I sat down this evening and watched The Music Man. (Guess why.) In general, I don’t think musicals translate very well to the screen, but this film was even further harmed by the choice of Morton DaCosta to direct it. He directed the original Broadway version, and I’m sure he did a great job. He was, after all, a theater director. But the film is all over the place. At times it is just a filmed version of a theater piece, including fading spotlights to end scenes. But other times, it goes for realism. It’s disturbing because as a viewer, you never know how your supposed to approach the film.
One thing that I was more impressed with this time was Onna White’s choreography. It’s really fun and clever and completely in keeping with the time period of the film (1912). At times, its magical, as in the dance number for “Marian The Librarian.” But most dances numbers are at least denigrated by the direction. Overall, there is too much action. Each shot is filled with so many people, it is often hard to know what to focus on. DaCosta is in love with the long shot, like he had never seen any films past Griffith’s earliest.
Another problem is Shirley Jones. Her singing voice is so much stronger than all the other lead vocalist that it doesn’t seem to belong. (This is distinct from the ensemble singing that is without exception fantastic.) There is also an acting discontinuity between Jones and Robert Preston. As long as Preston is playing the cavalier con artist, he’s just great. But at the end, when the two of them fall in love, his performance is stilted and unconvincing. In fact, it is so much so that all these years I thought he was gay.
The film is sexist as it could be, not least of which portraying the affluent women as hens. And there is not a single non-white character in the film. It also portrays the people of Iowa in a very bad light and generally has a low opinion of small town America. It is, in short, an extremely cynical movie with a sentimental ending tacked on. But in its defense, the ending could have been a whole lot more sentimental.
Having said all this, you probably think I hate the film. That’s not true at all. It works. And it works on a number of levels. First, there are the songs. Meredith Willson was a genius. There isn’t a single song in the film that isn’t a winner. And Willson does something especially well that most songwriters do really poorly or not at all: he writes great bridges to his songs. The only person who rivaled him was Richard Rodgers in his early years.
The script is also very funny and clever. The respectable women in town are against Marian because she reads things like, “Chaucer… Rabelais… Balzac!” It’s funny at the same time that they’re right: those writers are dangerous to their small minded views of the world. And the film does a much better job of providing a back story for Harold Hill, where we see that in a fundamental way, he is conning himself more than anyone. This is paid off really well when Winthrop asks Hill, “What band?” And Hill replies ruefully, “I always think there’s a band, kid.”
The Music Man is a nice film and I definitely think it is something that you should share with your kids. I just wish the adaptation to the screen that been better done as it was in 1776. And interestingly, that was the same situation: the Broadway director also directed the film: Peter Hunt. And for obvious reasons, Hunt went on to be a highly successful film director. But in terms of the songs and the story, The Music Man is better. Not that the kids shouldn’t be forced to watch both!