Monday, February 06, 2006

Classic Movie Review: The Music Man

I saw the 1962 version of Meredith Willson's The Music Man, starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, the other day. Like several musicals from this time period, I have a strong fondness for the movie from my childhood, but as I watch it as an adult, I occasionally wonder why. As I seek to understand this question, let me walk through a few of the main characters.

Prof. Harold Hill: We never do learn his full real name (and its debatable whether or not "Gregory," as he's called by his friend Marcellus Washburn, is his real first name, although the fact that Marcellus is clearly Washburn's real name would indicate that it is). Perhaps it's too strong to call Hill a "con man"--the instruments and uniforms he sells are legitimate enough. But the way he goes about selling his wares; creating a need for a boys band in a conservative small town (hence the song "Ya Got Trouble"), and promising to lead the band himself (despite the fact that he can't read music at all, much less play band instruments), is certainly the work of a con man, as is his spellbinding way of getting the townsfolk to believe whatever he tells them. At best, his system of selling all he can, then running out of town as soon as he's collected the money, is dishonest. As the story opens, Hill is a crook, and seems perfectly happy to go on being one.

Charlie Cowell: The anvil salesman. Although portrayed as something of a "villain" in this piece, he's got a legitimate complaint that the antics of Professor Hill make it difficult for more honest salesmen, such as himself, to earn a living. Other than his grudge against Hill (and perhaps his over-eager attitude toward Marian, who he constantly calls the condescending name "girlie girl"), we see no reason to believe that Cowell is anything less than an honest man of integrity.

Marian Paroo: The librarian. Misunderstood by the rest of the citizens of River City, Iowa. They accuse her of an illicit relationship with one of the town's benefactors, and she believes them to be fundamentally ignorant (or at least anti-intellectual). She is the only person in River City to make any concerted effort to find out the truth about Professor Hill's claims (the Mayor and School Board members being very easily distracted by Hill's diversions).

The people of River City, Iowa: Besides Marian's opinion of them, it seems clear that the play is written to depict most of the townsfolk as fairly simple-minded people. The Mayor constantly trips over his own phrases. The Mayor's wife is a self-important show-off, constantly putting herself at the center of thinly veiled dance recitals. The School Board are quickly turned into a barbershop quartet (I love barbershop music!) whenever they try to get Hill's credentials. The women are terrible gossip-mongers. And the two songs to feature a large cross-section of lines from random townsfolk ("Iowa Stubborn" and "Wells Fargo Wagon") are often sung with lines off-key and off-rhythm (I'm convinced that this is a conscious directorial decision designed to make a statement about the townsfolk. However, it should be noted that there are at least some truly impressive voices among them.).

Marcellus Washburn: Deserves special mention. A former con artist and friend of Hill (although he doesn't know Hill by that name, as already noted), Marcellus has "gone straight," and is truly happy living in this simple town. Still, he's also a loyal friend, and is willing to help Hill in his latest scheme.

Mrs. Paroo: Marian's mother. Obviously, she wants grandchildren. But one can't help but wonder at how desperately she tries to push Marian onto Prof. Hill (or, it would seem, any other eligible bachelor that comes into town). She doesn't seem to care a bit that the man's not what he seems to be, or at the very least she seems to pay no respect to Marian's concerns about Hill. It's almost as though she's saying "So what if he's a jerk that will steal all our money? He's a man!" She certainly buys into the old idea (perhaps not so old in some circles, and this is a period film...) that a woman's worth is mostly tied up in finding a husband, as demonstrated in her first scene with Marian, where after Marian complains that none of the women in River City take her advice, her mother's response is along the lines of "when they have a husband, and you have none, why should they listen to you?" (As if Marian's advice would have anything to do with husband-finding!)

Winthrop Paroo: Marian's much-younger brother. He has a lisp, and is very self-conscious about it. This results in his not wanting to talk very much, especially if there are "s"s in the words, and he's generally unhappy. I'm convinced that the entire story hinges on this character.

During the song "Wells Fargo Wagon," Marian is attempting to tell the Mayor that she's just found out that the town of Gary, Indiana (from which Professor Hill claims to have graduated from the Gary Conservatory of Music, class of '05) wasn't even built until '06! (Incidentally, I'm surprised that Hill gets this important fact wrong, but actually correctly attributes the name of the town to "Elbert Gary, of judiciary fame.") But when Winthrop comes on stage for his solo, singing lines full of "s"s while he eagerly awaits the arrival of his instrument, and then proudly shows off his new "tholid gold thing" to his sister, Marian rips the page out of the encyclopedia entry on Gary before handing it to the Mayor. It is only after this time that Marian starts to see Hill in a romantic way. She knows the truth about him, and yet, because of the dreams that he's brought the town (and especially, to her little brother), she doesn't care.

And this is ultimately what changes Hill, as well. He's been used to having quick relationships and "one-night stands," but has never found a person that actually knew who and what he was, and still wanted to be with him. When Hill's secret is eventually exposed by Charlie Cowell, although Marian, Marcellus, and even Winthrop encourage Hill to get out of town, Hill stays, explaining that, for the first time, "I got my foot caught in the door."

It's just as well that this musical (like most fiction) is only a "slice" of the lives of the people contained in the story. It's interesting to speculate about what the lives of Professor Hill (or whatever name he ultimately chose to go under) and Marian Paroo would have been like. The Music Man actually ends rather abruptly, with the parents gushing over the nascent instrumental skills of their children. It seems that they will forgive Hill, but that's not entirely certain. Perhaps he was given a modest reprimand, rather than being "tarred and feathered." Would Harold and Marian have gotten married? What kind of marriage could they have had, given that neither of them knows the other very well at the end of this story? Would Hill have given up his job selling band instruments? It seems likely that he would have to. How would he earn a living? Could Hill learn how to conduct a boys band, if he decided to learn how to play?

But please rest assured that none of this constitutes a request for a sequel to The Music Man. Such a sequel would be a horrible idea. If anything, this story is about the importance of dreams. That, sometimes, the ability to dream of what could be is better than a slavish devotion to what is. The end credits sequence, where the characters find their simple band uniforms transformed into brightly colored ones, and they all march down the streets of town, bears this out. To do a sequel to The Music Man would destroy this message.

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