James Stewart’s essence is captivating. Even in his darker roles, such as “Scottie” in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 “Vertigo,” we can’t help but feel some measure of empathy for the character. Stewart brings out the heroic even in a character society may perceive as weak. Stewart’s kind of heroism encompasses many different aspects of being human, and it certainly applied to Stewart himself.
In Anthony Mann’s 1954 “The Glenn Miller Story,” Stewart exhibits all the qualities we have come to identify with him: calmness, sensitivity, frustration, and stoic heroism. He plays Glenn Miller, the great big-band leader, whose impact on music was lasting. Although the film is not an entire biography of Glenn Miller, it is what we call today a “biopic,” covering Miller’s life from 1929 (the beginnings of his music career) to 1944 (his untimely death/disappearance during World War II).
We see the struggles of an artist trying to find the “right sound.” While everyone is concerned with just playing music, Miller is talking about arrangements. But most band leaders are not interested. They need players. Miller is a good trombone player, but it’s clear from the start that he is meant for bigger things.
While he’s trying to move his career in the right direction, he courts Helen Burgerin (June Allyson) a rather unconventional way. She agrees to marry him, despite not really knowing much about him. But there is an unspoken love between them, and trying to understand an attraction is pointless. They know it too, and they plunge deep into their relationship taking the necessary career risks.
Miller faces many disappointments throughout the movie. He’s on the verge of giving up. He hasn’t found the right sound, and his spirit becomes deflated. But Helen is not willing to let him abandon his dream. She’s very straightforward, and at one point tells Miller that he has let her down by not pursuing his gift of music.
There is a great struggle for any artist to find his or her voice. Stewart’s portrayal of Glenn Miller exhibits great nuances. Just when we think Miller will give in to the fatigue and be washed up, he rallies with the help of Helen and his band. But he had to arrive at that point, and Stewart’s grasp of the essence of what makes an American hero makes us truly care about what happens to Miller and those surrounding him.
Stewart’s Miller is a giving and caring man. He’s also fearful of letting go and finally taking responsibility for himself as an artist. He has an obligation to fulfill and he cannot ignore the gift that God has given him. At some point, he realizes that he has to let go of being a mere trombone player and take control of his band. Stewart does this with such intense vulnerability. We go deep inside his soul, and he renders Glenn Miller not just a person in history, but an embodied man, striving to live a life of the good and the beautiful.
It’s not just Stewart that drives Mann’s film. Music is another highly important “character.” Many prominent musicians make cameo appearances, including Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, Ray Coniff, and Frances Langford.
There is something otherworldly and undeniably romantic as we witness Stewart feverishly composing and arranging one of his most famous songs, “Moonlight Serenade.” The transition between one instrument (Stewart on the piano) and a full band is seamless. We anticipate the final result impatiently. The juxtaposition between one artist’s struggle to compose the song and the one band coming together as one voice exemplifies and encapsulates Glenn Miller.
A sense of duty (which is inherently present in Stewart) is also part of the great American story. Stewart could identify with Miller’s choices because he was a war hero himself (although, one can assume that Stewart would hardly use such a description. The war changed him completely as he witnessed the deaths of many of his brothers-in-arms).
Once the United States got involved in World War II, Miller knew that he had to participate in some way. In the film, this translated as touring with his band, boosting the morale of the Allied troops. It was this sense of duty that ultimately led to Glenn Miller’s disappearance. Flying over the English channel (along with other officers) and through bad weather, the airplane went missing. Miller was presumed dead, but the plane and the body were never recovered. Nevertheless, the music lives on. James Stewart’s powerful and vulnerable performance attests to that.