Saturday, April 19, 2003


Last month, I badmouthed a Fox musical, ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND, for being bland and underproduced. and for taking itself and its fictional biographizing (I'm sure that's not really a word) too seriously. This Fox musical from a few years later is much more enjoyable, perhaps because it's not serious in any way, but also because of the presence of Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Miller himself plays second-in-command to bandleader John Payne, who is very handsome and has a nice voice, but is not very convincing looking as a piano player. Payne, Miller, and their Dartmouth Troubadours are looking for a gig and are lucky enough to be present in a studio as diva Lynn Bari quits her dysfunctional band in the middle of an audition. Payne volunteers to back her up; they finish the audition and get the job, playing at Sun Valley, an upscale ski resort in Utah. Payne and Bari fall for each other, but complications arise when Sonja Henie arrives; she's a Norwegian war refugee who is assigned to Payne, due to a publicity stunt dreamed up by Payne's manager (Milton Berle). They thought they were getting a kid, but Henie is a fully grown blonde who immediately sets her cap for Payne. Henie is OK (she was known more for her skating than her acting, though she only really gets one full-out skating number here), but I found her character irritating and unlikeable, motivated by nothing more than a whim to land Payne and mess up his thing with Bari--which itself plays out rather half-heartedly.

The silly plot mechanisms, however, are strictly secondary to the fun musical numbers. The Miller band does "Moonlight Serenade," a great version of "In the Mood," and best of all, "Chattanooga Choo Choo," written for the film and nominated for an Oscar. The 10 minute long number consists of three different versions of the song: an instrumental, a vocal version with Tex Beneke and the Modernaires, and a jazzy dance number with the fabulous Nicholas Brothers, with vocals by Dorothy Dandridge. That number alone makes the 90 minute film worth sitting through. The tone of the movie is light, though the stuff that is intended as "comic relief" is mild at best: Berle's schtick is so-so, mostly because he doesn't really have much to do, and "wacky" Joan Davis has so little to do that she barely gets a chance to register. Almira Sessions has a nice moment as the disapproving maid who was hired to take care of "the little refugee," and who assumes she's been made a fool of when she meets Henie. The Sun Valley settings are lovely, as are the skiing scenes, although it's clear that most of that stuff is second unit and the stars are all shot in the studio in front of rear projection. It takes place at Christmas, according to a passing reference early in the movie, but there are virtually no holiday trappings present. Overall, a delightful movie, especially for Glenn Miller fans.

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