Sunday, October 31, 2010

1962 - The Music Man

Don't forget to vote for which year Matt vs. the Academy should tackle next. You can do so by selecting one of the options in the poll on the right. For my American readers, consider it a warm-up for the voting muscles you will be exercising on Tuesday... unless, like me, you are not a U.S. citizen and are therefore ineligible to vote ... in which case, just vote in my poll anyway.

Today, in lieu of any Halloween festivities, I watched another contender in 1962's Best Picture race...

The Music Man
Morton DaCosta
Marion Hargrove
(based on the Broadway musical by Meredith Willson)
Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, Hermione Gingold, Pert Kelton, Ron Howard
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
1 win, for Best Score (Adaptation)

Popular on Broadway, Meredith Willson's The Music Man centres on a travelling salesman who calls himself Professor Harold Hill (Preston). Arriving in River City, Iowa, Hill attempts to con the townsfolk into buying instruments and uniforms for a boys marching band that he promises to lead. Only thing is: he has absolutely no musical ability whatsoever (although, he does appear to be able to sing and dance). With the help of an old pal (Hackett), Hill evades the scrutiny of the Mayor (Ford), but for the plan to really work, he has to keep the town's only musician, piano instructor Marian Paroo (Jones), from exposing him. He decides seducing her will be his best bet.

'Extravagant' is the first word that comes to mind when watching The Music Man. Brightly-coloured sets and costumes, super widescreen cinematography, familiar toe-tapping tunes (Seventy-Six Trombones and Ya Got Trouble, for example), larger-than-life characters. It's one extravagant musical number after another. The result is that River City and its inhabitants appear to have a polished veneer. Yet this feeling of make-believe - common to Broadway musical adaptations - is incredibly amiable, thanks to a delightfully humorous tone.

Meredith Willson's music is imaginative and fun with many tracks distinguished by their brisk rhythm and almost mechanical melody. Lyrically, the songs are clever and interesting, sometimes downright strange. I mean, who names a song "Shipoopi"? (I have to shamefully admit that I was not even aware of that song until I heard Peter Griffin's rendition of it.)

Clearly, it was an enormous task converting this stage success to film, and director Morton DaCosta uses some innovative camera techniques for certain sequences, including several extended takes. However, there are other times when it seems that he doesn't make the most of his medium. Despite the energetic choreography, certain shots feel unusually static because of the simplified camera placement. It's almost as if the actors are performing like they would on stage, all huddled together facing the audience.

Nonetheless, the cast all embody their characters perfectly. Robert Preston is smooth and charming as the swindler who grows a conscience. The Partridge Family's matriarch Shirley Jones is sweet as Hill's love interest. The supporting cast, including Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, Hermione Gingold and Pert Kelton are all delectably comic. And little Ronny Howard (as he was known prior to his Richie Cunningham days) is adorably impressive, complete with outrageous lisp.

1 comment:

  1. For about ten years, I was a member of the Barbershop Society. Meredith Wilson was very highly regarded among the membership. Maybe it was his inclusion of The Buffalo Bills and their singing in The Music Man. Maybe it was his small town America roots. I must say that his music, as you pointed out Matt, is quite unique, particularly as it relates to rhythm and time signatures. The ingenious incorporation of the tempo of the train in the opening number is an example. The movie's signature song "76 Trombones" is slowed down and reworded for the ballad "Goodnight My Someone"

    It is hard to talk about The Music Man without Robert Preston. His road to the part was not an easy one. From writer Jeffrey Rovin: Before it opened on Broadway, the producers and director Morton Da Costa struggled to find a star. The wanted Danny Kaye, who probably would have been terrific in the part and able to handle the tongue twisting lyrics, but he was doing movies and not interested. They then approached Dan Dailey, Phil Harris, Ray Bolger, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Jason Robards, Art Carney, Bert Parks, Lloyd Bridges, Van Heflin, James Whitmore and Andy Griffith, all of whom said no or were not available. Finally, they offered it to Robert Preston, who had zero singing and dancing experience. But he moved like a marionette, every joint alive and kicking with such infectious energy that he won a Tony Award for his performance.

    Wow! I don't think I've ever read about a more involved casting decision. Yet despite his triumph, when the movie was being cast, once again the producers wanted someone else. They approached Cary Grant for the role, and to his credit, not only turned them down, but said that unless Robert Preston plays Henry Hill, he wouldn't even go see it. Preston is immortal in the part. He really deserved a spot on the Best Actor nomination list.

    Even though this was made in 1962, it is a throwback to those All-American shows of the fifties like Oklahoma and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Sure it is stagy and very stylized, but so entertaining. And gosh, Shirley Jones has such a beautiful voice an pretty face. She was pregnant during the shoot and creative costuming was required. It's nice to have some of these Rockwellian versions of America on film.