The Music Man (1962)

The Music Man

Released: 1962

Rated: G
Length: 151 min.
Age: 6+  (for comprehension)                     Commonsense media sez: 6 +

Scary: nothing violent, only the talk of angry townsfolk about tarring and feathering Hill

Sexual Innuendo: in some dialogue and songs, but all G-rated and too oblique to be picked up by small children

Interests: musicals, song and dance, marching bands, history, small town life, con men

A fast-talking travelling salesman cons an entire town into purchasing band instruments and uniforms for a marching boy’s band. Fully intending to skip town with the proceeds, “Professor” Hill falls for the town’s librarian and decides to stay and face the music, so to speak.

There’s nothing too terrible in this movie for kids younger than 6 – that age recommendation is more for plot comprehension. It is a little complicated, with the “hero” perpetrating a grand swindle, the townsfolk falling prey to flattery and fast talk, the council distracted from due diligence by the joys of singing, the mayor pontificating all over the place, and the lonely librarian trying to promote art and literature to an overly prudish population.

Once you go with the flow, however, this is a really delightful musical on a grand scale. The energy is astonishing, particularly in the character of Prof. Hill, as brilliantly played by Robert Preston. (He played the role to great acclaim and a Tony award on Broadway. When the movie producers tried to replace him with a ‘bigger name’ star, there was nearly a riot.) Particularly enjoyable is his ‘foot in the door’ song “Trouble in River City”, in which he conflates the arrival of a pool table with the moral downfall of the entire community. His pitch ends with the only thing that can save their sons from becoming juvenile delinquents: the formation of a marching band.

In the end Hill finds true love and his conscience as well, choosing to do the right thing and not skip town with the funds. He faces jail or worse (there’s talk of tar and feathers), but at the sight of their uniformed children holding shiny instruments, the townspeople melt and Hill seems destined to really become their band leader. The movie ends on a high note, with a kind of fantasy number in which a real, professional marching band parades down the main street behind Hill, playing the big hit of the show, “76 Trombones”.

Hill’s slick and shameless flattery wins over the entire citizenry, the sole holdout being the suspicious librarian/music teacher (Shirley Jones), the only person who could reveal that he knows nothing at all about music. He turns on the charm, but she really becomes his ally because of her shy, stammering little brother, who is suddenly chatty and enthusiastic about the prospect of the band. (Played by wee little Ronnie Howard.)

Lots of songs and dancing, loads of energy and wit.  The colour and frills of the period (1910ish?) are also a highlight. Good fun for all ages. Romance is rather chastely presented, although there is a fair amount of innuendo in the song lyrics. One tune involves salacious (and untrue) gossip about the librarian. In another Hill says it’s the “Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me”, as he prefers women with a little more ‘experience’. All of this should fly over the heads of little ones, however.

Main themes are about integrity, honesty, self-confidence, and how the arts can inspire and better the quality of life of an entire community. There’s also subtext about prudishness taken too far, in the parental disapproval of the ‘modern’ and immoral  proclivities of their teenagers, which of course seem totally benign by today’s standards.

My biggest caveat with this story, and one that will certainly occur to children today, is that the band is for boys only! There’s no reason given for this, it seems to be symptomatic of its period setting, and the girls seem more than content being drum majorettes.

(Available on DVD at amazon.com)

(Available via Amazon Instant Video)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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