January 17, 2011

The Music Man

By Robb Witmer Full  |  January 17, 2011



Sometimes there are movies that end up in one's DVD player by chance of conversation and random memories. The Music Man ended up in mine thanks to holiday-chat about a high school production my sister and I were involved in.

The Music Man is a near-perfect example of a big, Broadway-style stage musical, and for the most part the movie seems like the studio simply brought some cameras to the theater and started filming.

The fact that the blocking and even the lighting are in the style of a stage play actually helps to suspend disbelief, which is needed to a remarkable degree.

As with any musical you have to believe that people will sing and dance for no reason, but with The Music Man any grasp of reality would ruin the entire experience.

The lead character, Harold Hill (not his real name), is a scammer of immense talent. Within hours of his arrival in River City, Iowa, he's able to work every respectable adult into a froth over a pool-table, and the next day he leads the whole town in a mass hallucination.

An old buddy of Hill's, Marcellus, is living in River City now, making a life for himself with his boss' niece in the quiet, small town. Not only does he not seem to have any problem with Hill grifting the entire population of his adopted home, he does all he can to help it along.

Marcellus never seems to reflect at all about his role in what Hill is doing to River City, and that ultimately seems to be the main theme here: there are no real consequences for morally-objectionable behavior as long as people like you.

Marion, Hill's love interest, is never anything more than a mark to Hill until the final few minutes of the movie. His interests are to use her and move on. That she is a tough nut that eventually cracks is what convinces him he loves her, I guess. Hill's interest in Marion is the one thing about him that is not totally convincing.

She falls for him because she can't help herself. I don't blame her. Robert Preston's Harold Hill is so mesmerizing that even though I know he's full of shit, I want to hand him money through the TV screen for whatever he wants to sell me.

Marion tells herself she knows better — and she does — but at least Hill is exciting. Before he came to town, the most eligible bachelor in town was her eight year-old brother.

When she finally succumbs to his advances, it's as though she's been drugged. It could have been just a run-of-the-mill swoon, but with all the strange behavior surrounding Hill, mind-altering substances and mind-controlling techniques begin to make a lot more sense.

There is constant reference to something called the "Think System," which Marion's mother claims to have used on Marion in order to get her to agree to Hill's propositioning. The specific dynamics of the "Think System" are never fully explained, but it should be noted that cocaine was commonly available in 1912.

The school board-turned-barbershop quartet provide some of the better musical moments in the film, and usually to the benefit of Hill making an escape from being found out. The quartet, of course, are clearly the victims of hypnotism, but no matter: they can sing. Usually on command. Hill's command.

It's amazing that a story can work so well with a lead character with so few redeeming qualities. Right up until the very end the plan is still to get out of town before anyone catches on. His staying seems to be as much about his fatigue from the grifter's life as it is a connection to Marion or anyone else.

A close viewing shows Hill isn't even sure he's staying until he can hear his train leaving. He decides to accept his fate only when he realizes he's lost a step and can't hang anymore.

And, it never is clear if Hill has any intention of telling the woman he supposedly loves what his real name is, though I would say probably not. This new life in River City is just an extension of his final grift.

Which must keep on going for a while. River City eventually accepts that what Hill has given them is more important than what he has basically stolen from them, though no one contemplates that what he has given them might be a massive dose of LSD-25 through their water supply.

The movie ends with yet another mass hallucination — or possibly part hallucination, part piercing of space-time — in which the future River City Boy's Band has grown to roughly ten times the size of the town itself.

So maybe the whole thing is just a dream. Harold Hill's dream — or whoever he really is — about living the life of the traveling swindler, going from town to town, hooking up with hot librarians, ruining the name of the hard-working salesman, making just enough of a living to move on to the next town...

In other words, Harold Hill's Dream of America.


Robb Witmer Full has never lived the Grifter's Life, but that doesn't stop him from wearing the hat!
@robbwitmer