The Music Man in Retrospect
My recent viewing of Meredith Willson/Morton da Costa’s film The Music Man, for the first time in decades, forced me to reflect on my initial viewing (in 1962, the year of its release) with my parental family while I endured another insufferable summer vacation in Bennington, Vermont, about which more in a moment. At the time of this first viewing I was a young teenager, who would have much preferred an action film, or a hard-hitting drama of the day on the order of Birdman of Alcatraz. Suffice it to say I was displeased with The Music Man, which struck me as the musical at its very worst, a cloying, saccharine celebration of the good feeling which was then supposed to permeate American life. Sentimentality coated the film like maple syrup, making me detest it.
The following, very brief reflection is by no means a reevaluation of the film, since I have serious doubts that we profit from much close study; I am concerned for the moment mainly with the film’s attempt to display precisely what it wants to hide about American bourgeois culture, and the playing-out of its assumptions in the real world of the past half-century.
My contempt for The Music Man prevented me from seeing its important contradictions. Today it strikes me that The Music Man is essentially Elmer Gantry, with some important qualifications (the first being that it never comes close to Elmer Gantry’s level of achievement, an extraordinary film that I doubt could be made in the U.S. today). One film is an over-produced musical that wants to celebrate the goodness at the center of the Midwestern small town; the other an expose not just of the tent-show revivalism of the 1920s but of organized religion itself. Both films are about amoral but big-hearted con men who enjoy bilking gullible Midwestern rubes. Both films suggest that the moral fabric of the nation is flimsy, and that the nation’s leaders are ignorant fools. Both films star larger-than-life actors (Robert Preston in The Music Man, Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry). Burt Lancaster’s overripe, full-of-malarkey performance in Gantry is by far the more appealing than Robert Preston’s alternately unctuous and condescending Gregory/Professor Harold Hill, who has the supremely annoying habit, encouraged I suppose by the director, of jabbing his all-knowing forefinger into women’s faces. Lancaster’s presence in Richard Brooks’s adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel necessarily causes the film to elicit far more sympathy for Gantry than Lewis would think of permitting his character.
These correlations are mostly superficial, but in its important features, The Music Man can hardly conceal the assumptions it shares with the “serious” film, especially a profound contempt for bourgeois life. The Music Man even has a Gantry moment, when Robert Preston mounts a town monument of a bygone patriarch, informing the public of the moral hazards of pool-shooting as he breaks into the jokey sermonizing song “Ya Got Trouble.”
The musical comedy genre, at least in its “classical” form (and The Music Man is classical in the sense that it challenges few conventions, and is almost wall-to-wall with music that all but destroys the thin fabric of its narrative) often provides a platform for social criticism that we are never expected to become engaged in seriously (this is so common with the comedy – Leo McCarey’s Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! looks very much like a total condemnation of American life, a reading that a reactionary like McCarey would hardly encourage). Because it is a comedy, Music Man gets away with a great deal. We are invited to laugh at these goofy people who have no connection whatever to our lives. The caricatures of the film are immediately recognizable, their meanness and small-mindedness part of the everyday, but in the musical comedy they are merely silly cartoons disconnected from daily experience.
The project of celebration was basic to the film, described in any account of the movie’s production. Writer/composer Meredith Willson wanted the Broadway version, then the film, to be a tribute to his hometown, Mason City, Iowa, and to the “good old days” when people were neighborly, when good feelings were abundant, when possibilities were endless – it is no wonder that the Broadway show was mounted in 1957, at the heart of the golden age of postwar capitalist expansion, when nostalgia for a lost golden age was still possible. The celebration project was enormously successful. Although unremittingly crude to my ears, the film’s upbeat score produced hits for the pop charts (the Beatles recorded “Till There Was You” for their second album, unsurprising given McCartney’s we-aim-to-please inclinations).
Although The Music Man isn’t nearly as innovative within its genre as, say, The Band Wagon, it is notable in its absolute artifice. It is far too much to call the film “Brechtian,” but the saturated color, the fabrication of every element of the mise-en-scene (to a point that it is difficult, with the first images of the film, to take it seriously as an evocation of an idyllic pastoral yesterday) is transparent, as is its subtext. Subtext isn’t the proper term, since the film’s particular form of heightened realism makes it immediately undercut the wistfulness that is basic to its worldview. The people of River City, Iowa are all tight-lipped, ungenerous, bigoted, and stupid (with the exception of the heroine) – all the stereotypes of Midwestern small town life are insistently enforced. Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic is evoked – as the archetypal representation of Puritan constriction and repression. The mayor (Paul Ford) is bumbling and pre-verbal, the “old maids” are nutty, hysterical biddies. When the flim-flam of Gregory/Prof. Harold Hill is exposed, he is pursued by a torch-bearing mob, a chilling evocation of lynching that the film casually cites but doesn’t worry about a whit. (It is notable that there isn’t a black face in River City, a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers rather than a question of “standards,” since racial justice issues were by 1962 deemed very topical in cinema).
