“You have trouble folks, right here in River City”
Could Harold Hill be the best con man in cinema history? A man never for a loss of words, Robert Preston’s rendition of The Music Man puts forth a gentleman of great art, tastes, and disarming charm who is both loathsome and irresistible once you find out the truth behind his schemes. Salesmen despise him—and they aren’t too upstanding themselves—due to jealousy in how he can hawk his wares, no matter what they are, to any unsuspecting citizen in any sleepy little town he passes through. Harold Hill doesn’t peddle a product; he instead sells himself, gaining an unearned trust with which he can do almost anything. As he says to a fellow group of tradesmen on a train after they all got run out of town, his next stop was anyplace where “the people are as green as their money”. It is a telling phrase and one appropriate to describe the stubborn, wet blankets of River City, Iowa, yearning for a bit of excitement to shake them from the doldrums of a boring existence. Who knew a shyster such as Hill could open up their humanity with a crooked grin?
To tell the truth, perhaps he isn’t necessarily a con man after all, but merely an amoral salesman willing to help gullible souls part with their money for goods they do not need. Hill delivers the musical instruments and the uniforms—he doesn’t collect money for products never seen. It’s all bought under the pretense that he will stick around long enough to teach each boy how to play, forming this band to keep them out of trouble, so even though everyone gets something for their money, they don’t get the full package. Thus, I don’t think one could argue his crime was unforgivable. Sure, the money could have been used elsewhere, but what’s to necessarily stop someone in town from picking up the job to train these boys—the children already have the means and desire. As such, the stakes do need to be raised and the fact Iowa is a state where soliciting is punishable by law and unauthorized selling a serious offense, the fact Hill even decides to depart his train car for the opportunity shows his hubris and want for a challenge. He is the man who can sell anything to anyone; River City is his Moby Dick.
The great thing about Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, however, isn’t that the ‘bad guy’ eventually softens to the fact he cares about those he touches—that’s the stereotypical resolution of all con man stories. What resonates is that up until the very end, when he is about to win the girl he has been working on as extra payment for his troubles, not counting the fact he has to keep her close, being the only one smart enough to see through him, Hill feels nothing. He has thawed the cold, guarded façade of Shirley Jones’s piano teacher/librarian Marian Paroo, won over an entire town by giving them what they want in words and spirit rather than physically making good on promises, and yet, when Buddy Hackett’s Marcellus Washburn, an old cohort gone straight, tells him the money is in hand and the train is arriving soon, Hill doesn’t decide to stay out of love; he goes back to Marian in order to finish the job. It’s a brief exchange between Hackett and Preston, but it is also one of the most important, proving everything he did was strictly out of greed and joy for the hunt. None of the smiles, none of the kindness, was done for any reason other than his own selfish needs.
It almost makes me sad to say I enjoyed every single second of his ruse. The script is metered to perfection and Preston is a poet delivering each syllable succinctly and in time. A couple of the songs feel forced and too word-heavy rather than musically sound, but the majority work in the context of a record track and in serving the plot. Music like “Ya Got Trouble”, “Gary, Indiana”, and “Shipoopi” are memorable and forever connected to the play, but some, like “Till There Was You”, rise above its origin and have become famous pieces in their own rite. And while most are sung straightforwardly between characters as though they were partaking in normal conversation, there is one standout—possibly my favorite sequence—in “Marian the Librarian”. Utilizing a wonderfully art directed setting of a two-story library with spiral staircase and dumbwaiter for book transportation, the choreography is elaborate and fun. Here is the first instance of Jones’s character warming to this fast-talking stranger while he gets everyone enraptured by dance—the pied piper leading them from stuffy bores to youths brimming with exuberance and vigor. Hill is a snake charmer by trade and his victims fall hook, line, and sinker by the simple point of a finger or glint of a smirk.
Morton DaCosta has directed a film that feels cinematic and theatrical at the same time with its huge town setting on the Warner Bros. Burbank soundstages. He is therefore able to control lighting, adding in vignettes and the darkening of backgrounds at will, as well as utilizing crane shots and quick cuts such as from pecking hens on the street to the overhead feathered hats of the gossiping woman of River City. His The Music Man is a gem, crafted with plenty of humor, a ton of music, and more complex characters than one may first think are included. The Paroo family has its hidden secret of a rumored relationship between a young Marian and an older pillar of the community, a lisping, often mute little boy named Winthrop, and ‘old maid’ references thrown around regularly; the Shinns, Hermione Gingold’s Eulalie and Paul Ford’s Mayor, are a perfect mix of strong-willed, think they are more important than they are attitude who evolve from over-bearing husband and compensating wife to forthright woman and her bumbling spouse; and even Harold Hill is unraveled to show there may be a heart under the impenetrable rough exterior after all.
Hill has been running his grifts for so long that he has lost the ability to recognize his own humanity. Going through the motions and constantly looking at the endgame and what is needed to get there—like honing in on the innocuous addition of a billiard table to town, making it into the devil’s machine of vile wretchedness—he has become numb. But, in the greatest line of the film, Preston redeems it all when consoling a very young Ron Howard (as Winthrop), crying from the realization of Hill’s lies and his cruel intrusion as a father-figure, saying “I always think there’s a band, kid”. Deep down inside, while conducting towns to follow his every move with a wave of his hands, he wishes just once he could actually lead them towards something productive, not knowing from self-imposed blindness that he already was.
The Music Man 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½