Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a lowly trombone player during the Depression of the nineteen-thirties, and often has to pawn his instrument to get by when there is no work to be found. One day at the pawnbroker's, a man who is now on friendly terms with Miller, the musician spots a string of pearls and dreams of the day he can offer a gift like that to the girl he plans to marry, Helen (June Allyson), even though he has not met her since two years ago when they were at college. But that's not the only dream he has, as he plans on leading his own band one day, a band with a whole new sound. Will he succeed?
Well, if he didn't it's doubtful they would have made a film about him, and so it was we got The Glenn Miller Story, one of many nostalgic biopics made in the fifties about music stars who would guarantee an audience thanks to the love of their oeuvre that they generated. With this tale, of course, the studio was guaranteed to leave the moviegoers with a tear in their eye, for everyone knew how it ended, which turned out to be one of the few aspects that was accurate about it. Yes, James Stewart plays Miller, and he was married to Helen, and naturally he was a big success with swing, but otherwise aficionados have long been put out by the fact that films like these play fast and loose with history.
Though when are they ever happy? This was not a documentary after all and was tailor made to fit the template that many Hollywood-ised musical retellings had before and would do again. Stewart in particular is perfect for his role, not simply because when he puts the glasses on he looks surprisingly similar, but because we can almost believe he and Miller were the same person, so crafted to the nice guy persona that he cultivated in many of his films was this. The fifties was also the decade that he began branching out into grittier roles, often under the direction of Anthony Mann, but in this teaming of them they harkened back to the Stewart image of the thirties and forties, which turned out to be what audiences really wanted.
Matching him was Allyson as Helen, the ideal fifties housewife even though this is set between ten and twenty years before - she wears fifties fashions throughout as if to underline this. The real Helen was apparently very keen to have her part in the story emphasised, so this is as much a romance as it is a musical experience, and indeed we don't get to hear Miller's tunes or arrangements until after an hour has passed. During that hour, the film prefers to concentrate on the hardship he underwent trying to get his career off the ground, and every so often you'll hear him tell Helen to call him on Pennsylvania 6-5000, or play a little of Moonlight Serenade on the piano as he attempts to get it just right.
The creative process is one which attracts filmmakers, they are creative people themselves after all, but not one which translates to gripping movies as often as we would like. Here, there's a slightly campy air with the benefit of hindsight whenever a famous name is dropped, whether a title or a person, and there is the bizarre sight of James Stewart miming the trombone alongside Gene Krupa and Louis Armstrong at a Harlem nightclub for scenes which stick in the memory for almost the wrong reasons. Once Miller begins enjoying the fruits of his labour, the hits arrive nearly non-stop, with the last half of the running time essentially an excuse to segue from String of Pearls to In the Mood and so on until Miller gets on that plane to fly the English Channel and thereafter, oblivion. Yes, it's manipulative, but there's a lot of the old Hollywood magic being employed here, and if you only like the music you may find yourself swept up in the romance of it all.