Placed in handcuffs, Hill’s trial dissolves with the pleas of the gulled townsfolk, especially the silly women, and the film suddenly forces an unmotivated ending as the people accept all of Hill’s nonsense about optimism and the basic sparkle of daily life. The crowd imagines itself decked out in gaudy clothes, with Hill leading his triumphant marching band. The notion of fancy band uniforms as the sum of the dreams Hill offers suggests the poverty of River City life at all levels, certainly that of imagination. The mob scene, and the notion that a man can go free because of his good looks, makes this film about sweetness and light profoundly amoral.
Yet the film is sometimes ingenious in its eroticism, especially Hill’s courtship of Marian (Shirley Jones), the prototypical repressed librarian who is red hot and waiting for the right man (Robert Preston?). (Not ironically, Jones just completed her role as a prostitute-lover of Preacher Gantry in Elmer Gantry.) In one fascinating scene, Hill stands outside of Marian’s house singing “76 Trombones,” one of the show’s anthems. The trombone, I think, is the most phallic of instruments, notably so for the back-and-forth action of the slide. We see Marian in silhouette in the window of her second-story bedroom, singing the love song “Goodnight, My Someone.” Suddenly the two switch songs, with Marian singing “76 Trombones,” she taking the “girl-on-top,” phallic position, and at the moment when Hill becomes feminine (his conscience kicks in) and is on the verge of being symbolically castrated. This is the cleverest sex joke in the film, the others too-obvious glances of the eyes, “clandestine” meetings on a footbridge, and the like. (Although one joke seemed to elude the censors – Hill tells his pal Marcellus [Buddy Hackett], who wants him to flee the town, that “I’ve come up through the ranks and I refuse to resign without receiving my commission” – the joke refers to sex with Marian, not his pay-off).
One of this film’s most significant show-stoppers, the one that gives the film greatest intertextual and historical resonance in retrospect, is the song “Gary, Indiana,” performed first by Hill to convince Marian’s doubting mother that he is of staunch Middle American stock, then by a little boy (Ronny Howard) who goes through the predictable cycle of idealizing, then despising, then loving, the outsider-hero (in the manner of Brandon de Wilde in Shane). The film could obviously not tell us anything of Gary’s future, although many of the left predicted it in 1962. Today the city is largely a wasteland of abandoned buildings. Gary, formerly a prosperous steel town, is now a horrifying victim to deindustrialization and neoliberalism – even its impressive Methodist cathedral is a ruin evoking the paintings of Caspar David Friederich.
Images of contemporary Gary are featured on the “reality show” Life After People (Season 1), a program that seems more about grooving on decay than offering any cautionary message – modern apocalypticism, like its antecedent forms, refuses to accept revolutionary change or even reform.
In Michael Moore’s important documentary Roger and Me, we see a large parade of local citizens clogging the streets of Flint, Michigan sometime in the 50s. The parade celebrates the achievements of General Motors, the company that made Flint a boom town. Moore put a GM-financed jingle of the period on the soundtrack; it celebrates all that GM accomplished, promising that the sky’s the limit, warning to ignore those vicious naysayers (like trade unions) who warned “this is as far as you’ll get.” Of course the film deals with GM’s abandonment of Flint and Detroit in the 1980s, making GM a key symbol of deindustrialization.
I mentioned Bennington, Vermont at the outset, the place where I first grudgingly saw The Music Man at the downtown Harte Theater. The theater, along with sections of the business district, burned down years ago (rumors of arson still abound). The once-thriving central commercial street, supported by the local textile industry, is gone, textiles having moved to southern, low-wage climes three decades ago. Bennington struggles to gentrify itself, using the summer tourist trade to hang on by its fingernails.
Bennington, Vermont and Gary, Indiana await other filmmakers, but their stories are perhaps too familiar, their fates too close to that of Flint and hundreds of other towns and cities in the U.S. Bennington’s and Gary’s destruction may or may not be chronicled for a mass audience, but at least we have The Music Man to remind us of the bogus consolations of the past, of the constant attempt by the capitalist state to co-opt critical perspectives, and to remind us that all is “just entertainment.”
My thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to Life After People, and for our talks about late capitalism.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He has published several books and writes for Film International and other publications. He is currently rediscovering the extraordinary work of Glenn Gould, certainly one of the last century’s most important musicians. His interpretations of Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Wagner, and Berg are without precedent and still without peer.
Suggested further reading
Christopher Sharrett, ‘Revisiting Tea and Sympathy: Sexual Paranoia in Fifties America’
John Bredin, ‘On Stifling Families, Diana Lynn, and a Killer Cat’
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, ‘Embracing the Apocalypse: A World Without People’