100 Movie Musicals #38: The Music Man (1962)

Cynical traveling salesman gets his foot caught in the door and I cry like a baby.

that’s my barney!

The Music Man probably isn’t the most cynical movie we’ll watch for this project, but it’s almost certainly the most cynical movie that manages the transition to aching sincerity the best — and without sacrificing any of that cynicism. None of the things that the movie viciously skewers in the first act have gone away by the third — the River Citizens are still as stupid, pretentious, and self-regarding as ever — but then those are their strengths, too, and it’s love that makes the difference. Not a blind love that wishes away or forgives their venalities, but a knowing, encompassing love that recognizes that the gap between what people are and what they want to be can be beautiful.

i always think there’s a band, kid

And this is an insight that applies to all of the characters in the movie: Robert Preston’s magnificent flimflam man “Professor” Harold Hill is all pretense, all cynical disdain, but he’s not any less parochial than the rubes he sneers at, he’s just chosen to be the grinning Satan in their morality plays — see for example the way he jumps to the exact same conclusion that Shirley Jones’ Marian the librarian must have been sleeping with the rich old man who bequeathed all the books in the town library to her; what other way can men and women interact? You’re either a simp or a con artist. He spends most of the movie trying to hoodwink Marian into loving him, but she’s onto him from the start, and comes to love him because of that, rather than despite it, without forgiving any of it. She makes the active choice to love him because his con is nevertheless actually improving the town — her brother Winthrop comes out of his shell because of the con, and even if the band isn’t real, his joy and newfound gregariousness is.

tearing out the proof of his fraudulence

Marian herself isn’t exempt from this central insight: she holds herself at a remove from both the town and Hill, but that’s no less pretentious. She knows how to pronounce “Rubaiyat,” but she’s living in the same small town, and holding herself above them all makes her stated goal of elevating the culture so much harder. She’d rather cling to her self-perception as a miserable cultural sophisticate living in exile than unbend enough to improve things — and no one in the town thinks well of her; they all think she’s an intellectual fraud that secured her position by sleeping with the richest man in town. Hill doesn’t challenge that perception, but he doesn’t care, and also doesn’t think that it undermines her self-perception. The gap is beautiful.

there were birds all around but i never heard them singing

It gives the love story such an energy, a playful combativeness that isn’t mean, exactly, but gives their flirting layers. It also enables the final turn to sincerity, as they both grapple with what it means to be truly seen and loved anyway. It makes love a conscious, active choice, rather than chemistry or fate or fatuousness, and that’s so much more interesting than the 38th iteration of moonlight and water.

This all comes to a very literal head in the film’s climactic scene, where the outraged townspeople, whipped into yet another fury by yet another traveling salesman, drag Hill into the gymnasium and command him to lead the band in a performance of Beethoven’s Minuet in G. The band is legitimately terrible in the way that school bands usually are, but the aching yearning in Preston’s face as Hill stops hearing what the band actually sounds like, and starts hearing what he wants them to sound like is a dagger to the heart — and then each of the parents jump up, tearfully ecstatic that their Davey is actually playing music, and it’s beautiful. He didn’t expect anyone to actually listen to what he was saying and try to actually do it, and he’s completely helpless in the face of their belief. I cry every time, I can’t help it.

it’s a visual metaphor

I haven’t even touched on the music, which is phenomenal, and an entire class on the use of leitmotifs to build and reinforce characters across a huge cast; the way that Hill and Marian trade motifs to symbolize their romantic movement toward each other is particularly moving. It’s also delightfully complex, with lyrics and melodies layered on top of each other that somehow never get swallowed in the mud. It’s as showy and formalist as West Side Story, but without any veneer of hipness to hide behind. It’s a perfect film.


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