Friday, December 1, 2023

The Music Man

The Music Man (Morton DaCosta
, 1962) DaCosta had directed "The Music Man" on stage, and parlayed that to direct the film version of "Auntie Mame" in 1958. When it came time for a film version of Meredith Wilson's Iowa-based musical, even the usually-interfering Jack Warner wanted DaCosta to do the film.
But, Warner wanted someone else besides Robert Preston—who had played the role magnificently on Broadway—to play the traveling con-man, Harold Hill. James Cagney, Bing Crosby, and Cary Grant were all approached to star and all refused, Grant adding that not only would he not star in it, but if Preston wasn't cast, he wouldn't even go to see it! Warner was about to sign Frank Sinatra, when show creator Wilson reminded Warner that he had final approval of casting written into his contract, and he wanted Preston and no one but Preston.
Robert Preston was cast. And performed quite magnificently.
The role played to his strengths...and weaknesses. Preston languished in the outskirts of in-demand stars. He was a good actor, but a wily character actor, not exactly star-material. Handsome, sure, but of a face-type that better suited antagonists than protagonists. He could be comfortable twirling a mustache, but whether sporting one or clean-shaven, he was an aggressive charmer of indeterminate virtue.

This quality made him a perfect match for the role of Harold Hill, a grifter in salesman's clothing, who travels city to city like a circus caravan, bamboozling the local rubes into buying musical instruments for their restless youth to form "boy's bands". Once he's pocketed the cash, he splits town before the instruments arrive, as he couldn't provide any instruction in how to use them, anyway. He SAYS he does, but what grifter can actually do what he says he can?
So, Harold Hill brings his brassy blue-sky ideas to River City, Iowa, where he and a former crony, Marcellus Washburn (Buddy Hackett) start spreading the word of what a wonderful opportunity a boys' band would be to the city's rambunctious and temptation-susceptible youth. There is, being Iowa, skepticism, from the school board, the River City Mayor (played by the inimitable prevaricating Paul Ford) and, in particular for the story's purposes, the city's librarian and music tutor, Miss Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones), but it isn't long before he starts making in-roads with the populace. Not an easy thing to do, for (as the song says) they're "so by God stubborn" they "can stand touching noses for a week at a time and never see eye to eye."
To maximize profits, and still be ahead of the law, he plots a good defense against the offense—he deflects the school board by playing on their voice-characteristics to turn them into a singing quartet, and then decides to seduce the "old maid" (sorry) "sadder but wiser" librarian to short-circuit her logic systems.
It is rather difficult to think of the 27 year young (at the time of the filming) Jones as "an old maid"—she was the same age as ingenue 
Susan Luckey, who played the Mayor's teen daughter—but, The Music Man is one of those stories where one has to suspend disbelief (after all, the movie hinges on the mulish River City dwellers suspending theirs).
One also has to suspend time and movie momentum, as well. In its 2 hour 31 minute length, there are 22 songs, meaning that the story comes to a full-stop every 5 minutes and change. It would be frustrating if Meredith Wilson's material wasn't so darned good...or so syncopative, a quality that seems to act as a natural buggy-whip to make the festivities move along at a good clip. There is one speed-bump, at the extended "'Til There Was You" sequence where one can actually feel one's pocket-watch tut-tutting. But, the song is so good—Heck, The Beatles even "covered" it!
Future director Ron Howard scopes out an overhead shot
And that's the main draw here. As good—and enthusiastic—as Preston, Jones and Company are, it is the treasure chest of songs that keep the movie percolating from scam to scam, subterfuge to subterfuge, before reaching some genuine feeling with agendas no longer hidden and ending with pure fantasy. That's quite a story arc.
Sure, it's corn. Pure-bred American corn. But, there's nothing as sweet as corn plucked right from the stalk. The Music Man, for all its brass, is just as sweet.

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