I happened to spot an old black and white musical on one of the cable movie channels the other day, and it got me to thinking about how sometimes situations change but the basics don’t. Modern movie-goers are accustomed to hearing music in their films, either in the background or featuring a currently hot musician right up on the screen, but music was extensively used in movies back in the thirties and forties too, in the very same way — as background or sometimes as an integral part of the film. It might have been a drama like Laura, that kept hammering home the haunting theme song, or even a picture based on the life of a famous composer or musician — for example Night And Day, starring Cary Grant as a sanitized Cole Porter.
But there was another type of movie music in existence at that time, and it all comes back to the basics of promoting music. Current music stars have lots of avenues to show themselves off, but the earlier performers were more limited, and about the only way the swing bands and vocalists could let their fans in middle America see them perform was in the movies. Remember, teenagers not only didn’t have access to music videos (or video of any kind!) but many were living in small towns or rural areas that didn’t have a lot in the way of live entertainment. There were plenty of touring bands, but the good ones – whose records the kids bought – spent most of their time in medium to large cities. Their ideal gig was a semi-permanent engagement at a ballroom or large hotel, and even if they toured they weren’t likely to show up in East Pitchfork.
That’s where the movies helped out by showcasing the bands and convincing fans to go out and buy records and put nickels in jukeboxes. Usually the bands were inserted into a film with a thinly-written plot that had some secondary characters going through a little romance and comedy, but mostly those types of movies were just a way to popularize the bands. Benny Goodman showed up with his band in Hollywood Hotel and other forgettable films, and even did a little acting in a Danny Kaye movie, A Song Is Born, playing a music professor. (Of course, he performed too.) Tommy Dorsey and many other stars made their share of appearances too, and gave Americans a feel-good experience at the theatre — which was especially important during the war years.
The movie that I caught recently and that started me thinking was called Sun Valley Serenade, and it starred – among others – Sonja Henie and a young comedian named Milton Berle! More importantly though, it featured Glenn Miller and his band, performing lots of their tunes. (And one very special one – but more later about that.)
In later years, many of the best-known bandleaders received the full Hollywood treatment by being the subject of romanticized biographies. Steve Allen and Donna Reed did their best in The Benny Goodman Story, Sal Mineo (?) appeared in The Gene Krupa Story, and probably the best of all, Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson in The Glenn Miller Story. The music for that movie was well performed and the musical adaptor did a good job. (By the way, his name was Henry Mancini and he was 22 years old.) However, the movie shortchanged at least one of the songs, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”, which appears in that movie but in a truncated form. A more complete version is performed in the older black and white Glenn Miller movie I mentioned earlier, Sun Valley Serenade, and that’s closer to what I’m going to post here as a sample.
I’ve pulled it from a CD titled The Glenn Miller Story – The Original Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, an album that appears to have no connection to the official soundtrack album and also seems to be unavailable now. (But if you can find it, buy it.) The song starts in a familiar way, with Tex Beneke and the Modernaires doing their normal vocals, but then it changes over to distinctive vocalizations by Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicolas Brothers — one of whom she married shortly after this, but that’s another story. Enjoy “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” the way it should be heard.