In the popular, Oscar-nominated movie, "The Music Man," Robert Preston successfully recreated his stage role.
Opening on Broadway on December 19, 1957, "The Music Man" achieved a record with 883 performances. Largely due to its gorgeous music, it continues to be revived with great success on Broadway and elsehwere.
Preston plays an outsider, Harold Hill, a charming trickster who persuades the council of River City, Iowa, to organize a boys' band. "Professor" Hill pretends to be a graduate of the Gary Conservatory in Indiana, but he's actually a down on his luck salesman.
Driven out of town, Hill finds himself aboard a train. Asked, "how far are you going friend" he says, "Wherever the people are as green as the money." Arriving in River City, Hill encounters in the streets clean-looking and hard-working residents. "What do you do here for excitement" he asks. "Mind our own business," is one short reply. Mrs. Sheen (Hermione Gingold) the mayor's wife, rushes to the library to protest the kinds of books her daughter is given to read. "Keep your dirty books from my daughter," she demands, referring to a book of Persian poetry. Along with the town's respectable matrons, she stages educational American plays, playing the Statue of Liberty (with a torch in her hand), and an Indian. For hispart, her husband-mayor doesn't approve of his daughter's Lithuanian suitor, a low-class who lives "on the South of town."
The other stock characters include the spinsterish librarian Marian (Shirley Jones), who also teaches piano, and her widow mother, who reproaches her for still being unmarried. "Don't you ever think of the future He may be your last chance," says the mother, "no girl wants to be an old maid." Hill functions as a magician, a conman who's able to convert kids into talented musicians through faith. The same function was performed by Burt Lancaster's outsider-conman in The Rainmaker. An effective demagogue, Hill preaches, "Singing is just sustained talking."
Later on, confronted by Marian about his fabricated past, he confesses to his sin. But he also has to face her younger brother (Ron Howard); fatherless, he relates to Hill as an authority figure. "Are you a liar Are you a rotten crook" asks the kid. "Yes," answers Hill, "but I always think there is a band." The band, real or imagined, is the symbol of hope.
At the town's meeting, in which collective values are tested and reaffirmed, Marian speaks in Hill's favor: "You remember life before he came After he came, suddenly there were things to do." The outsider, symbolically named Hill, has changed the town completely, restoring faith and bringing excitement to humdrum lives. This outsider, unlike the con man in The Rain Maker, stays in town. "For the first time in my life," says Hill, "I got my foot caught in the door," a sentence conveying at once the exposure of his crookedness and intent to settle down. Directed by Morton Da Costa (who staged the Broadway musical), the film is over-literate, slavishly copying the stage production, with no knowledge or understanding of what makes a movie musical. Similarly, Marion Hargrove's script adheres too closely to Meredith Willson's play.
The movie's redeeming quality is its great musical score, with such showstoppers as "Gary, Indiana," “Trouble,” sung by Preston like a preacher, "Til There Was You,” and the rousing “76-Trombones,” performed during the tale's Fourth of July celebration.
As a movie, "The Music Man" is a largely photographed play, and a nostalgic evocation of what the film critic Arthur Knight described as "Rustic America as we would like it to have been."
However, released in 1962, the movie was congruent with the optimism of Kennedy's New Frontier. Needless to say, within a year, that optimistic mood would decline and vanish.