Every Sunday in September, Film School Rejects will present a musical that was made before you were born and tell you why you should like it.
This week, Old Ass Musicals breaks the rules to present a story of a flim-flam man selling a small town of stubborn Iowans a boys’ band and selling a particularly blonde, stubborn Iowan on love. You won’t be able to resist the charms of The Music Man.
The rule of this column is to feature movies made before 1960, but 1) rules are made to be broken and 2) no one will care anyway. Plus, if there’s a musical to bend the rules for, it’s The Music Man. Robert Preston delivers a performance that’s Elmer Gantry meets Mister Rogers. Preston’s Professor Harold Hill is a confidence man with no musical training and no intention of ever really getting boys the skills necessary to play the instruments the parents have purchased, but he’s lovable despite his nature. He treats every moment of life with the understanding of its potential, and he greets that potential with a smile on his face. He may be constantly running away from angry townsfolk, but he’s also living more fully than anyone else.
The next town he rolls to is River City, Iowa, where the people have been described as unshakable. At first, that seems to be the case, but Harold Hill sets up shop and slowly gets all of the citizens on his side by decrying the existence of a new pool table in the town – an unsightly sin that will surely have the young boys gambling and frittering away their days without doing chores. How to get the city back from the brink? A boys’ band! One he’s more than glad to sell them. Meanwhile, he’s got the challenge of a lifetime in wooing the town librarian/piano teacher Marian (Shirley Jones), who can see right through him.
There are some major oddities about The Music Man that stem directly from its genre.
- It’s the story of a man selling music to a town that has obviously been professionally trained in singing and dancing. Apparently they can burst into gorgeous arrangements and soaring choreography, but the idea of buying a kid a trumpet is tantamount to telling them they can bring down the moon and store it on their front porch.
- Unlike a normal romantic comedy where a young woman would fall for a young huckster, find out his lies, and then have to be won back with sincerity – Marian fights against Harold’s advances for most of the film. She does this until she sees the effect that he’s having on everyone in the town, including her shy little brother (played by a little boy that would go on to direct The Da Vinci Code). Thus, she doesn’t fall for him quickly, and when she does, it’s basically when she gets over his lying to see the over all effect he’s having. If anything, it’s a romantic comedy where an entire Town falls for a Man.
That second oddity is the most fascinating because the movie is one big exercise in the tranformative power of music. Whereas most musicals involve totally normal people bursting into song for no reason and returning to their normal behavior, The Music Man places those moments in the context of regular people evolving instantly beyond a simple existence to one where there’s a song in the air and a dance on their feet. They go from merely existing to thriving simply because of music.
The clearest, maybe funniest, example of this is the ongoing struggle for the members of the School Board to get Harold Hill’s credentials (which don’t exist). The first time the bickering foursome confronts him, he flatters them into singing together, creating a beautiful barbershop quartet in the process. From then, every time they resolve to put his feet to the fire, he starts them singing a song, and their concern melts into the sweet harmony of an old standard.
He does this in the library with Marian, with the mayor’s egotistical wife, and with entire throngs of the citizenry whenever he’s selling them on the band. In the end, what he’s selling isn’t exactly fake. It’s excitement. It’s something to be proud of in a town that buzzes about the weather and barely sees one day that doesn’t look like the next.
That’s why the last scene is the fantasy of 76 trombones leading a huge, polished marching band down the streets of the town. Harold Hill hasn’t taught them to play very well, the uniforms are sort of shabby, and the town population isn’t even large enough to fill out the imaginary horn section, but that’s they way they all view the band. Maybe a few notes are flat, and maybe a young kid can’t even hold his french horn correctly, but, by golly, that’s not going to stop a mother from bursting with pride for her little boy. It’s the simultaneous realization that the boys aren’t going to be the next John Phillips Sousa and that it doesn’t matter. In the end, Harold Hill delivers exactly what he promised: a band.
The town is an interesting throwback (another oddity) that exists both as a quaint artifact (a 1960s look at a rural town in the 1910s) and as an exact replica of real life (even life in our “super advanced” modern times).
On the one hand, they all hit the streets in anticipation for when the Wells Fargo man shows up with the packages of the month, but on the other, who doesn’t get excited when a mail delivery comes for them? Watching the film today is a great way to hopefully see how much we’re like the people of the small town of River City. There might be more bells and whistles, but our eyes light up at the same things. We could all use a little more music in our lives.