Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What is so rare as a day in June?

June Allyson and James Stewart
June Allyson (1917-2006) and James Stewart (1908-1997) later in life

Not having anything else to write about, I figured this June 4 would be a good chance finally to get around to writing that blog entry on June Allyson. Known as "The Girl Next Door", Allyson played a string of nice, likeable women, and wives who would be nice to come home to if you were the husband, especially in musicals. Allyson's acting imbued her characters with an affability that made you want to root for her character (and, in most cases, for her screen husband, too). One of her best wifely roles is opposite James Stewart in the 1954 musical biopic The Glenn Miller Story.

Stewart plays Glenn Miller, the trombonist who can hear a "new" sound in his head, that of an orchestration which would later become one of the hallmarks of the "big band" sound of the 1930s and 1940s. But life is always difficult for a struggling musician, so Miller has to get a whole host of gigs on the road in which he tries to hook everybody on his sound. This being a biopic, we know more or less what happens. America does get hooked on big band music, Miller becomes one of America's most famous musicians, joins the Army in order to entertain the troops abroad, but dies tragically at Christmas 1944 when his plane goes missing. (The best guess as to how he actually died is that a plane returning from a bombing mission dropped its excess payload on a foggy night, inadvertently hitting the plane in which Miller was a passenger.) Allyson plays Miller's wife Helen, being not only a source of steadiness and comfort in Glenn's life, but also an inspiration for some of Miller's finest songs. And indeed, Miller being a musician, composer, and arranger, The Glenn Miller Story is all about the music -- and very fine music it is. Most of Glenn's well-known standards are included, from "Moonlight Serenade" to "String of Pearls", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "In the Mood", and, in the movie's most poignant moment, "Little Brown Jug".

I'll admit that I don't know exactly how honest the movie is; Hollywood biopics of the era tended to whitewash change or omit a lot of events in people's lives for dramatic effect. However, the music of Glenn Miller is always lovely, the story is a good one, and the performances are all first-rate. Stewart was a natural for this sort of role, as his earnestness and small-town man qualities project easily onto the personality of a man with ideas. Allyson was expert at being the domestic rock and voice of reason, and hits those notes without missing a beat. The supporting roles are also competent, although the best of these are the jazz cameos, including Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa. The Glenn Miller Story is available on DVD. It might not hold some kids' interest, being a biography of a man playing "old-fashioned" music, but there's nothing family-unfriendly about it. And of course, it's great for any adult who enjoys big band music.

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