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The Magical Music Man Movie

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Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

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The Music Man

2 hrs. 31 mins Comedy, Romance, Family, Musical 1962 7.7 stars

Director: Morton DaCosta

Writer: Meredith Wilson

Cast: Robert Preston - Professor Harold Hill

Shirley Jones - Marian Paroo

Buddy Hackett - Marcellus Washburn

Hermoine Gingold - Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn

Paul Ford - Mayor George Shinn

Pert Kelton - Mrs. Paroo

The Buffalo Bills - School Board

Timmy Everett - Tommy Djilas

Susan Lucky - Zaneeta Shinn

Ron Howard - Winthrop Paroo

Harry Hickox - Charlie Cowell

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Hill Hatches His Plan to Scam the Town

Professor Hill and Marcellus devise a scheme to sell to boys' band as an alternative to the pool hall - note it in the  background

Professor Hill and Marcellus devise a scheme to sell to boys' band as an alternative to the pool hall - note it in the background

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Synopsis Part I

The movie, set in 1912, opens up with an incredibly clever scene, a musical number known as “Rock Island”. The intent of the scene is to introduce us to the character of the traveling salesman profession especially as it was back in 1912. And within that scene we are introduced to the reputation of the main character of the movie: Professor Harold Hill (played by Robert Preston). As the train car full of traveling salesmen arrives in River City, Iowa and they finish their derogatory conversation about a con artist, Harold Hill, and what he has done to give their profession a bad name he stands up from among them, to their surprise, and bolts off the train before they can catch him while the train departs onward.

Harold Hill now meets Iowans in a song called “Iowa Stubborn” where he quickly learns, as the song states, “There’s nothing half way about the Iowa way to treat you when we treat you, which we may not do at all. There’s an Iowa kind of special chip-on-the-shoulder attitude we’ve never been without, that we recall. We can be cold as a falling thermometer in December, when you ask about our weather in July. And we’re so by God stubborn we can stand touching noses for a week at a time, and never see eye to eye.” This is the culture that Professor Harold Hill has escaped the train to stumble into. However, they conclude the number by telling him that he “really ought to give Iowa a try.”

Professor Hill goes to the livery stable to hire a rig, kind of like renting a car in today’s world. There, working at the livery, he runs into an old friend of his from back in New York, Marcellus Washburn (played by Buddy Hackett). Marcellus used to help Harold Hill, who he knows at Gregory, with his scams in the past.

We next get to meet two characters, Mrs. Shinn, otherwise known as Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn (played by Hermoine Gingold) and Marian Paroo, the librarian (played by Shirley Jones). Mrs. Shinn confronts Marian about the low quality of the books she has at the library.

In the evening Professor Hill and Marcellus are scheming about how they are going to sell this town on what Professor Hill is selling – a boys marching band complete with uniforms and instruments. Hill observes that a new pool table is being delivered to the billiard hall across the street and this gives him an idea, the very thing he needs to set up his pitch and in a brilliant salesman-showman sort of way he addresses the public about the evils of having a pool table in the town and what it will do to the morals of their young people, the temptation it will bring. Instead he proposes a boys’ band and he says he’s just the man who can arrange everything.

At the end of his speech he dashes off from the crowd he has gathered to meet Marian who is walking home from the library. He is interested in her, but she wants nothing to do with him whatsoever! Though rebuffed he is undeterred.

The Mayor's Wife Complains About the Library's Books

Mrs. Shinn confronting Marian, the librarian over the quality of the books she has in the library. Shirley Jones and Hermoine Gingold

Mrs. Shinn confronting Marian, the librarian over the quality of the books she has in the library. Shirley Jones and Hermoine Gingold

Synopsis Part II

Hill does cause quite a stir in River City, though, as he tries to promote his band idea to the town at one of their official meetings. He wins over the hearts of many of the town leaders, particularly Mayor Shinn (played by Paul Ford) and he gets a constantly bickering school board to cooperate with each other by forming them into a barbershop quartet (played by The Buffalo Bills). Professor Hill is being successful in bringing people together who had not been cooperative with each other in the past, but he was absolutely unsuccessful with winning the heart of Marian. He goes to sing to her at the library, but continues to strike out.

Marian has a kid brother, Winthrop (played by Ron Howard), who has an awful lisp and is as a result shy. Professor Hill is successful, however, at winning over Marian’s mother (played by Pert Kelton) when he sings of his Alma Mater in Gary Indiana. Eventually Winthrop warms up to the Professor and he’s particularly excited when the band instruments and the uniforms arrive on the Wells Fargo wagon as the whole town sings the “Wells Fargo Wagon” song.

