Orchestra “Wife” – Part 1

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For their second 20th Century Fox film, Glenn Miller and the band were featured front and center throughout. They were not supporting a star like Sonja Henie. This time the orchestra was the star.  Fox tried to boost the feminine appeal of the movie by titling it ORCHESTRA WIFE, then decided, just before release, to multiply the “oomph” quotient by renaming it ORCHESTRA WIVES.  It is mostly the story of  “orchestra wife” Ann Rutherford, the nominal top-billed name, but she was supporting the ensemble instead of the other way around. Ann was a very well known starlet, best remembered as Polly Benedict, Andy Hardy’s on-again, off-again girlfriend in the Mickey Rooney-led series at MGM.

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Aside from her Andy Hardy chores, Ann appeared in small roles in many other MGM pictures, most notably A Christmas Carol, Pride and Prejudice and Gone With the Wind, as one of Scarlett O’Hara’s long-suffering sisters. With the Andy Hardy series winding down in the early 40s, Ann began freelancing at other studios before leaving MGM in 1943. ORCHESTRA WIVES would be one of Rutherford’s first starring roles and Fox featured her nicely in the film.

Her character of Connie Ward is nicely developed, from star-struck music fan to slightly disillusioned spouse of a (possibly) philandering trumpet player. The trumpeter was George Montgomery, a former B-western star at Fox, whom the studio was grooming for bigger things. After a nice co-starring role in Roxie Hart with Ginger Rogers, he was assigned to the Miller film.

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‘Big bad trumpet player” George Montgomery with Ann Rutherford

Though not as versatile an actor as Sun Valley Serenade‘s John Payne, Montgomery’s good looks and easygoing character made him a perfect match with Rutherford as the uneasy newlyweds. Montgomery would soon marry Dinah Shore, whose own Miller connection will be discussed in a later entry.

Poor Lynn Bari, always typecast as "the other woman."

Poor Lynn Bari, always typecast as “the other woman.”

Old friend Lynn Bari, band vocalist Vivian Dawn in SUN VALLEY SERENADE, returned as band vocalist Janie Stevens in the new film, just as ornery and scheming as before. The Nicholas Brothers were signed again for another show-stopping dance specialty.

The movie's rhythm section: Bobby Hackett, Moe Purtill, Jackie Gleason & Cesar Romero.

The movie’s rhythm section: Bobby Hackett, Moe Purtill, Jackie Gleason & Cesar Romero.

Two new actors played band members. Fox stalwart Cesar Romero appeared as the oddly-named pianist, Sinjin Smith, once again knocking Chummy MacGregor out of the film and Jackie Gleason performed as the bass player, supplanting Doc Goldberg. Gleason was so new to films that he doesn’t even rate billing in the on-screen credits. Jackie began a lifelong friendship with Bobby Hackett on the set and later featured him on the popular Capitol series of jazzy mood music LPs issued under Gleason’s name.

Orchestra wives Virginia Gilmore, Carole Landis and Mary Beth Hughes with Cesar Romero.

Orchestra wives Virginia Gilmore, Carole Landis and Mary Beth Hughes with Cesar Romero.

Then there were the titular orchestra wives – Carole Landis as Tex Beneke’s spouse, Mary Beth Hughes as Mrs. Moe Purtill, Virginia Gilmore, whose husband is never identified and Tamara Geva (stage actress and wife of choreographer George Balanchine, wasted here in a nothing role) as Jackie Gleason’s missus. The film’s writers were so eager to pair people off that they wrote in Ray Eberle and Marion Hutton as a married couple!  Landis is the real catty gal, aiding and abetting Lynn Bari in her plot to break up Ann Rutherford’s marriage. In real life, Landis was a volatile personality who married five times and committed suicide in 1948 at age 29 when actor Rx Harrison wouldn’t leave his wife for her.

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In smaller roles, future MASH TV star Harry Morgan plays Cully, the soda jerk who takes Rutherford to the dance which precipitates the whole story and Dale Evans (later Mrs. Roy Rogers) is the girl at the soda shop who tells Connie she’s “going to wear the record out” on the jukebox.

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Glenn has a much bigger acting role this time around and plays “himself” nicely (renamed Gene Morrison, so the band’s “GM” bandstands could be used). There is a slightly sarcastic edge to some of his dialogue, delivered with a distinctively flat Midwestern twang. He looks sharp and snappy in his custom suits, as do the other band members. Along with ringers Jackie Gleason and Cesar Romero, musicians Moe Purtill and Tex Beneke get some lines to deliver, as do vocalists Marion Hutton and Ray Eberle. Even “Bullets” Durgom, Glenn’s band boy turned road manager pipes up in several scenes.

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Behind the camera, Fox gave Glenn nothing but the best – director Archie Mayo had a career stretching back to silent days and had helmed musicals starring Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Mae West, Alice Faye and the Marx Brothers, plus dramas with Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.

Best shot in the film - Ann falls in love instantly, framed by George Montgomery's arms and trumpet.

Best shot in the film – Ann falls in love instantly, framed by George Montgomery’s arms and trumpet.

Top cinematographer Lucien Ballard was assigned to the film and his smooth camerawork and lighting design add to the film’s sheen.   Songwriters Harry Warren and Mack Gordon returned to the Miller fold to duplicate their success with the score of SUN VALLEY SERENADE. They managed to surpass their earlier efforts, with five fine songs, three of which became top hits and Miller standards – AT LAST, SERENADE IN BLUE and I’VE GOT A GAL IN KALAMAZOO.

The screenplay by Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware, based on an original story by James Prindle, managed to provide a fairly credible dramatic script with humor and some grit, along with enough solid characterization to give the actors something to dig into.   The result is an interesting story that could have worked well on its own without the musical sequences, wonderful as they are.

Apparently a lot of footage was filmed, and then cut, as many studio stills exist of scenes that aren’t even hinted at in the final product. At least three musical numbers were also cut; since the film as we know it runs almost and hour and 40 minutes (more than 10 minutes longer than SUN VALLEY SERENADE), it appears that Fox could have ended up with a 2-hour-plus movie if they hadn’t gotten to work in the editing room!

We’ll discuss the cut numbers and all the other marvelous ORCHESTRA WIVES music in our next post.

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