Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fox Studio Classics Presents: Orchestra Wives

By Steve Evans

"It's hep! It's hot! It's hilarious!" ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening shot
It's also the Big Band era, when the Glenn Miller Orchestra was such a phenom that 20th Century Fox developed a film project to capitalize on their popularity. Released in 1942, Orchestra Wives features the only original stereo recordings of Glenn Miller and his band. The film was Oscar nominated for Best Song, "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo," which became a Glenn Miller standard along with "At Last" and "Serenade in Blue"—both written specifically for this featherweight romantic comedy. So what do we get? Great music, nice image, clean sound, mediocre story – it all adds up to an average film.

A Bit of Plot…
Small-town girl Ann Rutherford (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) falls in love with a swinging trumpeter, George Montgomery (Coney Island and dozens of westerns). They meet-cute and spend a pleasant evening together, after which he proposes on the spot. They marry and she joins the band on tour. But the life of an orchestra wife is rather dull between gigs. Soon she's gossiping with the other orchestra Wives and singers in the band. Misunderstandings lead to man trouble and a river of tears, but like every romantic comedy ever made, you know this one's gonna end happily, with finger-poppin' songs and swingin' dances.

Historical Context and Significance
Orchestra Wives is what I call a champagne flick: effervescent and mildly intoxicating with a certain sparkle that can be diverting, even delightful, when the mood is right. Frothy fun served up with some terrific jazz and a little élan is not a bad thing, but I don't believe this title belongs in the otherwise spectacular Studio Classics series by Fox. Yet here it is just the same: comedy-lite, with truly spectacular music from one of the legends of the Big Band era. There's fabulous tap-dancing on display, too.

The selling point here is rare footage of Glenn Miller and his band—a tight ensemble of swingin' cats who could wail like nobody's bidness. Miller gives his trombone a workout in this picture. And in Miller's case, there's poignancy in watching a musician who loves his work. No one could have guessed the great band leader would be dead within two years of making this film. Soon after Orchestra Wives was released, Miller disbanded his orchestra and joined the U.S. Air Force. He formed another big band and their music was broadcast to Allied troops in every theatre of World War II. Miller disappeared in a 1944 flight over the English Channel en route to Paris, possibly a casualty of German anti-aircraft fire, although the mystery of his death was never solved.

As a final testament to a brilliant musical career, Orchestra Wives plays best if we just enjoy the music, disregard the story, and star gaze. Yes, that's Jackie Gleason thumping the stand-up bass. Cesar Romero (he played The Joker on the 1960s television show Batman) co-stars as a Casanova piano player with a gal waiting in every town.

Disc extras include a commentary track by Rutherford and Fayard Nicholas, along with a photo gallery and trailers for this and other Fox films.

The Contrarian View…
The miscreants at Fox misspelled the name of a musical legend on the cover of the DVD case. For the love of all that's sacred and pure, it's Glenn Miller with two “n's” for God's Sake.

Serious jazz fans and movie lovers bent on completing their Studio Classics series need this disc (Spine #35 in the Fox set). Orchestra Wives includes the only known footage of the Glenn Miller Orchestra jamming in stereo. That alone makes this film a valuable artifact of the Big Band years.

Ignore the unbelievable plot and focus on some timeless, seriously cool music.

Copyright © 2010 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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