Directed by Morton DaCosta. Screenplay by Marion Hargrove. Based upon the Broadway musical by Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey. Produced by Morton DaCosta. Photographed by Robert Burks. Edited by William H. Ziegler. Art direction by Paul Groesse. Starring Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Hermione Gingold, Paul Ford, Pert Kelton, Timmy Everett, Susan Luckey, Ron Howard, Harry Hickox, Charles Lane, Mary Wickes.
The Music Man is a faithful (almost reverently so) adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, and if such a concept doesn’t immediately fill you with cheer, then I agree. I apologize ahead of time for attacking a long-standing institution, but The Music Man’s has never been a very solid piece of the Great White Way, in my estimation, and the film version does a completely accurate job of replicating it on-screen, complete with its numerous flaws. I suppose that’s technically not a mark against the movie, since there’s no real mistake in following source material to the letter. There is one very good element, and that is Robert Preston’s performance as Harold Hill, the glib, smooth-talking con artists who visits River City, Iowa and sells them on setting up an elaborate music education program that he has no intention of delivering. But for the most part, The Music Man is very much like its title character: clever, but also self-satisfied and smug. All style, no substance. It’s very much a con game, like passing off hamburger as a good steak. I’m no expert, but I at least know enough about musicals to know that a lot of the time, they’re better than this, and have more to say.
Right away, The Music Man lets you know that it will spend as many second as possible just plain tickled with how cute it’s being. The opening sets the tone, as the rum-dummy-dum overture fades into a picaresque scene of traveling salesmen boarding a train, discussing their trade. As the locomotive starts its journey to the next station, the salesmen talk in a very specific cadence: repeating words, starting slow and going faster and faster, utilizing bizarre rhythms…until, of course, we realize they’re delivering their lines to mimic the staccato sounds of the train car, from the clack clack of the wheels to the whine of the steam whistle. “Whaddayatalk? Whaddayatalk? You can talktalktalktalk bickerbickerbicker, etc.” In case you don’t get it, the movie frequently cuts outside to show the different parts of the train. Get it!? Get it?!
Yeah, we get it.
So…anyway, they talktalktalk in the same rhythm that the train movesmovesmoves. It’s a clever idea. So here’s a question: why is it done? It’s not to get the story started. It’s not there to replace dialogue that would provide exposition or character, because we soon get that anyway. It’s not done for any thematic reason. It is 100% completely freestanding, connected to nothing. What’s the point of this? As far as I can figure, it exists for its own sake, simply to illustrate its own cleverness. It never goes to the next level and actually performs a function, it’s simply meant to impress us. And we’re sitting though, just saying…”Yes…and…?”
If you just think I’m being a curmudgeon, then you better turn back now. The story, such as it is, follows Harold Hill’s arrival to River City, and the way in which he manipulates the town into buying his boy’s band concept, so he can run off with lots of cash. The first step is to eliminate the competition, so he rallies the citizens of River City to turn against the community’s recent purchase of a pool table by painting a picture of pool as a gateway to young debauchery, leading of course to the show-stopping number “Trouble.” These early passages are kind of neat, as the slick Hill uses just talk and body language to shape public perception, a simple but fine satire of how groups of people will always listen to whatever a fast-talking loudmouth has to say. Before long, however, the concept grows stale, because it’s, once again, never taken to the next level: Hill evades questions about his credentials with puerile ruses, and generally enjoys the adulation around him that borders on messianic, with little to no reason. He’s never truly contested until the plot demands it. Everyone loans “Professor” Hill maximum credulity. The conceit is stretched so thin that it’s only workable if you accept that every citizen of River City is an imbecile. Which they are, but that’s only because the film’s too lazy to put any idea in its head to actual work. It’s very surface-level. Shallow. I hate to use the next word that comes into my head, but you know what? When the stakes are so cheap and fabricated, there are no stakes. And that’s boring.
Now let’s play a game called “Count the Clichés.” The only person standing in Hill’s path (1) is Marian Paroo, a reserved, cold librarian (2), who is distrustful of men (3) and tries to find evidence that Hill is a fraud (4). Hill tries to woo the haughty Marian (5), purely out of self-interest (6), but ends up actually falling in love with her (7). She shoots him down (8) but reconsiders when he starts connecting with members of her family (9). Eventually, her icy façade melts (10) because all she really needs is a good man, anyway (11). This makes her bossy (12), Irish (13) mother (14) happy (15), because she is concerned that Marian will die a spinster (16) for considering herself better than anyone else in town (17) because she actually is (18), and intelligence is, as we all know, unattractive in a woman (19). Some of these thoughts aren’t spoken, but go ahead and read between the lines. Bonus points: Marian’s younger brother (20) is a cute kid (21) with an “adorable” lisp (22). Now, clichés aren’t inherently bad. But they are here, because all of these plot points and character attributes arrive right on schedule, as if they’re moving in lockstep and referring to detailed instructions, all honoring time-honored blueprints for how a musical comedy should work. There’s no flow to it all, just plenty of rigid formula.
