In my youth, Robert Preston always struck me as a Hollywood superstar because he so lithely and unequivocally commands the center of this grand production. There is no movie without him, and he pretty much captures the imagination of the audience.
As I’ve grown older, logged more movies, it always surprises me that Preston was never a more prominent star, at least in the movies. Instead, you see him in the periphery in films like Beau Geste or This Gun for Hire, then later in his career in Victor/Victoria, but it’s never as much as I would expect, given his obvious talents used so effectively here.
We find him hop, skipping, and jumping through the movie with a winning vitality. Set aside his occupation for a moment, strip that away, and the performance itself is a thing of beauty indeed. There is no movie (or stage production) without his engine to drive the story and charm the audience. He has the task of making us like a cad, and he does it from the very first moment he steps off the train in River City, Iowa.
The first thing he does when he gets into the new town is meet an old friend (Buddy Hackett), then, right after that, he drums up the publicity for his latest scheme. He’s perfected it to a tee going from town to town. He’s confident it will work here as well as anywhere else. The youth of River City obviously need their own marching band — complete with instruments, uniforms, and all the trimmings. He’s going to give it to them.
As a side note, The Music Man plays as an oddly complementary piece to Elmer Gantry (also featuring Shirley Jones) if only to have con men try and peddle their trades to small, unsuspecting communities. Obviously, there’s not much nuance in this observation, and it fails to take into account the breadth of genres. This is what sets the pictures apart and allows them to excel.
If you wanted to simplify the story down to its essence, this is really what it’s about as Harold Hill convinces the mayor, his easily-flattered wife, and a whole host of others that their kids are all up-and-coming prodigies. For those already familiar with this classic from Meredith Wilson, the key is how Hill’s scheme turns into a source of joy and excitement throughout the town.
Their invisible performance of “76 Trombones” in the school auditorium is the movie at its best, showcasing this kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” theme to its fullest. Meanwhile, I had all forgotten a crucial number like “Ya Got Trouble,” which sets Preston off on his whirlwind performance, tipping off all the mothers and fathers that pool tables spell the end of decent and upstanding living for their youth.
If Hill is able to distract, butter up, and pull the wool over on the general populous, Marianne Paroo (Shirley Jones), is the one person who is not about to be taken in by him. He makes a habit of ingratiating himself to librarians as part of his business model, and yet she’s not about to cave to his advances. They’re played up to their most marvelous extreme in “Marian The Librarian” as he cavorts and climbs all over, much to her chagrin.
But as she slowly watches her young brother (Ronnie Howard) gain a newfound confidence in himself and the whole town subsequently becomes reinvigorated and alive, she comes to realize that for all his put-ons, Harold really does have a knack for bringing people together. She comes to appreciate him and by proxy also fall in love with him.
Their grand moment comes during the summer sociable, hidden away at the secluded footbridge, where they share an embrace and Jones sings one of the most iconic tunes “Til There Was You.” Alas, it is the beginning of the end for Harold. He’s about to be ousted by another traveling salesman as a fraud, but instead of fleeing for the next train out of town, he vows to stay and stand trial. With Marianne in his corner, the final moments give us the kind of euphoric comfort and fantasia only musicals can offer up.
The Music Man runs at a hefty 2 hours and 35 minutes, and it’s true the musical genre often falls under criticism for being bloated or uncinematic. But at their best, they are characterized by passages of joy we can all appreciate as they swallow us up and allow us to become lost in the pure theatrics. This holds true after all these years as my youthful memories come flooding back in the wake of “Gary, Indiana” and several other tunes.
The show’s original director Morton DaCosta does an admirable job in translating the material to the screen without losing all the magic, and with a veteran cinematographer like Robert Burks, it’s hard to go wrong with the Technicolor.
For some, this might seem like a superfluous aside, but I am also indebted to this picture for what it did in the career of a little band from Liverpool. It’s true The Beatles recorded the ballad “Til There Was You” and as a counterpoint to their other material, it became crucial to them being signed to a record deal. They even performed it quite prominently on The Ed Sullivan Show along with more overt hits like “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And we would have had none of their wonderful music if not for a flim-flam man stopping off in Iowa. At least, that’s what I like to think.