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Music Man, The

Warner Bros. // Unrated // February 2, 2010 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted February 5, 2010 | E-mail the Author
Good songs and a mesmerizing performance by Robert Preston as wily flim-flammer Harold Hill go a long way to compensate for The Music Man's (1962) many weakness, most having to do with its flaccid direction and over-faithfulness to its Broadway source. It's too long, too broadly played by most in the cast, generally dull visually (though the Technirama lensing helps) but most of what made it the big success that it was on the stage is adequately conveyed in the film version.

What Warner's Blu-ray lacks in supplements it more than compensates with its transfer. Movies made in VistaVision and Technirama, 35mm horizontal widescreen formats with picture negatives much larger than standard, vertically photographed 35mm movies, always had the potential to offer dazzlingly sharp images. But the converted 35mm theatrical prints of the '50s and '60s often didn't look any better than standard 1.85:1 and 'scope releases, and sometimes looked much worse. The Music Man is one of those movies that - until now - never looked very satisfying: not in theaters, not on tape, laserdisc, or DVD. But at long last The Music Man nearly pops off the screen with color and clarity. It doesn't make the movie any better, but it helps the viewing experience immensely, especially for first-time viewers.

The story is set in 1912, in River City, Iowa, a small conservative town indiscernible from Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A. Notorious con artist Harold Hill (Robert Preston) arrives with a grand scheme to sell the entire town on the idea of a boy's brass band, complete with expensive instruments and uniforms. Posing as an accredited musician, he promises to turn all into accomplished, polished players in a matter of weeks, but secretly plots his escape once he's collected all their money.

Hill's main opposition is Marian (Shirley Jones), the skeptical local librarian, who lives with her stereotypically Irish mother (Pert Kelton) and lispy kid brother Winthrop (seven-year-old Ronny Howard); he's been leading an especially lonely and reticent life since the death of his father some months back. Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford) and his wife, Eulalie (Hermione Gingold), and the Board of Education (The Buffalo Bills) are also suspicious, but Hill gradually wins them over, buttering them up with wild claims about their supposed talent, even turning the traditionally bickering Board of Education into an inseparable barbershop quartet.

Of course, stuffy Marian eventually falls in love with Hill, even though she learns early on that he's just out to steal everybody's money, while he is inexorably drawn to Marian and her family.

The clever music and less-clever book were by Meredith Wilson, the latter facet interesting today because its premise plays like a Neo-conservative plot. Hill plies his trade by whipping nearly the entire population of River City into a state of apoplexy over a nonexistent threat, fear that the mere presence of a new pool table in town will corrupt River City's youth, driving the conservative and paranoid townsfolk into such a state of panic they eagerly throw money at expensive instruments and cheesy uniforms sold by a man with no real qualifications, and no intention of accomplishing anything once all the suckers have been taken to the cleaners. Instead of a quaint, amused nostalgia for a bygone era, the show is almost smug toward small town folk who use bizarre regional jargon and frequent the local "lie-berry."

The upbeat ending is also peculiar, like The Emperor's New Clothes in reverse. Sure Hill's robbed everyone blind, but if everyone squints real hard, they can keep the fantasy alive, a kind of mass hysteria for a sparkling marching band that exists only in the minds of gullible rubes!

Morton "Tec" DaCosta directed The Music Man on Broadway, and both produced and directed the film version. Robert Preston won a Tony Award for his performance, but while he had been active in films since the late-1930s was never box office, and so Cary Grant (who might have been good) and Frank Sinatra (who might have been a disaster) were front-runners before Preston finally, thankfully won out.

He's superb, and The Music Man is worth watching once for him alone. Gliding - never merely walking - through the film like a cat, a twinkle forever in his eye (more easily discerned in high-definition) and a sweet-talker extraordinaire, Preston is a delight from start-to-finish. Indeed, the entire show hinges on Hill's believability as a "thimble-rigger," as one salesman-rival calls him. Two great songs early in the first act, "Ya Got Trouble" and "76 Trombones," sell Hill's character, though Preston is also terrific in scenes with the Shinns or proud mothers like Mrs. Hawkes (Barbara Pepper).

Probably out of concern for Preston's viability, The Music Man box-office chances were buttressed with familiar, low-risk support: Shirley Jones had played similarly virginal small-town girls in Oklahoma! and Carousel; Paul Ford was conned by the best on Sgt. Bilko; Hermione Gingold was known for another period musical, Gigi. The fidelity to the original show is admirable, and in the case of Preston absolutely critical to its success, but it also results in a stagy, stodgy film with broad characterizations that don't work in medium shot on big movie screens (or now, on widescreen TVs and projection systems). Visually the film shows almost no flair or imagination, and when it does more often than not it's misguided, like the gimmicky angle of Jones teaching a piano lesson, from inside the upright piano. Too much of the film has large throngs of extras standing around doing very little beyond gaping at the camera, nonplussed.

Jones's character, the clich├ęd shushing librarian, is a contradiction, in some scenes a cultured woman fighting conservative book-banners, while in other scenes it's suggested that she's really just a fussy old maid who needs to bag herself a husband toot-sweet. But the songs she sings are good ones: "Till There Was You" and "Goodnight, My Someone," the latter a clever tune that's actually "76 Trombones" rearranged with new lyrics and in a different time signature. For Pert Kelton the Broadway show and the movie represented a comeback after being blacklisted for nearly a decade. Ron Howard is undeniably adorable in this and gives the picture a much-needed shot in the arm during its draggy second-half.

Video & Audio

Technirama was basically anamorphic VistaVision, 35mm film that ran through the camera sideways, exposing eight-perforations-wide frames several times larger than the normal, 4-perf pull-down method. What this means for Blu-ray is that studios using the original horizontal camera negative will be able to create spectacular high-definition masters not only for classic films like The Vikings, The Big Country, and The Leopard, but also lesser-known titles like Escapade in Japan, The Miracle, The Savage Innocents, Hercules and the Captive Women, The Great Wall, and Custer of the West. (Several Technirama titles are already out in high-def and look spectacular: Sleeping Beauty, The Pink Panther, and Zulu among them.)

The Music Man, in 1080p with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, has never looked better. Indeed, the image is so good sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the works under the train car at the beginning is actually a painted flat, or the painted cyclorama in the background of the soundstage "exteriors" used for all the nighttime scenes. (Almost all the daytime exteriors were shot on the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank. "River City" has remained virtually unchanged in the decades since.) The use of color is better appreciated, too, especially during "Shipoopi," featuring dozens of costumed dancers in myriad shades of pink.

The audio is equally impressive, presumably helped by original 4-track magnetic presentations. Here, there's lots of directionality in the sound effects, and the songs are loud and clear in the new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix; an alternate mono Spanish track is offered, along with myriad subtitle options (at least triggered on my Japanese PS3): English, Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish.

Extra Features

Supplements are limited to previously released material: an introduction by Shirley Jones (from the Warner Bros. Museum, with several costumes from the film visible in the background), a 22-minute, lightweight making-of documentary, and a reissue trailer, all in standard-definition.

Parting Thoughts

The Music Man isn't as good as its reputation, but it preserves the Broadway production reasonably well, and in the case of Robert Preston's performance that means everything. The Blu-ray is a beauty to look at and listen to, and it's the perfect family film for a rainy Sunday afternoon. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.

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Highly Recommended

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