Weekend Film Recommendation: The Music Man

The Music Man is a joyous, funny and romantic musical that has been lifting hearts for decades. Iowa native Meredith Willson laboured 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 lovely local librarian. The role of the would-be con man, Professor Harold Hill, made Robert Preston a huge Broadway star. Cary Grant saw the play many times, and was asked to essay 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 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 great singer at the level of Gordon MacRae, but he is a great actor and 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, who plays Marian, was a very big star in her day, and deservedly so. And she wasn’t just effective at playing 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 great movie directors of his generation, which based on the little singing he does here was a wise decision.

Some NYC and LA-based film critics have read this film as a condemnation of the ignorance and small-mindedness of Iowans, which to me seems like coastal snobby not borne out by facts. Yes, the people in the town are sometimes petty and are easily taken in by the conniving Professor Hill, but Wilson also shows us that River City is 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:

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

29 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Music Man”

  1. I’d always heard that Cary Grant anecdote as being Jimmy Stewart, but who knows? One thing about the movie: I’ve watched it through a number of times, but can never figure at what point we’re supposed to understand that Hill is no longer faking his feelings for Marion.

    1. Hi DonBoy: All stories of “who turned down a role” are to be regarded with scepticism (hence my “allegedly” regarding teh Grant story). But even with that constraint, Stewart sounds very far-fetched, his singing is pretty poor in the few films he tries. Grant in contrast actually has a nice voice.

      I think of the turning moment for Hill is (appropriately) during a song, “Good Night my Someone”. In the duet with Jones, there is a swell in the music, a look on Preston’s face when (I think) he realises that he does care for her genuinely, just before he sings “Sweet dreams be yours dear if dreams there be”.

  2. The very notion that an American town would stump up the money to pay for an extracurrilcular arts program is of course laughable today. If they were to remake the film, it would have to be The Football Man – except that all too many schools are already wildly overpaying for extracurricular sports, so the scam wouldn’t be sufficiently remarkable.

  3. One of my favorites indeed. My only wish is that the number of utterances of “ye gods” had been reduced by about 75 percent. The opening sequence with the salesmen on the train had no tune to carry, but it is as good an example I can think of which shows how meter alone (Cash for the noggins and the piggins and the firkins…” can be musical.

  4. Everything changes while remaining the same. If Professor Harold Hill were alive today, he’d be running the River City Boy’s Drug Prevention Band.

    Without denying the movie’s technical virtues, I can’t get beyond the fact that the hero is a con man. Morally speaking, it’s just Glengarry, Glen Ross set to music.

    1. “Trouble that starts with “T”
      And that rhymes with “D”
      And that stands for drugs.”

      1. LOL.

        These are the new reeds — The Glengarry reeds — and you don’t get them…they’re for closers.

        1. First place gets a band-new Sousaphone. Second place, a Triangle. Third place: you’re fired.

  5. A long time favorite. A film I can always relax into and let the world go by. If I happen to catch it while surfing it’s impossible to turn it off. BTW the composer’s name is spelled with two ells: Willson.

  6. Once you’ve seen Robert Preston in the role, it’s simply impossible to envision anyone else. The did a remake a few years ago with Mathew Broderick as Harold Hill, but likable though Broderick may be, it was just a sad, pale imitation.

    Actually, the roguish con man who turns his scheming to good instead of evil is a pretty common idea. In Terry Pratchett’s great comic novel “Going Postal,” the arch-con man Moist von Lipwig ends up lamenting that somehow he had “fallen into virtuous ways.”

    1. Indeed. I wonder if Mark objects to The Sting on the same grounds.

      OT but can’t resist:

      “There’s the old coffee factory. When I was a boy we used to play on the grounds.”

    2. See Oskar Schindler for a real life example. The movie is good but read the book “Schindler’s Ark” for the nity-grity of the scam. A rogue con man with a heart of gold and balls of brass.

  7. There’s a great blu-ray version released a couple of years ago..

    Frank Loesser was arguably the best Broadway show composer; one of the few who wrote both lyrics and music. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Guys and Dolls, The Music Man all endure. One of the best, poignant and least known is The Most Happy Fella.

  8. @Randy Paul, you seem to be saying that Loesser had something to do with The Music Man. Sorry, there’s no connection. Willson wrote book, music, and lyrics.

  9. The very notion that an American town would stump up the money to pay for an extracurrilcular arts program is of course laughable

    I hail from Meridith Willson’s Iowa hometown, the town with the (now long-gone) romantic little wooden footbridge in East Park, and a public library building donated by the richest man in town, whose name began with “M”, and a smoky, disreputable downtown billiard parlor originally called the Pleazol

    The public high school in that little town has long had, and still has, one of the finest music programs in the nation — not only the extraordinary Symphonic Band and the Orchestra, but in recent years a vocal music program that regularly wins national honors.

    I’m no great musician myself, but I was good enough to play in that Symphonic Band and in the Orchestra, and it was the best part of my public education. We played Shostakovich, Bach, Shumann, Grainger, Holst, Beethoven, Copland, Albeniz, Strauss, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky … and we played them _well_.

    At the beginning of the first rehearsal each year, the bandmaster gave a little speech:
    “I want you to understand the opportunity you’re being given. For many of you, this will be the only chance in your life to be the best in the world at something. That’s what we’re doing here — we’re working to become the best high school symphonic band in the world. If that’s not why you’re here, I don’t want you in the program.”

    And yes, the band uniform pants had a stripe down the side (although we wore sober black instead of flamboyant crimson).

  10. I don’t care what any one says about Robert Preston, he could have eaten crackers in my bed any time. Despite that Harold Hill was a con man, I thought in the scene where Buddy Hacket asked him what he was doing there–was it the boys band con. It showed to me such a great love for music and a wistful desire to really be a conductor. That scene in my mind took away the slickness of his con job. It’s a great movie with great music. The kind you whistle or sing on your way out of the theater. When was the last time a movie did that to you?!

    1. Agreed – and the look on Hill’s face while he is conducting the imaginary band in the water while waiting for Marian at the footbridge, that says it all. He really does want to be a band conductor, but he doesn’t believe it will ever happen. So the happy ending is the fulfillment of his dreams, as well as Marian’s and her mother’s.

  11. Harold Hill appeared again under the name Centauri in The Last Starfighter. Excalibur, Band music, and a video game – an interesting selection of tools.

  12. Re Frank Loesser, IMDb.com lists his name under The Music Man’s music credits for “music and lyrics by… uncredited.” Anyone have any idea why? I have not found any mention of his connection with the film anywhere else.

  13. We don't know that birds see their singing as being music – to them it's communication / talking.
    It's possible birds consider our speaking or shouting to be music.

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