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 Hollywood legend holds that when he was asked to essay the part of Hill in the 1962 movie adaptation, he 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 snobbery 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.
p.s. Lovers of the Simpsons will appreciate that this film is the source material for the famous Marge vs. The Monorail episode.