The Music Man (1962): 76 Trombones and Robert Preston

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.

4/5 Stars

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963): A Father and Son Story

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father gives off all the signs of a light and frothy romantic comedy. You might envision it already: a widower-about-town with his son playing matchmaker as he tries to navigate the plethora of pretty girls who just happen to orbit around him.

But we must make some distinctions. This is also a film about a little boy and his father after the death of someone very precious to both of them. A wife and a mother. You cannot easily laugh this plot point away, and the movie never does.

It’s equally important to note who our director is. No one would wager this is the artistic height of Vicente Minnelli, but it’s not a throwaway rom-com either; no matter what contemporary audiences might have been led to believe. I’m thinking most specifically of the scene early on where Ron Howard erupts, bawling over his pet goldfish now floating upside down in the tank. His father storms out of the room to go find his bottle and glass as his little boy is comforted by their neighbor from across the hall (Shirley Jones).

Does Minnelli dare include this scene? It risks feeling overwrought, and it absolutely kills any of the convivial feelings the movie looked to engender. But there are plenty more of those to come, and here we get something actually grasping for some kind of meaning; it’s an attempt to make sense of real-life issues, albeit through the Hollywood guise of gorgeous Panavision Metrocolor. This is Minnelli at his best with substance breaking through his usual lavish photography and expert set dressing.

And yet here is some of the quintessential essence of the picture, daring to be more than meets the eye. We are reminded grief is okay and it is natural — they will both miss “Mommy” — and instead of holding in their feelings, they must be open with one another. It’s the only way they can hope to cope. The whole film is a progression along this theme. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, this is really a father and son picture.

While I won’t say Glenn Ford is as obvious a father figure as Andy Griffith, he still manages the necessary rapport with Ron Howard, and I always do marvel at Howard’s poise for such a young actor. They often tell the stories of child actors who had an expiration date because once their cuteness wore off they didn’t have the acting chops to make it.

Although Howard has transitioned to the director’s chair, I watch him in individual episodes of Andy Griffith or a movie like this, and it does feel like he was capable of range beyond his years. Yes, he’s cute. That’s the easy part, but he also navigates his way through the more labored scenes where there are other emotions. The picture’s always able to fall back on that core relationship.

However, before I overcompensate, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father has plenty of the kind of goofy, at times cringe-worthy, rom-com moments of a certain era. It allows the movie to remain innocent at heart even as it courts other issues.

Take one evening where the two bachelors stop off at an arcade only to make the acquaintance of bodacious Dollye Daly (Stella Stevens). They meet when she asks to borrow Tom’s son for a couple of minutes to ward off the local mashers as she tries to build up her self-confidence. Then, there’s Ford’s colleague at work. Jerry Van Dyke’s flirty radio personality has a habit of proposing dinner dates on the air.

Dina Merrill is a career woman who knows what she wants, and her brand of quiet and mature sophistication is rightfully attractive to Tom. She’s looking for a man to love her on equal terms and despite what her aloof elegance might say against her, she’s another deeply sympathetic figure.

A movie that looks to be about a man and three women actually is at the same time simplified and made vastly more complicated. Dollye and Norman fall in together over bowling. So Eddie’s first choice of partners for his dad falls through. Now to the nitty-gritty. The main tension is between a boy’s feelings and his father’s.

Elizabeth is familiar and comfortable; both a good friend to their deceased mother/wife and an ever-present figure across the hall. She’s a cinematic creation and the kind of person brimming with well-meaning affection. Tom’s feelings for her are complicated. Eddie’s are simple. He feels safe in her presence. There’s a kind of maternal understanding and trust between them already.

Although it’s never stated explicitly, Rita, on the other hand, is attractive because she is so different. When Tom looks at her and spends time with her, he’s rarely reminded of his wife. With Elizabeth, he can’t help but see her. For his boy this is security and for him, it’s a kind of crippling torture. He cannot bear it.

Like any bright kid, Eddie’s extremely observant and precocious in many ways. He asks all the innocently probing questions about how babies are made etc. For him, differentiating cartoon villains from the good guys is a matter of round eyes and thin eyes (along with other salient features).

