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Orchestra Wives
Fox Studio Classics

Orchestra Wives
1942 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 98 min. / Street Date November 1, 2005 / 14.98
Starring George Montgomery, Ann Rutherford, Glenn Miller, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Lynn Bari, Carole Landis, Cesar Romero, Fayard Nicholas, Harold Nicholas
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright
Film Editor Robert Bischoff
Original Music Bill Finegan, Mack Gordon, Alfred Newman, Harry Warren
Written by James Prindle, Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware
Produced by William LeBaron
Directed by Archie Mayo

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

If you ever thought of taking a plunge into the swing music craze, Orchestra Wives is an excellent way to enjoy the real Glenn Miller in dance concert mode. Miller's enormous popularity lasted only a few short years until his unexpected death late in WW2, and by now the majority of movie fans know him only through his impersonator James Stewart in Anthony Mann's 1954 The Glenn Miller Story. That show had sort of a 'top ten hits' orientation, while Orchestra Wives combines a slightly idealized concert tour with a young girl's dream of running away with the band.


Small town girl Connie Ward (Ann Rutherford) is sick of her soda-jerk boyfriend Cully (Harry Morgan), and after dashing off to two adjoining towns to see the wonderful swing orchestra of Gene Morrison (Glenn Miller) she falls in love with first trumpet Bill Abbot (George Montgomery). Faced with putting her on a bus and never seeing her again, Bill marries Connie instead.

Orchestra Wives is often undeservedly listed as a less-appealing sequel to Glenn Miller's first Hollywood movie, Sun Valley Serenade. The film has a musical plot engineered to showcase a series of performances, but the story of Connie Ward's sudden immersion into the 'orchestra life' has uncommon resonance, even if it resolves in an unlikely Hollywood fashion.

Gene Morrison's large orchestra is forced to go on the road to popularize his music, which means that thirty or more band members must travel and live together. It looks as though the individual orchestra musicians are just salaried employees and not co-owners, but just the same, the band would have to be really popular to support all those people - admission to a swing dance in a small town was not expensive at all. Most of the musicians have wives that travel with them, giving the film its title. Orchestra Wives would seem to be doing positive public relations work for musicians on the road, until it settles in to reveal the women as catty troublemakers.

Most reviews call the storyline trite, but Savant found it a perfect fairy tale for the Swing Era. Connie Ward's whirlwind romance must have seemed like a dream to girls stuck in small towns with small-town guys, in this case represented by Harry Morgan's slightly obnoxious soda jerk. (Ironically, Morgan later served as 'Glenn Miller's' best friend in the James Stewart movie biography.) Even her adoptive father realizes her dream is somewhere else and allows her to chase after the orchestra on a fairly distant bus trip. Despair sets in when she can't even get near her romantic target, and has to re-board the homeward bus almost the moment that they finally meet again. They impulsively decide to get married. Bill doesn't even know her name.

Connie gets caught in a power play by the other females, both married and un-. Unholy b---- Natalie (Carole Landis) contrives to ensure that Connie is kept in the dark about an unmarried band singer (Lynn Bari) who had a thing going with Bill and still has designs on him. The ensuing fracas ends up breaking up the band and, when it looks as if Connie is the gossip spilling the beans about various adulterous relationships, Connie's marriage as well. Everything in the orchestra dynamic is blamed on the women. The men stray but it's always the fault of the errant wives, who are characterized as reckless and irresponsible. None of the men do a single un-gallant thing. Even though Bill immediately condemns Connie without hearing her out, it's her responsibility to make amends. The movie is a good presentation of a completely different world of sexual inequality. Connie practically has to sneak out of town to go alone to a concert. Unescorted girls aren't allowed into the hall -- What are they going to do, start fighting with switchblades? The wives on the concert tour are just accessories, with nothing but their relative status to be concerned about.

