June Allyson, Margaret O’Brien, José Iturbi, Jimmy Durante, Marsha Hunt, Hugh Herbert.
June Allyson is Barbara Ainsworth, a war bride playing the string bass in Iturbi’s orchestra. She’s pregnant, and hasn’t heard from her husband in many weeks. Margaret O’Brien is “Mike,” Barbara’s much-younger sister who comes to live with her in Mrs. McGuff’s boarding house with several of the other young ladies in the orchestra. She makes her entrance in grand fashion, walking onto the stage in the middle of a concert. Out of this unlikely beginning, she wins the hearts of most of the orchestra—even the curmudgeonly manager Durante, eventually. Meanwhile, a telegram arrives with bad news for Barbara, but it’s intercepted by the orchestra’s harpist (Marsha Hunt), who determines to keep the bad news from her lest Barbara lose the baby. Most of the rest of the movie concerns the efforts of the other orchestra girls to keep Barbara from learning the telegram’s contents, as the male members of the orchestra continue to be replaced by women. Much of the action happens while the orchestra is on tour, playing at military bases throughout the country.
The New York Times, December 22, 1944
Much of the same tender feeling and melodic felicity which Producer Joe Pasternak and Director Henry Koster got into their early Deanna Durbin films some years ago has been recaptured by those two gentlemen, now reunited on the Metro lot, in their new picture “Music for Millions”…Only some of the old zing is missing, and some new things have been added, too…
Messrs. Pasternak and Koster also bring in the sort of musical atmosphere that distinguished their previous pictures, with José Iturbi as the artist in the piece. Mr. Iturbi, supposedly conducting the orchestra, leads that symphonic group in the playing of several exquisite numbers by Dvorak, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and kindred souls. And he does one lovely piano solo of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune.”
Director: Henry Koster
Margaret O’Brien, Jimmy Durante, June Allyson, Marsha Hunt, Hugh Herbert, José Iturbi, Connie Gilchrist, Harry Davenport, Marie Wilson, Larry Adler, Ethel Griffies. Teary tale of war-bride Allyson, a cellist in Iturbi’s orchestra, gallantly waiting to have a baby—and for husband’s return. O’Brien is her precocious kid sister. While there’s plenty of Chopin and Debussy, Durante steals the film with “Umbriago.” Watch for Ava Gardner in a bit.
This is a tearjerker, but it’s still fun and it’s filled with love and optimism. Ironically, it was released just after the beginning of the “Battle of the Bulge”—a very dark time for the United States—and maybe this film gave people a little hope. And although putting June Allyson and Margaret O’Brien together in one movie is a guarantee of enough waterworks to power a mill, I still love this movie. The music is glorious, and it’s fun to catch a glimpse of what can go on “behind the scenes” in an orchestra. It’s also funny to watch as the men dwindle away, so that in the last scene, with Iturbi coming out to conduct Handel’s “Messiah,” there is only one man left. Iturbi sighs and gamely plows ahead.
I take umbrage at the New York Times’s observation that Iturbi “supposedly” conducts the orchestra. According to Kathryn Grayson, who starred in three movies with Iturbi, everything Iturbi conducted on the screen was actually conducted by him as well. And he didn’t play only one solo, either.
As for Maltin, he’s not the only one who’s musically ignorant—many people seemed to think the enormous thing Allyson played was a cello, but it was actually a string bass.
Not having grown up on classical music, I had heard “Clair de Lune” a couple of times before seeing this movie, but this is where I learned its name—and how it should be played. Iturbi also does part of the first movement of Grieg’s Concerto in A-minor and leaves you wanting more.
As a musician, Iturbi’s movies always provide plenty of opportunities to be outstanding, but as an actor, it’s this movie that finally offers him has a little to do. He’s subtly nervous before one concert, not-so-subtly furious after another one. He’s businesslike during rehearsals, but still tolerates a bit of silliness. He has to figure out June Allyson’s and Margaret O’Brien’s odd behavior in one scene (in an age where people just didn’t talk about that sort of thing). He’s quietly consoling when Allyson admits what’s troubling her. And he’s unabashedly joyful in the middle of a concert when he gets good news.
Jimmy Durante was originally a pianist in Vaudeville (his stage name was “Ragtime Jimmy”), and he and Iturbi began a joke-filled musical “feud” while making this movie. Between shooting scenes, each would head to his respective piano—Durante’s beat-up upright, Iturbi’s grand—and begin “plinking away.” A reporter described the scene, complete with strange accents and mangled grammar, as follows:
Durante: “Dis Eye-turbi guy t’inks he’s the only guy what can play a pianer. Just because he’s got a tony accent don’t mean he’s better’n me.”
Iturbi’s response: “Thees Durante fellow ees pretty good—on the long-hair stuff, maybe he’s even better than me. But at the boogie-woogie—never. I can beat eet out much hotter.”
The reporter said Margaret O’Brien was rooting for Durante to win, while June Allyson was betting on “the Maestro.” Henry Koster, the director, had trouble enough keeping the two away from their pianos during the shooting.
Also, the two wanted to play a scene in which they would play together, growing increasingly frustrated with each other until one threw a lamp at the other. But they couldn’t agree who should throw the lamp. Iturbi told Durante that “I should play the piano because I have 32 of them.” Durante replied, “Well, I got 32 lamps, see what dat’ll getcha.”
Unfortunately the scene didn’t happen. Durante pitched the lamp off the piano but Iturbi was in the audience. Watch the “Umbriago” number to see the tantrum; the entire scene is wonderful if you’re a Durante fan—and if you’re not a Durante fan, you will be after seeing it.
Other interesting trivia: Iturbi and child star Margaret O’Brien hit it off well; he sometimes brought his granddaughters to the lot and the three little girls played happily together between shots. Iturbi also took O’Brien out to lunch a couple of times—or tried to. He kept setting dates but then would have to postpone, and O’Brien at length told her mother, “If he asks me again, I’m going to say ‘no.’ I don’t want to seem too eager.”
One last bit of interesting trivia: the last scene shows Iturbi preparing to conduct Handel’s “Messiah,” with him opening the huge score. In real life, Iturbi was known for never using a score; he played and conducted from his phenomenal memory. According to Jean Dalrymple, he once memorized an entire symphony in one night.
Such monkeyshines at a concert you have never seen! A baby walks on the stage! The audience giggles!
(After Durante runs down a long, tongue-twisting list of names of men being drafted, ending with “Finkelheimer and Murphy”): “Murphy? We have a Murphy?”
We have played the concerto before. Each time it has been good. But each time it has been lacking in puissance, in what you call “driving power.”
Please, do not argue with the conductor.
There, I knew you hadn’t lost your courage.
Barbara: I’m just a coward.
Iturbi: No. You’re a woman. A wife. A mother.
Now you go to bed. Get a good night’s sleep, and in the morning, all the shadows will be gone…don’t thank me. Thank Chopin.
From the New World (Dvorak)
Eine Kleine Nachtmusic (Mozart)
Pianoconcerto #3 in C-minor (Beethoven)
Conducting and Soloing: Pianoconcerto in A-minor (Grieg)
Soloist: Clair de Lune (Debussy)
Waltz #14 in E-Minor (Chopin)
Also conducting and/or soloing in a few very short excerpts from:
Overture from The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
Piano Concerto #1 (Liszt)
Fifth Symphony (Beethoven)
Rakoczy March (Liszt)
Piano Concerto #1 (Tchaikovsky)
Note: Jimmy Durante has two numbers: “Umbriago,” which Iturbi joins the audience in singing, and “Toscanini, Iturbi and Me” which Iturbi interrupts.