Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
DVD Review: The Music Man (1962)
Between the ages of seven and twenty-seven, I was pricked by my Uncle at least once a week.
With one of his clinics located just blocks from our apartment on Chicago’s north side, it was seldom that we visited his office in the Loop for my weekly allergy shot. My mother, who probably needed something at Marshall Field’s that lovely June morning, decided to kill two birds with one El ride, and thus began my summer vacation of 1962.
Normally mom demanded no special attention, but that changed as we sat patiently in the outer lobby waiting for the needle. His name was Dr. Abe Aaronson, but to me he was always “Uncle Doc,” the patriarch of my mom’s side of the family, a classy gent who put a smile on your face simply by hearing the sound of his voice.
The door opened and out walked Uncle Doc accompanied by a tall, impeccably dressed gentleman. He was introduced as either a Balaban or a Katz, the two families that owned Chicago’s largest chain of movie theatres. In an uncharacteristic display of subliminal freeloading, Ma bolted to her feet, lunged for his hand, and eagerly gushed over how we were just now on our way to his fabled Chicago Theatre to catch a mid-week matinee of The Music Man.
Instead of a paper-pass for two, all she got was, “I hope you enjoy it,” before Balaban (or Katz) tipped his hat and dashed towards the elevator.
It was the first time irrational behavior interfered with my enjoyment of a movie. I sat for 152 minutes seething over how this high roller refused to comp a pair of passes to the sister of his equally well-established allergist.
In my youth, I couldn’t wait for mainstream blockbusters to make their debut on The Best of CBS or The ABC Sunday Night Movie. It was the first film to be sold to television for over a million dollars, yet The Music Man went unnoticed in my home and for reasons obvious only to me, it has remained the one big ‘60s studio musical I never wanted to revisit.
The grudge held strong until last night.
Forget about trouble in River City, Iowa; this clunker never left the Burbank backlot. And was there something awry with the “Just Scan” setting on my TV? Either The Music Man is a two-and-a-half hour tableau or some smart aleck second-unit cameraman told neophyte film director Morton DaCosta (his allegiance was to the theatre) to purposely stage everything center-scan so it will play better on television.
Traveling salesman / swindler, “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston), not to be confused with Goodfella Henry Hill, decides to target the good folks of the “Hawkeye State" as victims of his current scam. Disguised as a boy-band instructor, Hill, the Lou Pearlman of his day, creates a Ponzi scheme to bilk families out of their money in exchange for music lessons.
From the opening number, set on a moving train car, DaCosta makes it clear that he has no intention of delivering anything more than a dutiful (and literal) transcription of the Broadway smash hit for Technorama lenses. Not for a nanosecond does one believe they’re traveling by train, as no attempt is made to mask the transition from the proscenium arch.
To make matters worse, the "Mickey-Mousing" incidental music and post-synched dialog sound as though they were recorded in the Grand Canyon. Any chances at subtlety or a soft, intimate moment are undone by the film’s thundering sound recording.
The forced perspective sets on Warner Bros. King’s Row and Midwest Street backlots look like scale replicas of Lionel Train stations or miniature golf course houses. Da Costa’s idea of opening up a play is turning a soundstage into an arena, and instructing his characters to take long walks as they sing.
Cut out "Shi."
The staging of the show’s famous tunes is uniformly slipshod. Thrill to Robert Preston, endlessly framed in a wait-high close-up, singing his heart out! Marvel at the show’s most overtly sexist number, a little ditty called Shipoopi that’s sung, fittingly enough, by the town’s most eligible bachelor, Buddy Hackett. “Shipoopi” sounds like something the body discharges, but according to the lyrics, the invented word refers to an eligible young lass who refuses to put out until after the third date.
Frank Sinatra was Warner Bros. first choice to star. After he turned them down, the part was offered to Cary Grant who cleverly quipped, “"Not only will I not play it, but if Robert Preston doesn't do it, I won't even see the picture." Show creator Meredith Wilson stood firm, telling the studio in no uncertain terms, “No Preston, no movie!”
Not unlike his conniving alter-ego, Preston couldn’t sing a note, and the play was the first musical the actor appeared in. Admittedly, the townsfolk didn’t receive the music lessons as promised, but what is Hill really guilty of? He devises a way to con the good citizens of River City out of…what? What self-respecting grifter wouldn’t run off with the rubes’ money the second he’d accumulated enough of it? Not our Professor, who plans on making good on his word by delivering the instruments, uniforms, and music books before taking a powder.
A cinematographer is only as good as the director he’s working for, and, with a few exceptions (Marnie, Written on the Wind, Exorcist II: The Heretic), a director is only as good as the script he has to work with. The Music Man was canned by legendary lensman, and Hitchcock D.P. of choice, Robert Burks. I wonder how many sniggering asides and nasty observations about “the theater director” Burks took with him from Warner Blvd. over the hill to Universal to privately share with Hitch on the set of their next project, The Birds.
Had the film been set in 1937 instead of 1912, and the lead character’s name been Schicklegruber instead of Hill, he would have felt right at home as a Nazi well-wisher on American soil, a trouble-maker doing his best to indoctrinate fear and hate. Beer halls would replace pool halls. There would be no jumping for joy over the arrival of a Wells Fargo wagon driven by consumerism or squandering time on the plastic arts by watching magic lantern slideshows in the school gymnasium. Barbershop enemies would soon unite under the banner of the Bund dances Storm Trooper Hill would organize for them. Even the town bibliothecary (Shirley Jones) would no doubt change her name to Marian, the Aryan Librarian.
If the play is anything like the movie, no wonder Miss Kubelik stood him up.
It’s a terrible film with a terrible message: all it takes to become an accomplished musician is a dissolve. The ineptness of the filmmaking mirrors the stupidity of the characters. DaCosta doesn’t have the sense to dissolve at the end, nor can his characters resist once again falling lock-step in line behind a false prophet.
Not long after this film was made, Iowa became the caucus state of choice for both major political parties in this country. It’s not like I’m saying the Tea Party was formed in response to Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. What I do believe is the Aryan Librarians of yesteryear became the Bachman Barbarians of today, and a Tea Party could only exist in a country that spawned The Music Man.
Rating: Zero Stars