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Musical fans looking for vintage fare on Blu-ray will be pleased by Warners' The Music Man, which makes its HD home video debut in fine form. The 1962 box office hit was derived from a 1957 smash Broadway show that ran seemingly forever. In Billy Wilder's 1960 release The Apartment, Jack Lemmon waits outside a theater to see The Music Man, which is still the hottest show in town.
The Music Man is a Broadway anomaly in that its story, music and lyrics were all written by an outsider. Meredith Willson had some movie credits and first proposed his show as a TV special. Getting it to the stage took eight years. A former member of John Philip Sousa's band, Willson turned his affection for life in Mason City, Iowa into the tale of a traveling salesman running a big con on an entire town. In his highly idealized vision of Americana, the salesman's deceit brings about not disaster but a magical, "only in America" finale. With its bright songs and animated, emcee-like hero, The Music Man is a natural for almost any level of stage production.
The film version is more successful than many Broadway adaptations of the 50s and 60s, which were known for jettisoning accomplished stage stars in favor of big name replacements that in some cases couldn't do their own singing and dancing. With the Broadway owners in control, Robert Preston was kept on in the lead part, even though his standing in Hollywood terms wasn't very high. Shirley Jones was an easy compromise as the leading lady, as she was firmly established as the movie interpreter for Rodgers and Hammerstein for Oklahoma! and Carousel.
Unless you spend your time secretly burning American flags, you'll already know the story of The Music Man. Shady traveling salesman Harold Hill (Preston) has a good racket going. His modus operandi is to get a small town all excited about the prospect of having a patriotic marching band; he then sells them a ton of musical instruments, music lessons and band uniforms. As soon as he's paid, he skips town. Hill finds the simple folk of River City to be easy pickings. With speeches promoting a marching band as the answer to all civic woes -- indolence, apathy, juvenile delinquency -- Hill generates enthusiasm in everyone except for Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones), the local librarian. Appalled at how easily her neighbors are taken in, Marian soon warms to Harold's poetic energy and romantic appeal. While waiting for the instruments and uniforms to be delivered, Hill artfully diverts the suspicions of the mayor and the town council, and neutralizes a committee sent to investigate him by turning them into a barbershop quartet (The Buffalo Bills). Harold's pal and reformed ex- crook Marcellus Washburn (Buddy Hackett) urges him to leave town, but Harold gets caught up in his own visions of marching-band glory -- and the affections of Marian, who has come to believe in him as well.
The Music Man is a curious expression of the American Dream, our optimistic national fantasy based on the conviction that the Spirit of America is more important, more real, than the actual history of our frequently faulty republic. Meredith Wilson's view of America isn't the slightest bit cynical and the show is not really a satire. Even though most of the citizens of River City are comedic fools, they're as nostalgic as Main Street in Disneyland. Sort of a happy flip side to the image of rural America given in Our Town, River City is a collection of excitable people determined not to be exploited (but easily bamboozled by Harold Hill) and vigilant to suppress the natural desires of their young people (who nevertheless run wild, smooching in the parks and library). The conclusion's rather awkward switch to outright fantasy is a strange -- but very American -- switcheroo on a conventional morality tale. Almost like a religious miracle, Hill's mercenary lie becomes the magical truth, washing away all sin and human weakness. The story is too lightweight to be about redemptive love or a bad man atoning for his crimes: Harold Hill's shame is instantaneously converted into a civic virtue. The ending also has no room for an "Emperor Has No Clothes" interpretation, in which the townspeople see a successful band because they want to. That's a really depressing idea if you think it through. So the whole affair happily boils down to fun for its own sake. If the story ever had a message, the big parade at the finale has trampled it into River City's Main Street.
The fun is certainly there in several instantly recognizable songs. Till There Was You is a pretty ballad, Trouble a showstopper for Robert Preston and Seventy-six Trombones a salute to Sousa-like marching band glory. Several group numbers are catchy, especially The Wells Fargo Wagon, sung as the town anxiously awaits their band uniforms.
Marian's Mother Mrs. Paroo was played by Pert Kelton; she and the Buffalo Bills were retained from the Broadway show. Buddy Hackett has his best screen role as the dim but agreeable Marcellus, while Paul Ford and Hermione Gingold play the Mayor Shinn and his wife Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn as broadly as is possible. The lead young couple, Timmy Everett and Susan Luckey, are giggly ciphers given tag lines: "Great Honk!"; "Ye Gods!" These days, people will tune in to the show just to see the cute Ronny Howard as Marian's tiny brother Winthrop. Howard usually knocks 'em dead with his reprise of Gary Indiana. Any other movie kid would be insufferable; future director Howard is a joy.
The downside of The Music Man is in the direction, which probably fell to stage director Morton DaCosta because he also produced the film. His earlier Auntie Mame is okay, but DaCosta almost kills this movie with his dull visuals, most of which don't bother to realign stage business or blocking for the camera. The result is a movie that seems to move at a very slow pace. Although much more lively than the unaccountably stiff South Pacific, expressive direction could have made The Music Man twice as effective.
