The Music Man: Even Con Men Can Sing.

The Music Man. 

A film review and discussion by Kate O’Brien. 

This film was directed by Morton DaCosta. It was released in 1962. 

I would call this film a classic, no questions asked. It is cheeky, it is funny, and Harold Hill is a character who you won’t forget in a hurry. 

If you enjoy films like Singing in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis, then The Music Man will be right up your alley. I love films like this. I don’t exactly know why. I love the costumes and I’m a big fan of musicals, but there’s something else about this kind of film that I really enjoy. 

I think it’s the element of pure escapism. This film is fun, it is bright, the songs are fantastic, and there’s enough conflict to keep the plot engaging, but overall it is just a lighthearted watch. Perfect for a rainy day. 

As always, there will be spoilers in this discussion. Consider yourself warned. 

Let’s dive into the plot. I think this film is very straightforward. The entire story revolves around Harold Hill. Hill is a charming con man and his biggest con to date is travelling around posing as a music teacher. He gets small towns all excited about the idea of a boys’ band. He sells band uniforms, instruments, sheet music, all with the promise that he is going to lead the best boys’ band these towns have ever seen. Here’s the catch, Harold Hill cannot teach music because he does not know how to play. He cannot read a note. That is how he makes his money. He cons the people of the town into spending a small fortune on their children and then he takes off. 

The film is set in Iowa, in the small town of River City. River City is the next stop on Hill’s list. 

He plans to con everyone in River City just like he has done many times before.

This time though, Hill is not so lucky because the Mayor is suspicious of him and spends the entirety of the film chasing Hill for his credentials. Hill also was not prepared to meet Marion, the librarian and piano teacher in town. Marion is not impressed by Hill’s smooth talking, she sees through him from the start. Hill certainly was not prepared to find himself smitten, but now he will risk ruining his schemes and getting caught so that he might have a chance at winning her heart.  

Marion is smart, stubborn, and knows her own mind. She has fallen victim to small-town gossip. Everyone has something to say about the fact that she inherited the library and the fact that she has not married yet. I will say, it is always slightly strange when watching films from a different time period as the age of when people married was significantly younger than what is common today. So it was slightly funny watching everyone treat this young woman as if she was far too old to ever find love. This is why context, especially the context of setting, is so important.

The other main character is Tommy. He is a teenager in River City. He is labelled a “troublemaker” by the adults of the town, again this is funny because we never really see him do anything bad aside from when he pranks one of his teachers. The prank in question being that he causes a loud noise at the school prep rally. Tommy is a good kid at heart. He has a crush on Zaneeta, the Mayor’s daughter, and throughout the film he helps Harold Hill dodge the Mayor and he ends up being front and centre of the boys’ band. 

Mrs Paroo, Marion’s mother, also features in the story. She is an Irish woman (the accent is questionable) and she is hopeful that Marion will find someone who makes her happy. While she hopes her daughter will be lucky in the land of love, she also encourages Marion’s independence and her love of literature. She also worries about her son Winthrop. Winthrop is a quiet boy who has a very prominent lisp. He struggles with his self-confidence because of this lisp, so Marion (despite her suspicions) and her mother hope that he will gain confidence if he joins Harold Hills’ boys’ band. 

In summary, this is a story about a con man in a small town. He thinks he is going to make a quick buck, but the people of River City pull on his heartstrings. He can’t con them. He ends up finding love and family in the place where he thought he’d find easy money. 

It is the perfect setup with the perfect combination of characters. 

The small town where everyone knows everyone. A confident, charming stranger waltzes in and ends up finding everything he didn’t know he wanted. A nosey Mayor who is determined to foil this stranger’s plans. A confident, independent woman who sees through all the well-versed con talk, and ends up finding someone who is a great match for her. The teenage Tommy and Zaneeta, the young couple who we are all rooting for. Great music, great choreography, and witty dialogue, all of these elements combine to make a perfect, lighthearted story that really never gets old. 

Let’s talk about the themes of the film. I think that it is easy to say that the themes of this film are the ideas of family, love, and finding the place where one belongs. I would also say this film shows how music can bring people together, and on a slightly more serious note, this film does demonstrate how moral panic can be created in order to manipulate a willing crowd – although this is done in a very humorous way. 

Harold Hill was money hungry. He never cared about the towns he flew through or the people he conned, he never gave it a second thought until the people in River City opened his eyes and opened his heart. A conscience develops over the course of the film. He falls in love with Marion, he wants to be with her. He has formed a friendship with Tommy and he wants everyone in town to see that he really is a good kid. He wants Winthrop to gain confidence too and he is ecstatic just like everyone else when he starts to speak more and more. 

His life becomes about more than just money. He finally finds the place where he belongs and the people he belongs with. 