In one scene, he gives a comical appraisal of Ride the High Country. Meanwhile, for a few brief moments, his father falls asleep to Mogambo‘s screen passion playing out between Clark Gable and the much younger Grace Kelly. I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious reflection of Tom’s own yearning to have the love and affection back in his life. If anything, it’s a striking portent.

His jovial housekeeper (Roberta Sherwood) warns him of such a woman looking to take advantage of what he has to offer. Graciously, there aren’t any such women found in the frames of this picture. A New Years’ party with Rita is lovely, and he comes home late at night in a mild euphoria only to bump into Elizabeth. She had a night out with the same old successful doctor; it’s hardly love.

Later, they hold a frenzied birthday party for Eddie that’s chaos personified with all the little kiddies running around. Elizabeth is right in the middle of the adolescent maelstrom and Rita is absent. Then, as his father grows more serious and Eddie has his heartbroken at summer camp, he makes an irrevocable decision. He runs away and seeks refuge with the one person who makes him feel safe — his maternal rock of Gibraltar. If you follow the dramatic arc, there’s only one place the romance can lead.

Yes, it’s rom-com wish-fulfillment, but I’d like to think there’s also a sense of clarity with the movie resorting back to where we needed it to go. What a lovely admission it is that the women are not the easily caricatured heroes and villains of Eddie’s comic book imagination, nor are they completely trivialized down to their appearance. If anything, we get past the superficiality promoted by marketing campaigns.

It’s a father and son movie, first and foremost, and yet we end up admiring all of them. What a lovely person Shirley Jones is. Stella Stevens brims with unparalleled intelligence, and Dina Merill is blessed with poise. Jerry Van Dyke’s not completely repulsive. If he’s the weakest link, then there are worse prices to pay.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: American Graffiti (1973)

e38f5-americang3 The year was 1962. Cars were cool, the music was hopping, and teens were young and in love. It’s a simpler world, but it is not a world without your typical worries, especially since high school is over and college is just around the corner for some.

Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is destined for college with a big scholarship under his belt, but he is still not convinced it’s the right fit for him.

Steve (Ron Howard) is also college bound, but he finds himself spending his last night patching things up with his girlfriend, Curt’s sister Laurie (Cindy Williams).

Their friend Toad (Charles Martin Smith) has the night of his life with Debbie (Candy Clark), leaving his puny Vespa behind after Steve’s loans his ride to the lovable geek.

Cool king of the strip John Milner (Paul Le Mat) gains an annoying co-passenger and winds up having an unorthodox but memorable night all the same.

It would be a pleasure to dive further and further into each arc, but it seems wholly unnecessary. The joy of American Graffiti is the ride it takes you on. The differing perspectives, varying experiences, and ultimately, a full realization of a certain time and place. True, I was never around in 1962, but it feels like I was. Some of Buddy Holly’s thunder has been stolen by the Beach Boys. JD (James Dean) is boss and Ozzie and Harriet can be seen on the picture tube. It goes without saying that the hottest pastimes are cruising and necking.

Understandably, George Lucas pulled from his own past love of cars and music to transport us back in time. That would have been impossible without the music that acts as the ultimate jukebox and it is pervasive wherever the night takes us. With that nostalgia comes Wolfman Jack who highlights the lightness of the age while also making a more somber cameo which contrasts with the image that he created on the radio waves.

This is a story about young adolescents, and it certainly is a comedy as life is often a comedy. There are memorable moments, fights, and times where we just need to puke. Through it all we learn a little about ourselves and those around us. Dreams can be made and re-imagined as they were for Steve and Curt. However, when it all comes down to it, each one of us has our own path we must carve an existence out of. For each individual it looked a little different. However, one of the reasons I always come back to American Graffiti is the timelessness or rather the way it so wonderfully freezes time. I feel like I’m there in the moment with these characters. I laugh, cheer, and empathize with them. Perhaps the time and place of their world differs from mine, but their worries and aspirations are universal.

No one wants to fade into the past and we all are looking for our girl in the white T-Bird. Only time will tell what actually happens. We just have to live life and see what kind of ride we get taken for.

