Morton DaCosta’s 1962 film The Music Man, based on the stage musical of the same name, stars Robert Preston as Harold Hill, a con-artist traveling salesman who arrives at a small Iowa town. He is everything you would expect a traveling salesman to be: smart, conniving, fast-talking, and always eager to rake in the dough. The Iowa town is his next target.
Playing on the residents’ concern over the arrival of a new pool table (which, being an innocent early 1900’s midwestern town, made the matter easy) by explaining how its presence would turn their children into degenerates, he convinces them to establish a boy’s marching band. Of course he would supply the instruments, the costumes, and even conduct. Only one problem – he knows nothing about music himself. It is all a ploy to scam the townsfolk and flee town with the collected cash.
Is this film a masterpiece? To some it might be, but to me it is just a sweet little movie that succeeds in its attempt to be both entertaining and endearing. The direction is good, if not a bit stagey. DaCosta does manage to make use of its set-pieces to make the world that would otherwise seem confining a bit more immersive and larger-than-life. It’s cinematography could have benefited from a bit more character. It was definitely colorful, but otherwise there was not much that made it stand out. Even so it was serviceable, and still shows more skill than the cinematography in more modern commercial films (I’m looking at you Marvel).
The majority of performances are solid, and – of course – the music is great. Though in the case of the film it’s achievement lies mostly in the choreography, which is very well-done as well, since the music comes from outside source material. It’s schmalzy. Oh man is it schmalzy. But it’s that special kind of schmalzy that works in the films favor.
Perhaps my favorite bit of the film was that of librarian Marian Paroo (Jones) who is always skeptical of the con-man Hill. Even as she warms up to him, she remains the sole resident in the town that does not demonstrate the naivety of falling into his trap. At a certain point I did feel as though she was swept up just as much as the other townspeople, which somewhat tarnished her image as the tough and pragmatic woman, but that was fixed quickly.
She confessed to Hill that she had always known of his conniving ways, but that she still loves him and it, therefore, does not matter to her. Though this, perhaps, makes her character a bit less idealized, it was still a nice twist on the whole ‘liar revealed’ trope. Of course it still does in regards to the rest of the townspeople, who upon discovering they’ve been had form an angry mob and drag a handcuffed Hill to town hall, but having the love interest never fall for the protagonist’s lies and still defend him when the whole town is set after him was a great change of pace.
So I thoroughly enjoyed The Music Man. It is perhaps not a classic, but I would still recommend it, especially if you are a fan of older musicals. It is also worth watching in order to catch the many references that have been made to this film in more contemporary stories, films, and shows: including Family Guy (“Shipoopi” and the exchange between Marian and her mother as one of Marian’s students plays the piano) and The Simpsons (“Marge vs. the Monorail”). Seriously, I had no idea how many references to this movie I had seen without knowing about it. Also I may have to buy this film to watch around Christmas-time (as well as The Red Shoes).
Rating: (3.25 of 4)