Plot: “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston) is a con man posing as a salesman of band instruments and uniforms. He happens upon River City, a small town in Iowa. As the citizens explain in song, Iowa is a place of stubborn people who keep to themselves unless someone needs help. But Hill happens upon an old friend, Marcellus Washburn (Buddy Hackett), and is ready to run his favorite scam. He plans to sell the town on the idea of a boys band, with himself as leader, get them to order instruments and uniforms, and skip town with the money. Marcellus tells him a bit about the town and its people, and especially about the town librarian and music teacher, Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones).
Marian lives with her mother (Pert Kelton) and her little brother Winthrop (Ronny Howard), a shy boy with a lisp, who deeply mourns his late father. In her own way, Marian, like Winthrop, is still grieving, and finds it hard to allow herself to become close to anyone. This is especially difficult because she is the subject of some gossip in the town. She has the job as librarian because an elderly man, a friend of her fathers, bequeathed the library building to the town, but left the books to her, to ensure that she would have permanent employment. This has caused some speculation about their relationship. And the ladies in the town also think the books she recommends (including the Rubiyat and Balzac) are improper. Despite her mother’s attempts to encourage her to be friendlier, Marian is very skeptical about Harold’s motives and his credentials. He is able to dazzle the town (with the famous patter song “Trouble,” offering the band as an alternative to the decadence of the town’s new pool parlor), but she vows to check his credentials.
The town gets caught up in the notion of the band. Harold’s charm and smooth promises enrapture everyone from the town council (he transforms them from four squabbling politicians into a harmonizing barbershop quartet) to the teen-age boy all the others look up to (Harold challenges him to invent an apparatus for holding the music so that the piccolo player can read it and encourages his romance with the mayor’s daughter). Harold even charms Winthrop, who is at last excited and happy about something. Harold tells all the parents that their children are wonderfully gifted and that the band will make them stars. Meanwhile, Harold’s attention to Marian is becoming more than just a way to help him get the money. And, despite evidence that he does not have the credentials he claims, and her certainty that he is not what he pretends to be, she finds herself softening toward him and protecting him.
Because of her, he stays too long, and he is arrested. As he says, “For the first time, I got my foot caught in the door.” But somehow, the boys force a few sounds out of the instruments, enough for their proud parents. And Harold stays on — it turns out that all along, deep inside, what he really wanted was to lead a band.
Discussion: Robert Preston brought his award-winning performance as Harold Hill on Broadway to the screen in this impeccable production, perfect in every detail. In addition to the glorious production, with some of the most gorgeous music and dancing ever filmed, there is a fine story with appealing characters. Marian learns about the importance of dreams from Harold, and he learns about the importance of responsibility from her.
Harold has made a life out of other people’s dreams, creating them and then spoiling them. He gives people an image of themselves as important and creative, and it is clear that this is what he loves about what he does, not stealing the money from them. Marian has faith in Harold. It is not the blind faith of the rest of the town, the people who see the seventy-six trombones he sings about. She sees what is good inside him, the real way that he affects people like Winthrop, the way he affects her. As she sings, “There were bells on the hills, but I never heard them ringing, oh, I never heard them at all, ’til there was you.” When Marian sees Harold and is willing to love him in spite of his past, he is for the first time able to move on from the notion of himself as a thief and a liar. Each finds the core of the other, allowing both of them to heal and take the risk necessary to make their dreams come true. For him, the risk is prison and disgrace. For her, the risk is the kind of hurt she felt when her father died, the risk we all take in loving someone. And because this is a musical, they live happily ever after.
Questions for Kids:
· Why is Winthrop so shy? What makes him change?
· How does Harold change people’s minds? Is that good or bad?
· How does the music help to tell the story? Listen to the songs “76 Trombones” and “Goodnight My Someone” again. They are very much alike, as you can tell when they are sung together. What did the composer want that to tell you about the people who sing them?
· Why were the parents worried about their children playing pool? What do parents worry about today?
· How is Marian’s library like yours? Do you know your librarian? Do people in your town ever argue about what books should be in the library?
Connections: This movie shows some of the most talented people of their time at the top of their form. Shirley Jones appeared in many musicals, including “Oklahoma” and “Carousel,” always exquisitely lovely in voice and appearance. She also won an Oscar for her dramatic role as a prostitute in “Elmer Gantry.” And of course she was the mother in television’s musical comedy series, “The Partridge Family.”
Robert Preston had more luck in theater than in movies finding roles that gave him a chance to show all he could do. But every one of his film appearances is worth watching, including “The Last Starfighter” and “All the Way Home.” Choreographer Oona White also did the sensational dance numbers in “Bye Bye Birdie.” Composer Meredith Wilson never came close to the glorious score for “The Music Man,” but he produced some nice songs for “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”