The Glenn Miller Story

Film Clip: The Glenn Miller Story, James Stewart as Glenn Miller

As Krin Gabbard argues in Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema, a cinematic genre of "white jazz biopics" emerged during the late 1940s and 1950s, allowing the film industry to capitalize on the mainstream popularity of Swing. These films continued in the long American cinematic tradition of fascination with African-American culture, reaching back to minstrelsy.

Gabbard argues that the post-war "jazz biopics," which always had white musicians as their subjects, allowed "a highly mediated view of the black other at the same time that it reassured white audiences that their own cultural rituals could survive the comparison." In these films, early African-American jazz represented the "raw material" which white swing musicians turned into art by moving it from the dance hall and seedy jazz joint to the concert hall stage.

The genre dramatizes this journey with scenes, occurring early in such films as The Fabulous Dorseys (1947), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), and The Benny Goodman Story (1955), in which the white protagonist descends into a nightclub and is inspired by African-American jazz musicians. This scene from Anthony Mann's popular biopic featuring James Stewart as Glenn Miller and June Allyson as his wife, is filmed in a manner which emphasizes the uniquely lurid nature of this separate nightclub world. Miller's improvisational jam session with Louis Armstrong is placed in sharp contrast with Miller's usual working style: composing arrangements at the piano. The film presents Miller's orchestrations as a realization of the artistic potential cached within early jazz. The film celebrates Miller as a martyr, and his work as a great, national American music which helped the country through World War II.

Such nostlagia was common in the swing musician biopics of the 1950s. As film historian Krin Gabbard argues, jazz films had adopted an "elegiac" tone after the decline of big bands and the rise of the solo pop and rock artist. The comparisons made between swing and earlier "primitive" jazz thus also implicity placed the white artist's swing orchestrations above the African-American inspired music which would take hold over the mainstream in the mid 1950s. This clip, a scene which takes place on Miller's honeymoon, employs the familiar trope of African-American created music as metaphor for sexuality. The sensual jazz played in a club in this scene is placed in stark contrast to the crisp, elevated art created by Miller himself.

Such characterization of African-American music as instinctually sexual, rather than artistic, would also appear in depictions and criticisms of rock and roll music.

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