The Music Man

Dir: Morton DeCosta, 1962. Starring: Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett. Musicals.
The Music Man
When I was a kid I looked to movie characters for whom to emulate. There really wasn’t a common thread between them except some magnetic quality my impressionable 6-to- 12-year-old self was able to discern. It also really helped if they wore good clothes. It didn’t even matter whether they were the heroes or the villains of their stories. I really liked Corey Haim's incredibly gay wardrobe in The Lost Boys just as much as I liked Kiefer Sutherland’s menacing hair metal vampire look in the movie. I started playing racquetball, as well as slicking my hair back, and wearing suspenders to be more like Gordon Gekko after I saw Wall Street. I began pretending to be sick to get out of going to school (and thinking I was really, really clever) while also becoming obsessed with owning argyle socks (which I had never heard of) after seeing Matthew Broderick wear them in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

I was certainly impressionable, also maybe kind of weird. Still, the character that made, maybe, the biggest impression on me was that of Robert Preston’s Professor Harold Hill in the movie adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. He was a dapper con artist, a larcenous gent selling dreams to gullible townsfolk and making them feel like a million bucks as he fleeced their Edwardian era pockets. If you haven’t seen the film he probably sounds like a terrible person but the genius of The Music Man is that, though he is thoroughly dubious, he’s also the greatest thing to ever happen to the Iowa town that he storms right in to in order to swindle. Also, his red and white marching band uniforms are fantastic.

I had only seen one other Robert Preston film—This Gun for Hire—in which he co-starred with Veronica Lake, Veronica Lake’s hair, and Alan Ladd. In The Music Man, he carries the show like a Broadway veteran who was born to play this role. His charismatic, vaudeville era charm completely sell the film, making it one of the greatest musicals of all time. As the original star of the Broadway show, Preston knew the part inside and out. But instead of sleepwalking through the role ala Matthew Broderick in the film adaptation of The Producers (and come to think of it, really anything he’s been in of late) Preston delivers the goods.  

"Professor" Harold Hill travels the Midwest looking for places to stake out and people to swindle. He comes to River City, Iowa to drum up interest in starting a boy’s marching band. First, though, he has to create hysteria over a pool table that recently was added to a main street store. Somehow this pool table is going to create juvenile delinquents out of the town’s kids and a boy’s band is the only way to ensure their safety. The stubborn Iowa townsfolk prove to be easy marks and Hill plays them like the brass band he promises to make their children over into.

A fabulous group of character actors, including Buddy Hackett as a former con game player gone straight but not too straight to help out his old pal, Hill, and Hermione Gingold as the initially appalled mayor’s wife who comes to be a misty eyed true believer after surrendering herself to the power of the ladies auxiliary dance committee Hill sets up, fill out the story superbly. Shirley Jones plays the town snob, Marian, the town’s librarian. She proves to have the hardest heart to melt, but when she sees her son, played by li’l Ronny Howard, grow to be so confidant as a result of Hill’s magnificent chicanery, she falls in love with him, and he with her.

Even if you don’t know The Music Man as a film you have probably heard one of the many songs from it that have become staples of the American songbook including “Ya Got Trouble,” “Seventy-six Trombones,” and “Till There Was You.” For what it’s worth, this is one of the few musicals I can tolerate, both for the film’s sense of humor, the performances, and its music. Typically I get anxious as soon as characters in a movie break into song. But these songs are so damn catchy! The Music Man has not just been perennially popular with musical theater audiences but it even had one of its songs covered by the Beatles (“Till There Was You”) while the White Stripes have been known to play the entire movie soundtrack before their shows, with instructions to the sound man to “Play it loud!” Even Johnny Rotten, of all people, in the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth & the Fury mentions his affection for “Seventy-six Trombones.” So its influence spreads pretty wide for a decades-old musical.

The film and its music both serve as a celebration and a send-up of American small town life and of all the genteel pleasures of the era it depicts like strawberry phosphates, barbershop quartets, and the insane amount of excitement created by Wells Fargo deliveries. It might not be the very best musical ever made—critical consensus suggests that’s Singin’ in the Rain—but it's easily the most fun.

The Music Man
was nominated for 6 Oscars, winning for Best Music (Ray Heindorf).
Posted by:
Jed Leland
May 2, 2012 5:34pm
Soylent / Amoeba Banner
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