Film In Depth

Classic Cameos: The Band Leader

When you really get down to it, there are two types of musicals: the ones that take great care to explain every musical number in terms of a real-world scenario–be it a theatrical rehearsal, concert, or onstage performance–and, well, those that allow their characters to break into perfectly choreographed numbers at every whim. There are, of course, movies that straddle the line between both categories (Singin’ in the Rain, for instance, features both types of song), but it’s an important distinction to draw as a viewer. Nowadays at least, I think most casual viewers tend to mentally lump more musicals into that latter category, but the show musical was a time-honored tradition, and also offers one of that era’s most common, classic cameos: the band leader.

Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey… pretty much anyone who was anyone at the time made a couple of appearances on screen. It’s a logical step: your musical needs music, so why not infuse that requirement with a bit of star power?

In Hollywood, the band leaders and their big band appearances began popping up in the late 1930s, and chugged along until they, along with big band music as a whole, began to decline in popularity towards the end of World War 2. TCM recently featured a whole mess of these, and I’ve slowly been working my way through them, interested in finding the many different ways that filmmakers of this era found to use the famed musicians. Sometimes they’re lurking in the background, popping up a few times to perform a number. Other times, they’re prominent in the narrative, an integral part to the story telling. And sometimes, they’re even the film’s lead–which sometimes throws me, as I’m rarely expecting that option.

Anyway, expect a lot of discussion on the band leaders of the era popping up throughout this week. First up: Glenn Miller and his band in 1942’s Orchestra Wives.

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