The film's saving grace is Robert Burks' sharp, colorful cinematography. When given an attractive composition to light, Burks' (Alfred Hitchcock's favorite cameraman) individual shots look quite lovely. The movie appears to have been filmed almost exclusively on the Warner lot in Burbank, with the Main Street set used for downtown River City. In one angle looking back toward the WB soundstages, an odd sail-like "thing" has been rigged, probably to block a view of a modern structure. Robert Burks and his camera technicians do an amazing job making the rather small town square (actually a triangle, also used in Bye Bye Birdie) look much bigger than it is. Cutbacks to the marching band never seem to cheat. Having seen the actual back lot location, it seems clear that the long lines of uniformed musicians can march only for a few seconds before having to change direction!
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of The Music Man sports a stunning HD transfer that makes all previous home video presentations pale by comparison; it probably looks better than many a theatrical print. The movie was originally filmed in Technirama (squeezed VistaVision) and the sharp, mostly grain-free cinematography pops on a 1080p monitor. The disc's uncompressed DTS and Dolby Digital tracks are also a major selling point, even considering the less dynamic stereo soundtrack mixes of the day.
The extras were produced quite a while ago and are pitched to audiences who will be satisfied to hear mutual praise traded among surviving collaborators, along with mostly old-news stories about the film -- that Shirley Jones became pregnant, etc. The trailer included is actually a re-issue item, with Robert Preston telling viewers that he's back. Harold Hill apparently lied when he said, "I pass this way but once".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Music Man Blu-ray rates:
1. From correspondent "B", 1.26.10:
Dear Glenn: "The film version is more successful than many Broadway adaptations of the 50s and 60s, which were known for jettisoning accomplished stage stars in favor of big name replacements that in some cases couldn't do their own singing and dancing. With the Broadway owners in control, Robert Preston was kept on in the lead part, even though his standing in Hollywood terms wasn't very high."
I would argue that Preston was kept because a) he was perfect as Hill, and b) the studio didn't have anyone under contract or even in mind who would actually have been preferable. Preston had a great advantage over the other male Broadway musical stars of the period in landing the movie version of his hit show; he was already a well known picture name and even something of a star. Not only was he familiar to audiences, he was well acquainted with film acting. That said, he was also fortunate in the timing of the production; if The Music Man had been filmed even a few years earlier, a major contract star might have been cast as Hill. There weren't many of these left by the early '60s. Van Johnson -- who played Hill in London and on the road -- might have been a candidate, but his once bright star had waned somewhat by this point. It is said that Jack Warner offered the part to Cary Grant; Grant not only refused the role, but he reportedly told the studio head that if Preston wasn't cast as Hill, he wouldn't bother to go see the movie. [A similar tale is told about Warner, Grant and the casting of My Fair Lady's Prof. Higgins.]
Warner was ultimately a fairly smart man about musicals. He understood the importance of stars, but he also grasped the importance of preserving what made a hit show successful in the first place. The star presence of Doris Day in 1957'S Pajama Game facilitated the casting of John Raitt, Carol Haney and others from the Broadway show. [Of course, if Sinatra had accepted the male lead as originally planned, his presence would have facilitated the casting of B'way's Janis Paige as the female lead, ultimately played by Day.] Similarly, casting Tab Hunter at the height of his popularity as Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees made it possible for Gwen Verdon and much of the original players to recreate their Broadway roles. [Later, Audrey Hepburn's star power erased any latent misgivings Warner might have had about Rex Harrison's box office appeal for My Fair Lady.] For The Music Man, Warner eventually decided the show itself was the star, and Preston got the part, bolstered by popular musical actress (and recent Oscar winner) Jones.
I liked your review. You're absolutely right about Burks' cinematography; he's a real hero of the picture. Few musicals have so many appealing exterior scenes. I particularly liked your observation about the small size of the back lot "location." When I first visited the Burbank lot in the mid-'70s, I found myself amazed that the space where that endless line of marching bandsmen just kept coming and coming was so... tiny. Thanks for being possibly the first to mention this in print. Best, Always. -- B.
2. From correspondent Bob Gutowski, 2.12.10:
Hey Glenn, I picked up the Blu-ray of The Music Man yesterday, and discovered a small sound anomaly during Mrs. Paroo's line (in the Piano Lesson scene): "...with the suitcase, which may be your very last chance!" There's a slight audio dropout with a light buzz. Before I packed up the disc to take it back, I pulled out the original DVD, and it's on that, too. Next, I tried the OST CD. Yup. It's been there all along, only I never heard it at all til' there was Blu!
Plus, I just found out that since the first DVD release, there's been a line missing! Same scene. The little girl should answer Marion's "Now you can play your cross-hand piece" with. "Now I MAY play my cross hand piece!" I wrote about the buzz on All That Chat, and the rest of the story came out. How about that? -- Bob
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