the resort known as Sun Valley. While the band celebrates its success, Ted is served with legal papers citing that he has been granted custody of a refugee, the result of a months-old publicity stunt cooked up by Nifty. Honoring the law and their commitment to the child (despite the original intent), the band waits at Ellis Island for the child that Ted will adopt and that the whole band will raise. The “child” turns out to be Karen Benson (Sonja Henie), a young woman from Norway who immediately falls in love with Ted. Of course, this creates a conflict, because while Karen immediately falls for Ted, he and Vivian share a budding romance. Several weeks later, Karen sneaks aboard the train that takes the band to Sun Valley, and she does everything she can to win Ted’s heart away from the jealous Vivian.
In Orchestra Wives (1942), Miller and the band star as the Gene Morrison Orchestra (note the similarity between fact and fiction in the initials), a well-established and highly successful band getting ready to hit the road for a string of tour dates. Many of the band members don’t want to tour because of the strain that touring puts on their marriages, but tours sell records, so off they go. Early into the tour, star trumpet player and resident lothario Bill Abbot (George Montgomery) beats fellow romancer and piano man Sinjin (Cesar Romero) to Connie Ward (Ann Rutherford), who turns out to be Bill’s biggest fan. It’s love at first sight, and the next night the couple gets married (!). But the star-struck country girl had not anticipated the rigors of touring with a successful band, and living out of a suitcase takes its toll on her emotions. Complicating matters are the wives of the band members, a downright catty (and that’s putting it politely) group of women who have nothing better to do than gossip and backstab. This group is led by the only single woman of the bunch, the band’s lead female vocalist, Jaynie Stevens (Lynn Bari again, although her singing in both films is done by Pat Friday). Jaynie once had a brief romance with Bill, and she didn’t realize what she truly wanted until it was off the market. She makes it her mission to covertly split-up the marriage and have Bill to herself once again.
As I said, the films are short on plot. Plus, each film has vastly different directorial styles. H. Bruce Humberstone directs Sun Valley Serenade (the better of the two) with a distinct emphasis on the band, using shadows and light, creative camera angles, well-planned blocking, and snappy choreography to give us a sense of what MTV might have aired had it existed 60 years ago. Orchestra Wives, as directed by Archie Mayo, focuses more on the characters than on the music or musicians, although Mayo throws in a Busby Berkeley-like overhead or two, but the shots feel awkward enough to give the impression that some studio suit showed up, looked at the dailies and said, “More band.” And I neglected to mention that both films are short on acting, too. Oh, the actors playing musicians are fine, but the musicians trying to act, including Miller, are either too stiff, too hammy, or both, depending on the film. But guess what. Acting and plot are not what these films are about, and they certainly are not what make these films so special.
Bit parts and cameos make these films special. In Sun Valley Serenade, not only do the youthful Henie (29 years old) and Berle (33) have major roles, but Billy May appears as an actual member of Miller’s orchestra. May later went on to become a popular bandleader in his own right, and most notably he arranged several albums for Frank Sinatra. Orchestra Wives provides even more treats, not only with May again, but also with Dale Evans (AKA Mrs. Roy Rogers) as a girl at the soda fountain. Also at the fountain, playing Cully Anderson, the soda jerk and hopeful love interest of Connie Ward, is Harry Morgan. Morgan is best known for playing Colonel Sherman Potter (1975-1983) on TV’s M*A*S*H (1972-1983). Coincidentally, Morgan would later appear (credited as Henry Morgan) in The Glenn Miller Story, as pianist and long-time friend of Miller’s, Chummy MacGregor. (Because actors Payne and Romero played pianists in the films, MacGregor is not credited as having been in the films. Be assured, however, that he is tickling the ivories in each song.) Playing Ben Beck, the bass player in Orchestra Wives, is none other than Jackie Gleason, who gained fame as Ralph Kramden on TV’s The Honeymooners (1955-1956), as well as several other television and film projects.
Special performances make these films special. Sun Valley Serenade features two figure skating sequences performed by three-time Olympic gold-medal winner (1928, 1932, and 1936) Henie. The first is pretty standard fare: As Henie puts on her moves in an effort to impress Ted, the crowd of “regular” skaters parts to give her center stage. The second performance is intentionally choreographed as part of the plot, with dozens of skating extras, and it occurs at night, on “black ice” (regular ice coated with a layer of black dye). The nighttime black ice effect is gorgeous, giving Henie the look as if she is skating on a mirror. Kudos to cinematographer Edward Cronjager for a flawless set-up and execution.
But perhaps the best special performances are those made by Fayard Nicholas and his younger brother Harold, the two of whom are also known as the Nicholas Brothers. In Sun Valley Serenade, the band rehearses Chattanooga Choo Choo while waiting for Ted to return from a skiing jaunt. Just when you think the song is over, the camera pans and the Nicholas Brothers (along with the Dorothy Dandridge, in one of her earliest credited appearances) appear from the rear of a mock caboose. The trio sings their rendition of the lyrics, with a little dance thrown in, and when the words run out, Dandridge steps aside and lets the tap-dancing brothers perform their phenomenal routine, complete with gravity-defying leaps and trademark side-by-side splits. In Orchestra Wives, the Brothers (sans Dandridge) appear at the end of the film to sing and dance to I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo, again showcasing their splits and adding flips to their already impressive repertoire.
In true movie-musical fashion, when the Brothers and Dandridge break into song and dance, nobody bats an eye (even though the songs do nothing to advance the plot, set a scene, or deepen any characters, like songs do in other musicals). And what’s most interesting is that the three performers have nothing else to do with the films. The only screen time they have is during the song-and-dance numbers. (It is also interesting to note that in Sun Valley Serenade, only Dandridge is credited, but her part is listed as “Specialty.” The Nicholas Brothers get credit in Orchestra Wives as playing themselves.) Without getting too political, some might view these two routines as having been thrown in for no other reason than to exploit the three performers. Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I disagree. Given racial inequality in the 1940s, no studio would have a need to just “throw in” scenes featuring minority performers solely for the sake of appeasing a group of people. I like to think the numbers were included because the dance routines are so good that they elevate each film’s enjoyment factor. This is not demographics-targeting, this is talent testament.
Setting aside casting and special numbers, what mostly makes these films most special is Glenn Miller’s music. I mentioned at the start of this piece that Miller’s music defines a decade. After thinking more about it, I can’t come up with another musical act whose music not only defines a decade, but that once defined a nation as well, and I don’t know that a musical act of that scope will ever exist in this country again. A lot of that has to do with timing. World War II rallied us as one nation, and at the time, there was one popular style of music. Once Elvis came along in the 1950s, dividing generations and opening new mainstream musical doors, and once people started to question government in the 1960s, the possibility of a country as united as it was in the 1940s, dancing to one popular musical style, ceased to exist. This holds true even today. In the decade-plus that has followed 9/11, what makes up our “national soundtrack”? Rock? Rap? Country? The genres are too artistically diverse and too equally popular for a whole nation to pick just one.
However, make no mistake. Not only was Glenn Miller in the right place at the right time, he had the chops to pull it off. Watching these films and hearing Miller’s signature Moonlight Serenade, his hits like I Know Why, People Like You and Me, At Last, and Serenade in Blue, plus his legendary numbers like In the Mood, Chattanooga Choo Choo, and I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo (the latter two of which are sung by Tex Beneke, a Miller saxophonist with an unmistakably unique voice), is especially pleasing because not only are they all great songs, the arrangements are different than those you would hear on a typical “Greatest Hits” compilation. This adds a nice freshness to them that, once you hear them, will certainly put you … in the mood.