Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
The Disappearance of Glenn Miller: PBS Investigates
Miller had more number 1’s than either Elvis Presley or the Beatles. At the
peak of his success, he made considerably more in an average week than most
Americans could hope to earn in a year. Yet, he voluntarily signed up to serve
his country during a time of war. Although he was never assigned to combat,
Miller ultimately died in the service of his country, but the details remain
murky. The circumstances surrounding his final fateful flight get a TV
looking-over in The Disappearance of Glenn Miller, the latest installment of History
Detectives Special Investigations (promo here), airing next
Tuesday on most PBS outlets.
(or particularly) amongst swing die-hards, Miller is a divisive figure, with fervent
champions and detractors. However, there is no denying his popular success or
his patriotism. The sacrifices he made for the latter are especially impressive
given the former. Capitalizing on his stature, Miller was tasked with leading
an Army Air Force Band that played morale-boosting concerts for the troops.
prepare for the first concert in newly liberated Paris, Miller hitched a ride
on a single-engine Norseman prop plane across the English Channel, but it never
arrived in France. Essentially, three theories emerge: accidental causes (small
plane plus bad weather is never a good combination), friendly fire, and the
straw man of assorted conspiracy theories.
there have been a lot of weird hypotheses hatched regarding Miller’s
disappearance that all three host-investigators are quick to dismiss. However,
they note in passing Miller’s connection another celebrity officer, David
Niven. Re-enlisting after the outbreak of war, Niven was apparently a real deal
commando before his transfer to the propaganda unit, where it seems he may or
may not have had dealings with the intelligence service. Frankly, his wartime
experiences would make a terrific movie, but who could possibly play Niven? Of
course, Jimmy Stewart played the bandleader in The Glenn Miller Story, seen briefly during this episode.
three on-camera “History Detectives” (a lit professor, an auctioneer, and a sociologist)
do a nice job explaining the technical details of the Norseman and the
potential friendly fire misadventure, but they never really put Miller in his
full musical context. Louis Armstrong loved his recordings, but many swing connoisseurs
found his bands way too “sweet.” Indeed, it is doubtful Milller would have been
the secret weapon for winning over Germany’s underground Swing Kids, as they
suggest. Goodman or Ellington would have been far more effective. Still, a
psych-ops unit probably had to make do with whatever bandleader they had handy.
Unfortunately from a dramatic standpoint, the
verdict is decidedly anti-climatic, pretty much confirming our most prosaic
suspicions. The hosts’ chipper, “happy news” style transitional conversations (“that’s
fascinating, keep us posted”) also quickly get tiresome. Nevertheless, it is
just nice to see some primetime television devoted to the iconic bandleader.
Regardless of your feelings for his music, he was a great American. Why not
listen to some of his Army Air Force Band recordings this Independence Day and
if you are still curious about his mysterious fate check out The Disappearance of Glenn Miller this
coming Tuesday (7/8) on PBS’s History
Labels: Glenn Miller, PBS