Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

3 Nominations, 1 Win

Win: Best Sound, Recording - Leslie I. Carey
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture - Joseph Gershenson and Henry Mancini
Nomination: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Valentine Davies and Oscar Brodney

Watching The Glenn Miller Story, it is impossible not to reflect on how much the biopic has changed over the past half century.  In modern films like Ray, Walk the Line, and The Iron Lady, the film is judged in large part by how closely the lead's performance resembles the film's subject.  Performers go to great lengths to fully inhabit the person they are depicting, studying footage of deceased figures or spending time with those who are still alive.  One of the best ways to score an Oscar nomination is to portray a famous figure in a biopic in a convincing manner.

This wasn't always the case.  While performers would adopt noticeable accents or change hairstyles to resemble the subject more closely, it was far more common for the performer to put forth his or her own film persona, only slightly modified.  James Stewart's performance in The Glenn Miller Story is an example of this, as he retains his unmistakable aww-shucks Jimmy Stewart persona while portraying the famous bandleader.

This isn't to say that Stewart didn't push himself at all.  He reportedly worked hard to learn to play the trombone, and though he didn't play the actual notes heard in the film, he convincingly mimics the motions of a trombone player, at least well enough to fool me (while I don't play trombone, I played in bands throughout middle and high school and have a passing familiarity with the instrument).  He is far less convincing as a bandleader/conductor, but I was still impressed by his work on the trombone, something that would be a given in modern times but was far more rare at the time The Glenn Miller Story was made.

Aside from his mimicry of Miller, Stewart's chemistry with costar June Allyson is obvious, with Allyson's spunk and charm pushing Stewart a bit out of his comfort zone.  Stewart was one of the most reliable stars in film history, capable of turning in a solid performance even with the least talented of co-stars, but like most actors, he comes alive when paired with real talents.  Allyson brings out the best in Stewart, and the two starred in two other films together (both biopics), The Stratton Story (1949) and Strategic Air Command (1955).

The film has some truly wonderful scenes, namely the Army marching scene in which Miller gets the band to swing and the scene toward the end of the film in which Miller and his band play on through an air raid.  There are also fun cameos from Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, and others that will appeal to jazz fans.  The narrative structure is a collection of set pieces instead of a fluid story, however, resulting in an uneven pace and choppy storytelling.

I also wasn't terribly impressed with the score.  The music performed by the characters in the film is outstanding and sounds great, but the score itself is a generic Hollywood score, and was a wasted opportunity to create a jazz-infused score, possibly with nods to Miller's music.  Instead it consisted of generic legato orchestra music that is instantly forgettable.

Despite the film's unevenness, it's a very enjoyable film that is absolutely worth watching.  The music is great, Stewart is relatively convincing as Miller, and the chemistry between Stewart and Allyson is exceptional.

Remaining: 3147 films, 871 Oscars, 5405 nominations

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