Marion dreams of finding that special someone. Despite her suspicions of him, she finds herself growing very fond of Harold Hill. He has brought a sense of excitement to town and to her quiet life. She is delighted to see her mother and brother so happy. She is overjoyed when Winthrop starts speaking. Harold Hill is a great change of pace from the gossip in her life. She finds that he has expanded the horizons of the town, he has gotten people excited, he has gotten people talking. He has created a sense of community through music even though he does not know how to play. She finds her match. She can be herself with Harold. She can be independent, keep her job, she can still enjoy her books and her life, but now she has found someone to share it with.

Before I talk about how music brings people together, I would like to talk about the creation of chaos. The people of River City live quiet lives. It is a quiet town. There is really nothing to do but gossip until the day Harold Hill comes along. I think the most iconic song in the film is “Ya Got Trouble.” Harold Hill learns that a billiards table has just arrived in town. The Mayor owns the billiard hall. Harold needs to get the people in this stubborn small town interested in a boys’ band, more importantly, he needs to get these people willing to spend money on a boys’ band so he creates the idea that the billiard table is a huge problem waiting to happen. He causes a huge stir, we’ve got trouble he sings. Right here in River City. A billiard table is the gateway to gambling. The youth are at risk, we must think of the children and keep them away from the billiard hall. What better way to keep the kids moral after school than having them join a boys’ band? It is genius. It is so funny, the song is so catchy. It is incredibly quick. It is almost a tongue-twister to perform, but Harold Hill does it with style and elegance. He is a master of wordplay. He uses his quick-thinking and sharp wit to cause a frenzy. Suddenly everyone wants their kids out of the hall and in the band. They’ve done exactly as Harold Hill wanted them to do. This film demonstrates in a lighthearted, but clever way, how manipulation happens. 

This is how con men get away with it. They create panic, they create a problem where it does not exist, they cause a stir, and then they gain people’s confidence. I think one of the easiest ways to get someone to do something is to convince them that if they don’t do it then their kids will be in danger. I would say it is fair to assume that everyone wants the best for their children. Harold Hill even calls out to the mothers in town in his song, and now he has got people twisted in another way – If you’re a good mother, a good and moral mother, you’ll have your children in the boys’ band, because this shows how much you care for them. It is a brilliant tactic. This is a very lighthearted film, and all of this is achieved in a witty, musical way, but it is still a great, visual example of how moral panic is created and how mob mentality is fuelled. “We Both Reached For The Gun,” in Chicago is another fun, witty example of how people can be masterfully manipulated into believing something. I tend to think about “We Both Reached For The Gun,” when I hear “Ya Got Trouble,” and vice versa. 

The uniting power that music has is evident in this film. Music brings the entire town together even though it all started out as a scam. Harold Hill believes in the “thinking method.” The idea is if you think about something enough then you’ll be able to do it. That is how he avoids teaching the children any music. He tells them that first they have to think about playing. 

His confidence is very funny. Harold Hill does bring people together by bringing music into their lives, even though he did not do it on purpose. He sets up a barbershop quartet. The men who used to argue are now the best of friends who enjoy singing together and everyone in town loves to listen. He reminds the Mayor’s wife about how much she enjoys dancing. He gets everyone in town excited about the idea of a band, from the youngest of kids to all of the adults. Marion even points out how even if he did lie about his qualifications, and even if his intentions were originally to con people, he did still bring new life to the place. There is a bit of movie magic at the end. The boys’ do play their instruments despite never being taught how to play. Now to be fair, they don’t play them extremely well, but they do play them and that is a start. There is nowhere to go but onwards and upwards, especially now that Harold Hill is turning over a new leaf. The film ends with everyone in town enjoying a musical parade. The boys’ band struts down the town streets in their bright uniforms, playing their instruments proudly. It is bright, jolly, and lots of fun. 

I also want to give a special mention to the song “76 Trombones.” 

It is a great song. It always gets stuck in my head any time I hear it. It is so catchy. 

I think it is a song that just lifts any mood and gets you humming. It is a song that I would love to hear played live by a full orchestra. The Music Man is a film that I would love to see a full-stage musical adaptation of. I think it would be stunning in a theatre. 

Overall I think The Music Man is lots of fun. It is an easy watch. I think it is perfect for a rainy day. It is a little long as the run time is two and a half hours. Personally I don’t mind this, but I know that not everyone enjoys films that are this long. I’ve recently heard a lot of people say that they dislike when a film is longer than an hour and a half so if you’re going to sit down and watch The Music Man, this could be something to keep in mind. If you are a lover of classic musicals then this film is a must watch! 

Next week I will be reviewing and discussing The Banshees of Inisherin

I found this film to be extremely powerful and at times hard to watch, so I am glad that this review is quite lighthearted and easy, as next week’s review and discussion will be more serious due to the nature of the themes explored in The Banshees of Inisherin. 

After next week I will be switching things up and discussing some books and plays before returning to films. You can follow me on Instagram @katelovesliterature if you don’t already so that you can see what is coming up next here on Kateloveslitersature.com.

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