When Marian sees the eagerness of Winthrop and the confidence that he has developed because of Professor Hill she also begins to warm up to him. She had been thinking of exposing him as a fraud; she had found proof of his dishonesty, but she destroyed that proof just before handing it over to the mayor.

Marian quickly realizes that Professor Hill, fraudulent or not was a nice man and she was falling in love with him. Then another salesman, an anvil salesman, named Charlie Cowell (played by Harry Hickox) came to town and his sole purpose was to expose Professor Hill as the fraud that he was. At first Marian was able to stop him as he was only in town for a few minutes when the train stopped, but he comes back and sounds the alarm convincing Mayor Shinn and the townsfolks that they have been duped by the professor. It was true that Hill had sold other towns on scam boys’ bands. Even Marian knew he was not to be trusted, but she was in love with him and she recognized all the good things he had already done for the town, instilling confidence and peace among bickering factions. And most certainly she appreciated his instilling confidence in Winthrop. Nevertheless he was chased by the authorities in town and captured. He had not taught the kids how to play their instruments, but merely encouraged them to think of the tune in their heads with the assurance that those tunes would eventually be produced on the instruments. Professor Hill called this the “think system”. Now, before the school board and the whole town, hand-cuffed, he was asked to have his boys’ band actually play a tune. He shrunk away from going through with this, but Marian encouraged him. So he got up and began to conduct. Well, the boys started to play and though they were uncoordinated they were able to produce the tune they intended, the “Minuet in G”. Though the boys were untrained, they nevertheless, touched the hearts of their parents who perceived their own child’s music as wonderful, though clearly to us it was not. Perhaps they caught a part of Hill’s ‘think system’ because his magical hypnotic wizardry worked on the parents as well as the boys. Either way the parents were elated to hear their children produce the song even in its rudimentary form. From there the band continued to improve culminating in a rousing reprise of the movie’s theme song, “76 Trombones”. Professor Hill was vindicated and they all lived happily ever after.

Winthrop and His New Cornet - Hill has Won Him Over (and Marian too)

Winthrop's excitement wins over Marian.  Ron Howard, Shirley Jones (Paul Ford in the background)

Winthrop's excitement wins over Marian. Ron Howard, Shirley Jones (Paul Ford in the background)


Any musical will feature songs more prominently than its plot. The songs of The Music Man have endured over the years and have become well known even outside of its movie context. Many of the tunes introduced to us in this movie have been inducted into the collection of things we refer to as “americana”. With each musical I’ve seen for the first time I’ve had the experience of thinking to myself, “Oh, this is where that song comes from.” In the Music Man it happens a lot! After all, there are more than 20 songs in the movie.

The movie strikes a good balance of several types of entertainment. It has comedic silliness; it has romance. It makes you laugh; it touches your heart. Here we’re given a taste of early 20th century life in small town middle America with a little magic interwoven in its realism.

Personalities are over-the-top and in the case of Professor Harold Hill the personality exceeds our expectation. There is a talent to salesmanship and Hill has it in spades. He could sell anything. Herein is some of that magic I just spoke of because Professor Hill is able to create a need and then provided a solution. Additionally he is able to create a certain amount of gullibility amongst the people of River City which in turn induces them to pay him for what he does not have and is not able to give them: the talent and training of a boys’ band.

But his persuasive words and complements do work a sort of magic in repairing relationships – like getting the school board to work together, or getting Winthrop to believe in himself and have confidence. It may come as a surprise to the professor himself that he is able to work these little miracles.

Professor Hill’s persuasive secret can be found in his own words spoken in his half speech-half song number, “Ya Got Trouble”. Hill uses the incident of the local billiard hall getting a pool table as an illustration of the growing degradation of the young people in town. He draws a strong distinction between billiards and pool and happily reflects on his time as a billiard player and herein is his secret. He states, “I consider that the hours I spend with a cue in my hand are golden, help you cultivate horse sense and a cool head and a keen eye…” The cool head and keen eye and the horse sense describe Hill perfectly and these traits are used in every exchange he has. If there’s one outstanding characteristic of Hill it’s his quick ability to see a person and divine what that person’s needs are. Time and time again he reads a person like an open book. He, being the salesman that he is, exploits that person’s need because he always has the solution. This is his keen eye and the horse sense.

Nothing ever rattles him. In order to sell his boys’ band he merely creates a need for one and then he provides a solution. He has a bickering school board to work with, but it’s no problem to him. He merely helps them to see that they make a fine barbershop quartet. He then cavalierly says, “from now on you’ll never see one of those men without the other three”. Can he train the boys to play music? He’s never done that before, but it’s no problem for he has “the think system” which will surely do the trick. These are examples of the cool head.

