B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S04E23 Glenn Miller

Perhaps this picture will put you ‘In the Mood’ for a ‘Moonlight Serenade’ on the ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ and… um… What the hell else did Miller play?

This one’s an odd one. Basically it’s about the mystery attached to the death of legendary 1940s musician Glen Miller. Trouble is, the mystery isn’t particularly mysterious. Now, some people have gotten around this by making Miller’s death a conspiracy or alien thing, and I’d almost like it if In Search Of…went in that direction. The trouble is, it doesn’t really, and a no nonsense approach to the ‘mystery’ is rather unedifying.

I don’t think I’ll go into this one blow-by-blow. Basically it gives a very truncated summing up of Miller’s big-band career. If you’ve ever seen ‘The Glen Miller Story’ you know it’s a good idea to give the quick version, because he didn’t live a particularly dramatic life. He basically went from success to success until he died. That’s good for him, of course, but it’s not what you want to see in a biopic about a musician. We want fights with record labels! Tempestuous relationships! Battles with drugs and alcohol! Miller’s career provides none of those things. Still, this part of the episode has some nice file footage of Miller and some recordings of his music. If you’re like me–an aging white male–you’ll probably enjoy this part.

Then Miller joined the US Army, and later the Air Force. Why? It was the middle of WWII and even celebrities were joining up. Miller took on the task of modernising military band music and apparently met some resistance, though I’m pretty sure the episode makes a bigger deal of that than it deserves.

Then Miller died. He was flying from the UK to France and his plane went down. ‘Yes,’ you say. ‘But it was WWII. Lots of planes went down. Miller’s death is sad, but hardly the worst thing to happen in the years 1939-45.’

‘Yes, but,’ says In Search Of… ‘But we’re not sure where Miller’s plane went down. Don’t even know if it was over the land or sea. There are some discrepancies about accounts of the flight. So mystery.’

‘But discrepancies in accounts are just the natural order of things,’ you reply. ‘Ask ten people to describe the same thing, and you’ll get eleven different answers.’

‘Flying conditions were terrible,’ In Search Of… says. ‘Miller should have known not to fly. Perhaps the stress he was under and his poor health led to him making a bad decision.’

‘Sure, why not?’ you reply. ‘But again, hardly a mystery. Besides, what about the flight crew? Aren’t they the ones with the final say on whether it was safe to fly or not? Not, you know, a trombonist?’

Anyway, Miller’s brother gives a little speech about how he doubts the official story and thinks the investigation was mishandled. And honestly, if anyone has any right to think that way, it’s Miller’s family. But we don’t hear what brother Miller thinks did happen, or if he even wants anything beyond recognition that not enough was done to find Glen.

There’s a lot of dicking about with dates and details and then we talk to Bill Fry, the curator of the USAF museum. He points out the very obvious: all this happened right in the middle of WWII. Resources spent searching for a missing plane were resources that couldn’t be used to fight the Nazis. Lots of other planes never made it to their destinations. “Every bomber that went down had ten Americans on it,” he says.

“You know, I don’t feel this in my own heart,” he says, “because I’ve always been a Miller buff. But let’s face it realistically: that airplane disappeared with three men on board. A Flight Officer, which is the lowest ranking pilot you can have, a Lieutenant Colonel who is not a pilot… and third fellow on there, a Major who played the trombone. Now, that’s cold blooded, but you have to look at it in the context of the time.”

There’s some stuff about Miller making fatalistic remarks about his possible death in a plane crash, which is a little unsettling but realistically more a sign that he was feeling depressed than anything else. And more nitpicking about details of the fight.

And then something super interesting. Amateur aircraft archaeologists! The Chiltern Aircraft Group, who went (go?) out on the weekends to dig up crashed aircraft. Their leader talks bout how many aircraft crashed in the Buckinghamshire area and were never recovered. He shows off an engine dug up from sixteen feet underground, where it was presumably driven when it crashed. Nimoy wonders if they might find Miller’s aircraft, but the whole segment really just shows how the story of Miller’s end was by no means unusual.

And then the camera pans over a green field. Nimoy says that Millers remains lie between there and Paris as ‘Moonlight Serenade’ plays softly in the background. And I’m going to be honest: I’ve been kind of cynical up to here, but it genuinely does bring a lump to my throat. It’s good television, if nothing else.

So the episode has some good music if you like that sort of thing. It has some excellent footage, both of Miller and WWII-era aircraft in flight. The re-enactments are kind of pointless, but not too annoying. And I don’t know if the electronic music is more creepy than usual or if it’s the contrast with the swing music that makes it seem extra weird, but either way it’s pretty effective. So I can’t fault the episode as entertainment I guess. But the central mystery… there’s no there there.

Tens of millions of people died in World War II. As a history buff – or hell, just as a human being – I think it would be good if all of the stories of these people’s lives were both fully known and widely available. But it’s just not the case. And, like it or not, that’s just as true if we’re talking about an unknown or a major celebrity.

Summing Up

Swing: 8/10, Nimoyness: 7/10, Reenactments: 3/10, Premise of Episode: 3/10, At Least It’s Better than ‘The Glenn Miller Story’, Right?: 4/10. Overall: 25/50. Pass

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B.G. Hilton - Author