I’m teaching a short course on drug policy at the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction, so this week I re-run my 2012 recommendation of a wonderful summer movie (really a wonderful anytime movie)
The Music Man is a joyous, funny and romantic musical that has been lifting hearts for decades. Iowa native Meredith Willson labored for years to fashion the tale of a fast-talking huckster who comes to fleece the small town rubes of River City and finds more than he bargained for, including romance with the winsome local librarian. The role of con man “Professor” Harold Hill made Robert Preston a huge Broadway star. Cary Grant saw the stage play many times, and was offered the part of Hill in the 1962 movie adaptation. He allegedly responded “Not only will I not accept the role, but if you don’t get Preston to do it I will not even watch the movie”.
Since at least the time of Clara Bow, Hollywood casting directors have debated whether particular actors have “it”. Well, whatever “it” is, Preston’s got “it” in abundance. Hill is not a nice person. He wants to mulct the town into investing in a boys’ band it doesn’t need and he hopes to seduce and abandon the goodly Marian the Librarian (Shirley Jones) along the way. But the second Preston comes on screen, everyone is cheering for him to pull it off. He is not, truth be told, a singer at the level of Gordon MacRae, but he is a good actor and even moreso an irresistible charmer on screen.
If asked to think of a fresh-faced musical film actress with great pipes and screen appeal, most Americans of a certain generation would come up with Julie Andrews, perhaps remembering Shirley Jones only as the mom on a TV show that their kids watched. But Jones was a big star in her day, and deservedly so. And Jones wasn’t just effective at portraying wholesome All-American innocents as in this film and Oklahoma!: She after all won an Oscar for playing a vengeful prostitute in Elmer Gantry. Of the principals of the Music Man, she is far and away the best singer, and she also conveys warmth, fire and depth as Marian, the unmarried small town lass with a much-gossiped about past.
Preston and Jones are the hubs of the show stopping numbers, including “Ya Got Trouble” and “76 Trombones”. Except for Shipoopi, with singing and dancing by Buddy Hackett (Ack! – but at least he makes a good comic sidekick for Preston), there isn’t a less than good song in the film, and the music grows on you with repeated listenings.
It is worth mentioning also, given that so many child stars came to bad ends, that little Ronny Howard has a nice part in the film. He went on as we all know to become one of the leading movie directors of his generation, which based on the little singing he does here was a shrewd career move.
Some NYC and LA-based film critics have read this film as a condemnation of the ignorance and small-mindedness of Iowans, but that’s coastal snobbery not borne out by facts. Yes, the people of River City are sometimes petty and are easily taken in by the conniving Professor Hill, but Willson also portrays the town as a place of simple decency, youthful idealism and of course honest, redeeming love in the person of Marian. The movie thus stands as one of the three best statements of everything that is good about Iowa (The other two of course being Field of Dreams and the nearly all-white 2008 democratic caucus nominating Barack Obama).
Here is one of the lesser known but still marvelous numbers from the movie, showing off Preston’s smooth con artist ways and the mellifluous voices of the Buffalo Bills: