Thursday, March 21, 2013

Orchestra Wives (20th Century-Fox, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I screened a film I’d recorded earlier in the day from TCM as the last in a series of films from the 1940’s about the world of jazz and swing: Orchestra Wives, the second and last of the two films Glenn Miller made with his orchestra for 20th Century-Fox in 1942 just before he broke up his band to go into the Army Air Force and set up his military orchestra (and have the advantage of being able to get any musician he wanted by having the power to have them drafted!). Miller’s first film, Sun Valley Serenade, was a charming little tale of a Norwegian skater (Sonja Henie) and Miller’s band manager (John Payne) getting together, after some of the usual movie complications, at the famous Sun Valley ski resort (one of the songs is even an ode to the place’s charms!), and the band seems pretty much grafted on to a standard romantic-misunderstanding plot. Orchestra Wives is a better movie by far; not only is it about a band (Miller plays bandleader “Gene Morrison,” and while the use of a character name with the same initials as his own was obviously so they could use the “GM” ornamental bandstands the real Miller traveled with, Miller proves to be a surprisingly good character actor with an appealing deadpan delivery of his lines; as Charles pointed out, we’ve seen actors playing bandleaders who delivered worse performances) but it’s surprisingly dark both visually and thematically.

The plot centers around Midwestern small-town girl Connie Ward (Ann Rutherford), who’s living with her father Dr. Ward (Grant Mitchell) and dating a soda jerk (an uncredited Harry Morgan; later Morgan would play Miller’s real-life right-hand man, pianist Chummy MacGregor, in the 1954 biopic The Glenn Miller Story with James Stewart as Miller) but has a crush on Gene Morrison’s band in general and its star trumpet player, Bill Abbott (George Montgomery), in particular. (And Morgan isn’t the only TV legend who appears here, unbilled; Jackie Gleason, then more bear than blimp and with a full head of hair but still recognizable, plays “Morrison’s” bass player.) When Morrison’s band schedules a tour through the Midwest Connie gets her boyfriend to take her there — and when she learns they have another appearance in the area the next night she takes the bus out and goes alone, only to find that she isn’t admitted because she doesn’t have an “escort” (back when the word meant literally that and wasn’t a euphemism for prostitution). Nonetheless, she waits outside through the whole concert, trying to hear as much of the music as she can, and afterwards Abbott, who’d noticed her the night before, is awestruck that she did that. He proposes marriage to her on the spot and they get legally hitched, whereupon she joins the tour along with the other band members’ wives as well as singer Jaynie Stevens (Lynn Bari, who’d also appeared as the villainess in Sun Valley Serenade and whose vocals were dubbed by singer Pat Friday in both films). Jaynie briefly dated Bill before he broke it off, but she’s one ex who doesn’t want to be quite so “ex.” When the band takes a run-out from Des Moines to Iowa City for one gig, after which they’re scheduled to return to Des Moines, Bill tells Connie not to come out but to wait for his return — and Jaynie sets it up to make it look like she and Bill have resumed their affair, tricking Bill into coming to her room by saying she needs to borrow some money from him, so when Connie shows up to surprise her husband she gets the entirely wrong idea.

