(1962) dir. Morton DaCosta
I grew up with The Music Man. It was televised every fourth of July, and I’m not sure whether that was nationally or locally, though I suspect it was more a local broadcast. It was one of my dad’s favorite movies. He loved Paul Ford and Hermione Gringold as the mayor and his wife, loved the silliness and play with language, loved the songs and the whole thing. It’s one of the few things of that type that I remember my dad having such positive feelings about. And we’d watch it as a family. It has always, probably resultantly, been my favorite musical, and one that just brings about happy feelings.
So, I’d been thinking of watching it with the kids for a while, to see how they would take to it. It’s a far different film from any that they’d seen. The only musicals that they’d seen had been Disney ones, like Mary Poppins (1964), and the whole singing and dancing thing… I mean, you’d think that kids would like it, but you never know.
And they did like it. Felix more so than Clara, but that’s probably more of an age thing, seeing as she gets dragged through lots more “older kid” experiences at a younger age out of circumstances. And actually, I was surprised how much Felix liked it. He actually was really impressed with “little Ronny” Ron Howard, who was just seven at the time of filming but looked even younger. And it’s true. He’s great.
It’s funny how ingrained this movie is with me. I couldn’t even tell you the last time that I’d seen it, though I don’t doubt that it’s been 20 years or more. I remember listening to the album on our turntable, couldn’t begin to say how many times I’d seen it versus listened to the music. And I still think it’s an immensely clever and funny movie, and has a number of pretty crowd-pleasing songs. And the cast is terrific, from the inimitable Robert Preston as the travelling salesman shyster to “The Buffalo Bills”, the barbershop quartet that Preston’s music man is constantly tricking into listening to themselves harmonize. And Shirley Jones, very beautiful and good as the “old maid” librarian.
But the songs and lyrics and repartee of the film are so much fun themselves. Supposedly taking place in the early part of the 20th century, there is a lot of good-natured fun poking at the moral issues of the time: reading Balzac and saying such racy things as “Great Honk”. The language and attitudes of the River City Iowans, all stubborn and grumpy, transformed by music is also amusing. But Meredith Wilson’s music plays as well, theming songs over the rhythmic chugging of a steam engine to the chattering of chickens, and playing two styles in contrast and harmony, as well as using essentially the same tune for the theme “76 Trombones” and “Good Night, My Someone”. The whole thing is lively and clever with music and language.
The film is still immense fun. It’s one that I could watch over and again. And the fact that it’s most contemporary notoriety is its referencing in the classic The Simpsons “Monorail” episode (the best episode of The Simpsons in my opinion), only sort of adds to its flair and character. I guess that, while its not absolute in perfection, it really is one of my favorite films. And it was great to share it with the kids. And to tell them how much their grandfather loved it too.