There are other musical numbers, of course, some of them legendary (like Hill’s town hall rendition of “76 Trombones”), some of them ordinary (the romantic ballad “’Till There Was You”), some of them nigh-insufferable (“Gary, Indiana,” which may be one of the most irritating musical numbers ever put on film). Most of the songs tend to stand outside the action, aware that the story is simply a droopy clothesline for music. More than a few are cleverly constructed (stereotypes aside, I am rather fond of the cute scene where Marian and her mother have an argument built from conflicting musical scales). But many are too clever by half, a lot of them serve no purpose (see Buddy Hackett’s once-innocent, now-borderline-filthy “Shipoopi”). But shouldn’t they have been filmed…I dunno…like a film? They’re mostly undone by the movie’s staging, which is, well, stagey: frequently in long shot, often in long takes, not very filmic. Everything feels like it’s being framed for an invisible proscenium. It saps the energy, which kills the momentum, which throws the whole affair out of joint. I think, as audience members, we are meant to be impressed, but it usually just inspires one thought: “Wow. This must be great to witness on stage.” Not very compelling.
That any part of The Music Man works is, I think, a tribute to Robert Preston, a terrific actor who had a gift for turning long stretches of dialogue into breathless, whiskey-voiced masterpieces of timing. There is probably no musical number in Broadway history that better balances charm and fast-paced insanity then “Trouble,” and what’s especially remarkable about that is that’s it’s mainly a breakneck monologue–there’s almost no song there whatsoever except for one or two chorus breaks. His whole performance is pitched at that sense of devilish, manic zeal. Whether conjuring up an imaginary band to impress a crowd, or stating his romantic philosophy (in short: “no virgins, please”), he is one of the great movie con men, quality of the film be damned. When he’s cornered by the love story, however, Preston flails around for a sense of authenticity that he doesn’t find, because there is none present in the romance. Even when whispering sweet nothings to Marian, it feels like a grift, even when it’s supposedly genuine. Preston seems too nice to be an actual anti-hero, and too savvy to be pulled in by the cornpone, homespun nonsense around him.
That’s the real issue here, isn’t it? The Music Man offers a slice of Americana that feels not only phony, but mean-spirited and condescending. No one gets off easy: the addle-brained school board keeps getting distracted by lousy barbershop numbers, the gossipy wives who look down on Marian are likened to jabbering hens, the mayor is a doddering fool, the extras are all buffoons, and of course the female lead desperately needs a good man, even though (a) she claims otherwise and (b) Harold Hill really isn’t that nice a guy. As Hill pursues Marian for his own selfish reasons, she avoids him, but of course “no” really means “yes,” and before long they’re snogging like crazy, because that’s all a girl ever wants. Yeah. Icky. I know, I know. This is a romantic comedy convention, but it’s one that I’ve just never been fond of. It’s all meant in good fun, but I just can’t buy into it. The story tries for sweetness, but the overall tone is scornful, and it sours the fun.
I think more than anything, my ultimate dissatisfaction with The Music Man is that it’s a musical that’s not really about anything. It makes attempts to stand for small towns and real people, but it invests in a façade, which makes its hook (a liar falling in love with a reality) off-putting, because it feels patently, thoroughly false. Of course, all fiction films are lies, because they are about characters and circumstances that never were. But we are eager to forget that fact if it means we are entertained, treated, or perhaps even a little bit enlightened. And in order to get to that point, we must be convinced. The Music Man really wants to show it has a heart, but all we receive is facsimile of one, and we get played for suckers for believing in it. That doesn’t really seem fair. As Jean Giradoux once said: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Now there’s something Harold Hill would agree with.
NOTES: (1) I tried to maybe quote a piece from the “Trouble” number, but there’s no point. Again, the song isn’t truly impressive, if it weren’t for Preston. Follow the video link to see what I mean.
(2) “Gary, Indiana,” which I called one of the most irritating musical numbers ever, is performed in the film by Ron Howard. So it’s kind of fitting.
(3) I apologize using the phrase “lousy barbershop numbers.” It’s a redundancy.
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