Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Music Man of 1962

No summer would be complete without a visit to River City, Iowa, circa 1912, courtesy of Professor Harold Hill.  I refer, of course, to The Music Man, one of the last great Broadway musicals, and certainly one of the last great Hollywood musical films.  The 1962 film is a (somewhat neglected) masterpiece, and ripe for revisiting on DVD or Blu-Ray.  As summer slips away, find time to see it.
The Music Man tells the story of con man “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston), who glides into sleepy River City one summer, promising to start a boys band.  He alternates hustling parents for money for uniforms and musical instruments while romancing the town librarian, Marion Paroo (Shirley Jones).  Marion realizes that Hill is a liar, cheat and crook, but she also knows that he has been a real friend to her younger brother, the lisping Winthrop (Ron Howard – yes, that Ron Howard), and that his brand of snake oil has also brought the town back to life.  In the end, Hill is captured by a now angry townspeople and … well, you should really see the movie.
The Music Man is based on the Broadway musical of the same name by Meredith Wilson (1902-1984), which debuted in 1957.  The Music Man is now the focus of some small controversy, as it won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, trouncing the now-more-highly-regarded West Side Story for that honor.  (The Music Man also won the Grammy Award for Best Cast Album that year.)  While awards are, by and large, puffery and relatively unimportant when considering the legacy of a work of art, I believe, in this instance, that the Tony went to the truly better show.  One of the most fascinating aspects of The Music Man is that it is both a send-up of Americana and an authentic representation of it.  This wonderful duality is part of the complexity that becomes more apparent with each viewing.
Wilson, a native of Mason City, Iowa, said the show was "an Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state."  Wilson worked on the show for eight years, doing some 30 revisions and writing more than 40 songs before the show took its final shape.  Songs include “Trouble,” “Iowa Stubborn,” “Till There Was You,” “Seventy-six Trombones,” and my favorite, a counterpoint number combining “Lida Rose” and “Will I Ever Tell You.” Marion’s theme, “Goodnight My Someone,” is actually the same as Hill’s, “Seventy-six Trombones,” one in waltz time, the other in a march tempo, underscoring that they were made for each other.
The film is over-loaded with charms, chief among them the beautiful evocation of 1912 small-town America.  The clear cerulean skies, the nighttime stillness, the sunny days – it’s all there, as if the filmmakers had managed to distill the essence of summer and trap it in celluloid.  The costumes are bright, the lighting sun-kissed and orchestrations of the Broadway tunes bouncy and full-bodied.  The director, Morton DaCosta (1914-1989), also directed the original Broadway show, and kept many of the techniques common for storytelling on stage intact for the film version – do not be surprised by character spotlights, background fades and actors entering the frame stage left.  DaCosta used many of the same techniques with his film version of Auntie Mame (1958), and both films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.  The Music Man was nominated for six Oscars, winning one, for Best Musical Score (adaptation) – and it is my favorite film of 1962.
Most musicals boil down to the performances: even a great score can be sunk with lackluster talent.  The Music Man is superbly cast throughout; even the smallest character parts are embodied by recognizable types.  Paul Ford and Hermione Gingold are terrific as the blow-hard mayor and his aristocratic (but feather-brained) wife; Buddy Hackett (usually a performer best taken in small doses) is fun and believable as sidekick Marcellus, and Pert Kelton, as Mrs. Paroo, nearly steals the film with a few well-placed sighs.  The wonderful Mary Wickes, Peggy Mondo and Sara Seegar play the town hens, and they are delicious.
Shirley Jones (born 1934) – some three months pregnant for much of the filming – plays Marion.  She is a perfect choice; there has always been something starchy and unyielding in her screen presence, which works wonderfully well for the flinty librarian.  Her almost incandescent beauty stands her in good stead as she falls for Hill, and her looks of longing carry great emotional weight.
Robert Preston (1918-1987) played Hill in the original Broadway production, but he was by no means a shoe-in for the film version.  Bing Crosby lobbied long and hard for the role, but to no avail.  Jack Warner, the film’s producer, first wanted Cary Grant (?!) and, later, Frank Sinatra, who also actively campaigned for the part.  Wilson insisted on Preston, however, and movie magic was made.  (Sinatra was so incensed at losing the part that he never spoke to Preston again.)
Prior to The Music Man, Preston was most often cast as the villain or the second leading man.  That he was by no means a singer, nor a dancer, is the key to his success in the role.  Harold Hill works best when the actor in the role is musical, rather than a singer.  (Two rather different things.)  Preston has a wonderful feel for music and rhythm (in an earlier film, as a western villain in 1948’s Blood on the Moon, Preston sings to himself throughout the action), and inherently understood the mechanics of music.  “Professor” Hill, who is neither a musician nor signer (he cannot even read music), must have the qualities of music without real accomplishment – it’s really the whole point. 
Preston’s Hill is one of the great American movie performances.  His energy is indefatigable – Preston comes across like a force of nature.  His enthusiasm for the con, for women and for mischief are infectious, and his ability to toss off a lie a marvel.  It’s not that Preston’s Hill is that horrible cliché, “a villain you love to hate,” but, rather, how we ourselves would like to be had we the capacity to lie for profit.
This brings us to one of the fascinating paradoxes of the film.  Hill sells River City a lie, a terrible, expensive and rather disappointing lie.  However, it is a lie that nourishes, energizes and unites – it is a lie that becomes town myth.  Essentially, The Music Man posits that an empowering lie can be better than a mundane truth.  It argues, in short, in favor of a great American political, advertising and religious tradition.  It is a movie not to be missed.

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