According to author Marc Eliot in his book, “Jimmy Stewart, a Biography,” Stewart had for some time wanted to make a movie about Glenn Miller, a man with whom he shared several things in common. They were both small town boys with music in their backgrounds and both had served in the Army Air Force. Stewart had long admired Miller’s work, and in 1953 he got his wish to play the trombonist, arranger and bandleader in the movie The Glenn Miller Story (1954).
For the making of the film, he was paired for the fourth time with director Anthony Mann, with the movie being their first non-western collaboration. Their partnership began in 1950 at Universal Pictures with the making of Winchester ’73 and ended with another western, The Far Country in 1954. Unfortunately, it was said that Mann didn’t really care for The Glenn Miller Story, but only took it on as a favor to Stewart.
Born Alton Glenn Miller on March 4, 1904, Miller and Stewart were born four years apart, which meant that Stewart was 46 years old when he played a 25-year-old Glenn Miller at the beginning of the film. In a very similar situation just a few years later, Stewart was 49 years old when he portrayed a 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh in the movie The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), a role he had to actively fight for because the producers thought that he was too old for the part.
The Glenn Miller Story (1954) traces the career of Glenn Miller from his early days as a struggling musician in the late 1920’s through his most successful years as the leader of his own band and the Army Air Force Band, and ends with his tragic death over the English Channel in 1944. Although the movie definitely took some liberties with some key facts as is often the case with many biopics, you can get a basic understanding of what the movie is about and learn more about Miller’s life by reading the biography page on his official site.
Much of the focus of the movie centers on Glenn Miller’s courtship and marriage to Helen Berger, who was played by June Allyson. Berger was his college sweetheart while they both attended the University of Colorado-Boulder. Stewart and Allyson were good friends off screen, and they played husband and wife on screen in two other films, The Stratton Story (1949) and Strategic Air Command (1955).
But of course the biggest focus of the movie was on the great music of the time. Universal insisted that the movie be heavy on music and feature original Glenn Miller recordings. A then unknown Henry Mancini was hired to work on the score and update the arrangements. The movie also included real life cameos by Frances Langford, Gene Krupa, Louis Armstrong, and the Modernaires.
One other notable person playing himself in the movie was bandleader Ben Pollack, who was instrumental in giving Glenn Miller a start in the music business. An important person that does not appear in the movie was Tex Beneke, who was Miller’s primary tenor sax soloist for many years and who played on several of the band’s recordings. After leading the Glenn Miller “ghost band” which was formed in 1946 a few years after Miller’s death, he parted ways with the band in 1950. He did however play with Miller and his band in the films Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942). Also starring in Orchestra Wives was Henry Morgan, who played Miller’s pianist Chummy MacGregor in The Glenn Miller Story.
As I briefly mentioned in my intro, music was a big part of Jimmy Stewart’s life growing up. His mother was a gifted pianist and he himself learned how to play both the piano and the accordion. It’s quite certain that his experience was helpful in the making of this movie. Although he insisted on playing the trombone himself, he was ultimately dubbed by the musician Joe Yukl after it became apparent that he was not up for the task. He instead agreed to plug up his mouthpiece and concentrate on learning the correct hand positions on the instrument.
Throughout the rest of the movie, we are treated to several Glenn Miller Orchestra greats such as Moonlight Serenade (a big hit for the band in 1939), In the Mood, Tuxedo Junction, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Pennsylvania 6-5000, and Little Brown Jug. One of my favorite lines from the movie came in a scene where Glenn and Helen are listening to a performance of Moonlight Serenade being sung like a nightclub number, and Glenn said, “What have they done to my tune? The song is supposed to be a ballad, not a hoochie coochie dance.” The way Jimmy Stewart said that line made me laugh in a way that probably only he could. I guess maybe that’s a “you had to be there moment.”
Some days I’m not sure what I love more, old movies or really great music, so when a movie combines both it is usually a joy for me to watch. There was a scene in the movie where Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa were jamming with Glenn Miller (as played by Jimmy of course) in a scene set at Connie’s Inn in Harlem and all I could think as I was watching was how purely blissful it would have been to be in that audience. It almost takes me to another world when I hear greats like that playing together.
As someone who just started learning how to read music and play an instrument a few years ago and who often struggles with things such as rhythm and dynamics, I am absolutely fascinated by and totally jealous of brilliant musical minds. So scenes that showed Glenn Miller attempting to arrange his music and instruments to get the well known “Glenn Miller sound” he spent much of his early career looking for made the movie that much more interesting to me.
The Glenn Miller Story which premiered in January 1954 was a box office smash that year, ranking fifth for the year in profits. Jimmy Stewart himself was paid quite well due to a signed guarantee with the studio for a percentage of the box office grosses. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Screenplay, Best Score, and Best Sound Recording (which took home the Oscar). The soundtrack to the movie was also very successful, reaching number one on the Billboard album charts that year.
Great Photos of the Premiere of The Glenn Miller Story
This year was the 60th anniversary of the premiere of The Glenn Miller Story, and to celebrate an event was held at the Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum in Clarinda, Iowa on January 11th, 2014. You can see some great photos that were on display at that event here on the website of Iowa radio station KMA. The photos were taken during a “Glenn Miller Day” event in Clarinda on January 13, 1954 that was attended by Jimmy, his wife Gloria, and Glenn’s mother Mattie Lou Miller.
Larisa on her Tumblr page “Obsessed with Jimmy Stewart” also has a great picture of Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson with Glenn Miller’s mother taken as the actors show her the iron tiles they autographed for the Glenn Miller ballroom at the University of Colorado’s new memorial center in February 1954.