“The Music man” (1962) is a musical directed by Morton DaCosta and tells the story of Harold Hill (Robert Preston), a conman who travels around scamming people by promising to make a musical band for kids, but running off after he’s gotten all of their money. He comes to River City, Iowa, a silent and sulking town, hoping to use their naivety to gain money, but after a while has a change of heart.
I know, sounds simple and stupid, but trust me: this movie has good and sometimes even experimental songs and great characters! Especially the female lead is refreshingly strong, smart and independent for a 60’s movie! This film has also some very interesting critique of American conservatives.
The town’s people are a populace that gets sucked into Hills scam due to their paranoia of the “evils of the modern world”. By believing that Hill is a man standing for old fashion standards, Hill has the whole town fooled – except for the librarian, Marian (Shirley Jones). Marian is viewed as odd and a bad influence due to the books she lets teenagers read (Omar Khayyam’s poetry collections, Balzac etc). Marian bravely argues for literature and doesn’t let the town’s people’s gossip get to her. When Hill arrives, she sees right through his sweet talk and lies. She even tells some of the town people off for letting themselves get wrapped up in Hills empty words. Marian doesn’t let Hills sly attempts to seduce her work. There is also a scene where she cheers up a young girl suffering from unrequited love. So Marian is a women that isn’t easily fooled, stands for her own beliefs and is able to give good advice. Marian has good sides, the movie is fair enough to show that Marian isn’t the perfect person – she has her weaknesses like any other person.
Even if Marian is sharp, cleverer than anyone else in the town and knows a lot about books, the movie hints that socially she’s doing terribly. Being an outcast, she hasn’t really had any kind of relationship with men. This is a result of her having to high standards for men and for demanding them to be “super-smart”. Her mother advices her to have a relationship with Hills for the sake of finally having a relationship. Marian argues at first, but later after realizing Hill might actually have some good in him, she agrees to go out with him. It is at this part the viewer finds out that Marian is a virgin and is, in fact, sexually frustrated. She just hasn’t admitted this to herself because of her hopes of finding someone to match her high standards. Marian tells Hills on their date that she knows he’s leaving town soon, but has decided that she still wants to have a short relationship. Meaning that she’s ready to have sex.
Here’s where I find “The Music Man” to have an almost feministic portrayal of Marian’s character. She’s confident and independent, but has her flaws. She has good, strong sides and bad sides; like any person, men and women, there are things she can do and things where she’s a bit clumsy. The movie avoids making her a Madonna, helpless damsel or “whore”, three categories movies to often put their women characters in. But this movie, in a more feministic way, shows that women aren’t that simple. They are actual human beings; just like men they are only human. I also liked how Marian wanting sex wasn’t shown as a bad thing; it was actually a part of her character development, since she allows herself to feel new feelings. For a woman character in an old movie, Marian sure is modern!
Also Hills change of heart is unusually non-sentimental and believable. He actually learns to now the people, which make him want to help them a little, even if he still does try to scam them. Even him falling in love with Marian feels real. The best part is that the movie doesn’t make it too sweet; almost anyone can tolerant the low amount of sweetness used in the romantic scenes.
And of course, what makes a good musical are the good songs. The movie makers have actually tried to experiment with sound while writing the songs. For example, the opening song to the movie is trying to copy the sound of trains. Another good example is a song in a scene when Marian and her mother are discussing Hills for the first time; while actually having a conversation they are trying to match the tune played by a girl practicing on the piano. This scene has been referenced in “Family Guy”, where Brian the dog and Lois (the wife of the family) have the same kind of talk, similar to this singing/conversation, which is also based on a tune coming from a piano practice. (“Family Guy” has also referenced this movie by a performance of “Shipoopi”, another song from this movie).
“The Music Man” is a fun musical that’s sadly quiet underrated. If you have the chance, see it.