Out of revenge, she decides to spill all the secrets she’s learned as an “orchestra wife” on the second band bus — the script by Karl Tunberg (who later got sole screenwriting credit for the 1959 Ben-Hur even though a lot of other, more illustrious scribes, including Christopher Fry, S. N. Behrman and Gore Vidal, worked on it) and Darrell Ware, based on an original story by James Prindle, leaves the odd impression that the band traveled on two buses, one for the members and one for their wives. Most of the secrets are about who’s sleeping with whom, or at least who they want to be sleeping with other than the ones they’re married to, and they’re told with surprising frankness for a Code-era film. The revelations get the band members so upset with each other that they all quit en masse — only a repentant Connie and St. John “Sinjin” Smith (Cesar Romero), the band’s pianist, trick the members into getting back together, “Gene Morrison” gets the job opening the new season at the Glen Island Casino (a real band spot where the real Glenn Miller had had some of his most successful and remunerative gigs, and a name which reflects a time when a “casino” could mean a fancy restaurant as well as a gambling parlor) and of course the reconstituted band is a hit. It helps that they have the Nicholas Brothers on hand to do a specialty number to the song “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” — an obvious follow-up to the big hit from Sun Valley Serenade, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (the writers evidently looked for the name of another obscure city that had lots of vowels in it so it would be easily singable), which also featured the Nicholas Brothers coming on and doing a hot dance after Miller’s band played its recorded arrangement of the song. Orchestra Wives is a fascinating genre-bender, a surprisingly dark movie for a swing-band showcase — some of the compositions from director Archie Mayo (who was put on the film after the originally assigned director, John Brahm, turned it down, but it’s possible Brahm storyboarded it) and cinematographer Lucien Ballard are almost noir — and the bitchiness of the writing for the wives makes one think one’s watching The Women: The Musical.

It’s also an indication of where Glenn Miller’s head was at just before he ended his civilian band career; the opening song, “People Like You and Me,” is a typical World War II flag-waver imploring its listeners to do everything they can to support the war effort, and given what happened later it’s hard not to read it as a reflection of Miller’s restiveness, his anxiety to be out there rallying the troops for real instead of merely playing a song about doing so. It’s also an indication that Miller was evolving his style — and oddly, at a time when a lot of the swing bands (notably Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw) were adding string sections and moving their music more towards the middle of the road, Miller was making it swingier. It’s still frustrating that Miller’s own trombone playing is heard just in bits — his friend George Simon once asked him why he didn’t feature himself more as a soloist and Miller replied, “Who am I trying to kid? I don’t play ballads as well as Tommy Dorsey and I don’t play jazz as well as Jack Teagarden” — but the Miller music on Orchestra Wives features less of the so-called “Miller voicing” (clarinetist Willie Schwartz doubling the saxophones an octave higher — it was actually invented by Duke Ellington and used by him well before Miller was anything more than a free-lance trombonist in New York, but because Ellington was Black, Miller was white and Ellington used the gimmick as just one of many dazzling colors in his musical palette, Miller got credit with inventing it) even though Schwartz was still in the band, and more of the big, loud brass and so-called “slurpy saxophones” (another voicing pioneered by a Black band, in this case Jimmie Lunceford’s) Billy May, a Miller trumpeter and arranger at the time, was introducing in his arrangements. (May would later go on to become a bandleader in his own right, though mostly just in the recording studios of Capitol Records, and would ramp up the screeching brass and slurpy saxes to headache-producing intensity.)

Miller had also hired cornetist Bobby Hackett — the best jazz musician he ever had in his band, though he made surprisingly little use of him (Hackett took the solo at the end of one of Miller’s biggest hits, “A String of Pearls,” and played it behind the beat; just about everyone who’s copied the solo in the Miller clone bands plays it on the beat, to less effect), and instead the big featured trumpeter here is Johnny Best, who doubles when George Montgomery is “playing” on screen and who’s a flamboyant soloist in the Harry James mold. Miller generally avoided featuring star soloists; he didn’t want a band member who’d stand out from the ensemble blend he was trying to achieve (and he probably didn’t want to have to pay the kind of money a star soloist would have asked for, either!). Orchestra Wives is that rarity among band movies — one in which the plot is both as important and as entertaining as the music itself — and while one could wish for even more intensity, more understanding from the writers of the culture shock Connie would feel after her whirlwind marriage and an even more despicable level of bitchiness from the wives, the movie is quite good as it stands. It could also have used a stronger leading man than George Montgomery, whose annoying prissiness is on full display — Tyrone Power would have been ideal, but no way was Darryl Zanuck going to put his biggest star into a cheap exploitation musical designed to cash in on the popularity of a big band! (And besides Power, like Miller himself, was soon to quit the entertainment business “for the duration” and actually fight in World War II instead of just playing a servicemember in the movies.)