5/5 Stars

The Shootist (1976)

24767-shootist_movie_posterIn his last film performance, John Wayne stars alongside Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, and James Stewart in this tale about a notorious old gunfighter, who comes to stay in a small western town. J.B. Books gets a medical diagnosis from an old friend, and the doctor confirms that he is slowly dying from cancer.

 Books pays for a room in the home of a local widow (Bacall) where his reputation and actions one night scare off tenants. He receives a visit from the uneasy local sheriff (Harry Morgan), gets an offer for a book to glorify his life, has an old flame drop in on him, and old rivals and young guns are bent on killing him.

His lifestyle impresses the young man Gillom (Howard), but his mother openly disapproves of Books. Amidst all this, Books desires to live his last days in peace and he is waited on by Bond, and the two of them become to respect each other as her boy also comes to idolize Books more. The shootist sets everything up to die on his 58th birthday, going so far as ordering a special tombstone and sending three separate notes to different gunmen in town. He leaves his horse to Gillom and bids farewell to Bond before heading off for one last showdown. 

In the saloon, he is met by three men bent on killing him. Books is wounded but proves his skill one last time. In a cruel moment, however, Books is gunned down right in front of the horrified Gillom, who in a single instant ceases to be an innocent boy and becomes a man. 

This film was the perfect swan song for Duke because in many ways the character he plays mirrors his real-life western persona. Gone were the days when he was a kid in Stagecoach, a courageous sheriff in Rio Bravo, or even the gritty old codger in True Grit. He was truly reaching the twilight of his career.

Even it was one of the most storied of acting careers it was finally coming to an end. In just three years he would die of stomach cancer, and there was no gunshot to go with it this time around. During this movie, he still has life in him though, and even when he shares scenes with the whitening and tired-looking icon James Stewart, Wayne seems as resilient as ever. The Shootist is certainly not his greatest film or best performance, but I think it can be said John Wayne went out on his own terms just like Books.

4/5 Stars

American Graffiti (1973)

Starring Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss with a host of others, this George Lucas directed film follows the lives of young people in California during the early 60s. It is the night before Curt and Steve are going off to college. They both want to make the most of the time left. However, Steve spends all his time trying to strengthen his relationship with his girlfriend (Cindy Williams). Curt, on the other hand, finds himself out in the town talking with girls and proving himself to a group of thugs. The rest of the film consists of the hot rodding antics of two other characters. A tough speedster (Paul Le Mat) finds himself driving around a 12-year-old girl. “Toad” the nerdy one (Charles Martin Smith), finds himself spending a wild night with a nice but peculiar girl.

With its classic music accompanied by Wolfman Jack and the vintage cars, American Graffiti is a blast of nostalgia that allows us to remember simpler times. It takes this important day in the life of these young individuals and it allows us to be a part of it. Each character has his own experiences that cause them to grow. Toad matures, Curt realizes he must experience college, Steve learns the importance of his girlfriend, and Milner realizes he really does not want to be “The King” anymore.

This film may have slower parts but that just makes it more enjoyable because then the night kicks into high gear when Toad loses the car, Milner beats up the thugs, or Curt has visions of a blonde in a T-Bird. Fittingly as he flies away to his unknown future he sees her white car cruising down the road. It was something that I had wanted to see the first time around but I had seemingly missed it. It made the ending even better.

5/5 Stars

Apollo 13 (1995)

Directed by Ron Howard and headlined by Tom Hanks, this film opens with the landing of Neil Armstrong on the moon. It then leads up to the Apollo 13 mission led by Jim Lovell (Hanks). We see his life, his colleagues, and the hard work that goes into such an undertaking. There are several hitches in preparation but the takeoff is smooth, beginning a supposedly routine mission. However, after a malfunction the situation turns dire very fast and the men who looked forward to walking on the moon now must struggle just to get home. They make difficult decisions and Lovell keeps them level-headed while Houston scrambles to problem solve and bring them home. This film is powerful and ultimately cheering with a good accompanying score. Howard does a wonderful job transporting us back to that time however I would have liked more back story on the astronauts leading up to their mission.

It seems only fitting that I would see this movie for the first time the same day that Neil Armstrong passed away. This film certainly would not be the same with out him because even though he did not play a major role, he impacted space exploration forever.

4/5 Stars