A con-man comes to a small town posing as a music professor of a boys’ marching band, hoping to cash in on its gullible citizens. His plan becomes complicated however, when he falls for the cynical town librarian and the people of River City, Iowa.
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WON 1 OSCAR – Best Music
“The man’s a by-God spellbinder!”
He’s known for his con-artistry. Swooping in on unsuspecting small towns, he charms with his salesmanship then escapes on the next train out, never caught or punished. Watch out for this Professor Harold Hill, “he's a fake, and he doesn't know the territory!” Meredith Willson’s The Music Man was released in 1962 after its hugely successful 1,375 Broadway performances and multiple Tony wins. The film follows the charismatic Harold Hill (Robert Preston) who skips town and heads to River City, Iowa, the target of his next long con. Sizing up the little town, Hill finds its vulnerability: rowdy teenagers. Claiming he can start a marching band which will keep the boys out of trouble, he convinces the town to jump on board. For a fee. And soon, Harold Hill has the entire town humming and whistling. Except for the lovely librarian Ms. Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones). While she’s not falling for his act, Hill’s falling for her.
With a very simple and predictable plot, the film uses most of its energy on stunning costumes, choreography and musical numbers. The opening scene is brilliantly shot and executed by a group of men on a train. As Hill jumps on the train, the men begin to talk/sing about a con-artist whose name is spreading across counties. Their words sync with the chugging, clanking and wheezing of the train, a symphony that gets faster and faster then screeches to a halt. It’s quick, staccato and rhythmic. The story also uses humour to show the relationships between the citizens of River City as well as the bonds that Hill begins to make. A conversation about men between Marian and her mother during a piano lesson becomes a hilarious discourse using the musical scale. A running gag where Hill distracts the town Barbershop Quartet by getting them to sing so they don’t ask about his credentials is highly amusing.
The musical numbers are massive, employing a huge cast of dancers and for the final scene, two huge marching bands that stretch for miles on the town streets. The songs are fun and patriotic: “Gary, Indiana,” “Iowa Stubborn,” or sweet and overly sentimental: “Goodnight, My Someone,” “My White Knight.” Many of the songs employ two parts (usually male and female) sung together, overlapping and blending beautifully. The choreography is elaborate and high-energy. Dancers are precise and skilled, utilizing every corner of the screen as several layers of action occur in a single scene. The library scene when Hill courts Marian contains complex choreography, use of space and excellent timing, creating a wonderfully entertaining musical number.
Costumes are early 20th century frocks, bowties and hats. The women dress in feathered hats and gossip viciously, resembling busy hens. To drive home the point, the film cuts to a shot of clucking hens. The men use their wing-tipped shoes and hats to court, impress and grab the attention of women. At the Ice Cream Sociable, the women literally resemble frothy deserts in their fluffy, candy-coloured dresses, as they swirl around the men. Visually, the film uses the device of the spotlight to begin or end a scene, dimming the scene to a tableau.
Performances are light, fun and silly. Robert Preston and Shirley Jones maintain a constant chemistry in their scenes with a keen sense of comedic timing. Their singing voices don’t quite mesh, but they make up for that in their scenes of dialogue and dancing. Preston gives the character of Hill charisma and an easy-going nature which wins the townspeople and the audience. He’s an amazing salesman, appealing to the egos and emotions of the citizens of River City, later realizing that he has been affected by their charm. Shirley Jones as Marian is sweet and prim but her character to also able to seduce and act on her own motivations. Her character is not one-note which is refreshing and interesting. She is, as Hill describes, a “sadder-but-wiser girl.” The character of Winthrop Paroo,
Marian’s seven year-old brother is played by the adorable Ronny Howard (who later went on to play Richie Cunningham in the famous Happy Days and an become an Oscar-winning director) functions as the reason Marian keeps Hill’s secret. Hill, through music, encourages Winthrop to start speaking and singing after the death of his father, to which Marian becomes deeply grateful, warming to the idea of the con-artist.
When Hill’s con is finally revealed, he’s completely blind-sided by love and sings,
“There was love all around
The stubborn but forgiving River City citizens discover that this Music Man brought more than a promise of music to their humble town. He brought hope, fun and excitement. And so they allow Professor Harold Hill and his clunky boys’ band to invigorate the town streets with their music.
The Music Man, although running a little too long in length, is a hugely entertaining musical. Containing complex choreography, memorable songs and fantastic performances, it has the ability to appeal to both adults and children with its slew of charming characters. It’s a sweet story about a con-man who discovers the target of his con may just be a place he can be completely honest and finally put down roots.