The other half of the movie is a swing-music dream. The name "Gene Morrison" must have been chosen so the band monograms wouldn't have to be changed. Miller's smooth style was its own romantic sound, not as jazzy as Benny Goodman but always easy to dance to. For many songs the kids just sway and stare at the orchestra as it plays in small-town halls or outdoors at public bandstands. A swing concert in a small town must have seemed like heaven.

Hollywood used members from Miller's real band, mostly un-billed. Ray Eberle and Marion Hutton are smooth vocalists - Marion is the sister of Betty Hutton and uses many of the same mannerisms as her sister when she performs. Tex Beneke (I hope I have the name right) doubles as a saxophone player and the key vocalist on Kalamazoo, the hit song that finishes off the film. The movie doesn't go in for a new tune every five minutes. The beautiful At Last is woven throughout as Connie and Bill's love theme.

Part of the thrill of seeing the band perform is finding out just how ordinary most of them look. The female singers tend to be presentable, with either a smooth ballad sell or a 'swing baby' routine to their songs. But as the guys are far from ideal dream-boys, we know that musical talent got them where they are. Tex Beneke is acceptable when singing and odd-looking the rest of the time. The male members of the harmonizing Modernaires are nobody's idea of handsome. This makes them doubly endearing. No wonder pop music is in a rut today, when one's appearance and image are the most important aspect of an act. Today's music isn't about the music any more.

We wonder how Glenn Miller's real first trumpet and pianist felt, for they're replaced by bachelor date-dogs George Montgomery and Cesar Romero, complete with snappy dialogue. "Chummy" MacGregor played piano for Romero, just as Pat Friday sings for Lynn Bari. Romero shows up in so many oddball film assignments, he must have been the most versatile actor in Hollywood. His character is called "Sinjin," a name that goes with his wolf's grin. Unbilled among the musicians is none other than Jackie Gleason as a domsesticated fellow carting around his wife's vacuum cleaner. Virginia Gilmore and Mary Beth Hughes are two more troublesome orchestra wives. Back in Connie's home town, future cowgirl Dale Evans is among the malt shop crowd giving the runaway newlywed a hard time. As there is no specific mention of the war Orchestra Wives may have been finished before Pearl Harbor, but it seems to stress wartime economizing just the same. The orchestra travels by train and Connie uses a bus to make her long-haul trip to see Bill perform.

As an extra thrill, the Nicholas Brothers are thrown in as a novelty, "did you see that?" closer, doing a reprise of Kalamazoo. Fox didn't have a deep roster of name musical talent like MGM and the brothers show up in several pictures around this time (notably Stormy Weather) doing their eye-opening song-and-dance specialty act. Their great tap routine is anything but routine, featuring impossible-looking leaps into splay-legged splits. They don't just 'split' but do so while leaping from six-foot platforms, and at the end of 360-degree flips.

The way the Nicholas Brothers are edited in makes Savant suspect that their number was engineered to be easily clipped out for showings in the South or other places where 'local customs' decreed that black performers not be seen in movies. I once heard Gene Kelly admit that this was the case - Fayard and Harold Nicholas' appearance in his The Pirate was similarly edited so it could be yanked out with the least interruption to the flow of the film. That's simply how the industry functioned back then.

Fox's Studio Classics DVD of Orchestra Wives is mastered from near-perfect elements, with the audio available in stereo and mono versions. I'm told that the original performances were multi-miked, making a true stereo reconfiguration possible. Fayard Nicholas and Ann Rutherford contribute a lively commentary ... it's good to hear about the film from actors who actually worked on it. Ann talks about hating having to leave MGM for the Fox lot ("I was so mad I got married") and compares her character to Kate Hudson in Almost Famous -1942's version of a groupie. A trailer and still gallery are also included. An unfortunate typo on the box cover actually misspells Glenn Miller's name. But you'll be glad to know that overworked studio Home Video departments are free of 'unnecessary' staff.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Orchestra Wives rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Ann Rutherford and Fayard Nicholas; trailer; stills
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 27, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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