The think system was Hill’s way of training the boys in music. It sounded good the first time it was mentioned, but the professor only wanted an answer to give when questioned about teaching. Surely there needs to be knowledge and practice to play an instrument, right? However, there are experts who most definitely espouse at least the internal visualization of the music being played as a method of learning to play, probably not the only method as professor Hill claims, but as a tool. After all doesn’t Proverbs 23:7 say, “As he [a man] thinketh in his heart so is he”? (KJV). Maybe Professor Hill was on to something. In any event it worked for him in River City where they boys did play, impressively!

Professor Hill came to terms with himself in River City. He had always been a ladies man but he fell in love with Marian. Her heart was touched when she saw confidence sprout in Winthrop, but she was not the only one. Hill’s heart was also touched by Winthrop. Hill did not want to move on to the next town as he always had in the past. Now he wanted to stay. River City captured him as it had captured his friend, Marcellus. They both wanted to settle down right there in River City, and they did!

So many songs from this musical have entered the repertoire of americana. The most famous of these is “76 Trombones” which serves as the theme song of the movie. It is reprised at the triumphant ending to the movie and serves as the background for the curtain call scene. But other songs are also well known and would be familiar to the ear whether or not one has seen the movie, “Good Night Ladies”, “Good Night My Someone”, “Till There Was You”, “The Wells Fargo Wagon” and “Gary Indiana” just to name a few. The songs in this movie are often accompanied by footage that uniquely depicts what is being stated in the lyrics and in some cases the singing style itself does the same. The director has produced a three-way approach to us in those songs. We’re approached intellectually, and then that is supported with unique visuals and audios.

An example of this is seen in the song “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little”. The ladies sing about gossip in the town by gossiping. The director then gives us the visual of chickens picking which goes along with the cadence of the song, thus equating the picking of the gossip with the picking of the chickens with music that sound like picking, by ladies whose hats are so full of feathers as to suggest chickens picking.

Another example is “Rock Island” was at the time written a unique style of song – not sung so much as spoken, rhythmically spoken. Today we would say it’s ‘rap’, but that concept did not exist then. What the song does is mimic the actions and sounds of the train it’s filmed on. The cadence of the words being said matches the cadence of the wheels on the track. When the train slows down to stop and lets steam out that sound is mimicked in the singer by drawing out the “s” in the phrase he says, “Yes sir, yessss sir”. It’s a very cleverly produced piece.

The casting in this movie is also fantastic. Could there have been better actors for Professor Hill and for Marion Paroo? I don’t see how. Robert Preston owned this role from when it played on Broadway. By the time the movie came out he had to have mastered the gestures and nuances right down to the very facial expressions themselves. Shirley Jones showed great versatility in her role as icy librarian who can, when needed, use her feminine wiles, in a way that’s most definitely not icy.

The Final Scene - The 76 Trombones March

The boys' band marches in their magically acquired uniforms

The boys' band marches in their magically acquired uniforms

Marian and Professor Hill Leading the March

Shirley Jones and Robert Preston

Shirley Jones and Robert Preston


Gleaned from IMDB’s trivia section:

Despite Robert Preston’s Tony-award winning performance in the Broadway production, Warner Bros. executives wanted a bankable star in the lead role of Professor Harold Hill for the movie. Frank Sinatra was offered the part, but turned it down. Cary Grant was also approached, but told the Warner Bros. executives, "Not only will I not star in it, if Robert Preston doesn't star in it, I will not see it." Preston finally got the part, and the movie was a big success, despite Warner Bros' misgivings.

The two songs "76 Trombones" and "Good Night My Someone" are the same tune, played in different tempos. Meredith Wilson used this technique to present a masculine and feminine slant on the on the events surrounding Harold Hill's arrival in River City and his budding relationship with Marian.

Rock Island

Ya Got Trouble

Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little; Good Night Ladies

The Wells Fargo Wagon

Iowa Stubborn

Marian the Librarian

Gary Indiana


Steve Bertsch on April 15, 2020:

watched the movie last night: truly a classic, and the music, acting, scenery, and story were magical! a true romance!!

Steve Bertsch on April 13, 2020:

Great review. Brings back so many memories of a good movie when i was just a lad. It truly is a classic, one that ... to coin a famous expression, "will go down in infamy!"

I will def have to watch it again sometime!

Thanks Dusty... and could u please dust off ur hat? wink, wink! har, har!!!

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