Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Meredith Wilson's THE MUSIC MAN: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1962) Warner Home Video

Robert Preston will forever be remembered as The Music Man (1962); that iconic and lovable shyster, doing his shuck and jive with smoke and mirrors for the simple folk of River City, Iowa, just another pit stop on his dusty trail of devious doings, until love unexpectedly intervenes. Few actors are as perfectly married to a part as Preston is to his alter ego, Professor Harold Hill: fewer movie musicals still as deeply satisfying or as heartily treasured as director, Morton DaCosta’s poignant and tune-filled potpourri, based on the small town recollections of its author; playwright, Meredith Wilson. The stage version of The Music Man utterly captivated audiences with all of the spellbinder's brilliance: a resounding, Tony award-winning success. It stood to reason, no one but Robert Preston could reprise the part for the 1962 film. Or did it?
Jack Warner possessed a rather annoying penchant for attempting to ‘improve’ upon stagecraft for the big screen. Occasionally, even his meddling could not break the magnetic stride of a Broadway original. Alas, as the sixties wore on Warner often proved his own worst enemy on such matters; as example, re-casting his elephantine movie version of Lerner and Loewe’s Arthurian fable, Camelot (1967) with actors who ostensibly could not warble a note; the added cache in acting prowess of a Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris quite unable to eclipse the iconic stage presence of Richard Burton and Julie Andrews.  Aside: there are still purists who believe Audrey Hepburn replacing Andrews for the screen version of My Fair Lady (1964) is sacrilege. But I digress.
On The Music Man, Jack Warner, and mercifully, the audience had absolutely nothing to fear. Though hardly a singer, Robert Preston - on screen - remained a charming enigma, emoting Wilson’s superb score on pitch, much in the way Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, and with the seasoned professionalism of a man who had already lived the part in his heart and soul, having played it a record 1,375 times on the stage to thunderous ovation. The Music Man is really a corn-fed yarn about that nearly forgotten turn-of-the-century bucolic joy of growing up ‘simple’ in a small community; liberally poking fun at the button-down conservative prudery of the Bible-belt and the high-stepping big city salesman who steps into more than he bargained for when he butts heads with Marianne, the librarian (played with spectacularly comedic austerity by Shirley Jones).  The chemistry between Jones and Preston is palpable, joyous and engaging; the production equally blessed for having been rounded out by an indelible roster; Paul Ford as the town’s befuddled Mayor, George Shinn; Hermione Gingold as his penetratingly pretentious wife, Eulalie Mackechnie; Buddy Hackett, as an unexpected ole friend of Hill’s, Marcellus Washburn; the caustically warm-hearted Pert Kelton as Marianne’s no-nonsense mother, Mrs. Peroo, and finally, the inimitable, Susan Luckey as the mayor’s oldest daughter, Zaneeta. “I didn’t know you were a speck-en-ing to me – e-gods!”
Even the lesser supporting cast are memorable; Timmy Everett harmless ne'er–do–well, Tommy Djilas, lighting firecrackers under Eulalie’s floor-length Indian garb during the town’s annual 4th of July festivities; Harry Hickox as determined anvil salesman, Charlie Cowell; Peggy Mondo, Marcellus’ portly paramour and pianola player, Ethel Tofelmier; Monique Vermont, as the pint-sized and pigtailed girl-next door, Amaryllis; Ron Howard, shades of Mayberry in his shy and lisping Winthrop; Charles Lane, as bright-eyed, elderly Constable Locke and last, but not least, the ineradicable, Mary Wickes, typecast as – what else… – busybody, Mrs. Squires. The sheer joys to be had in The Music Man chiefly derive from our quiet observance of these lastingly thickheaded and/or scheming characters intermingling against the ever-popular (perennially revived throughout the 1950’s) backdrop of small-town Americana; also, basking in the warm afterglow of Meredith Wilson’s instantly hummable score that includes the elegant ballad, ‘Till There Was You’, the rousing ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’, eloquently distracting salesman’s pitch, ‘Trouble’ and, of course, Buddy Hackett’s tour de force novelty, ‘Shipoopi’. Each teems with all the marching band pomp and circumstance expected if Tin Pan Alley ever met Norman Rockwell on a clear day in Kansas, or – in this case – River City, Iowa.
And yet, all of it might just as easily have come to not in 1962; the beginning of the end for movie musicals – particularly those set inside a homespun milieu of box socials and moonlit stolen kisses behind the barn. Throughout the 1940’s, 2oth Century-Fox had made a cottage industry of such storytelling; particularly with their uber-glossy Technicolor Betty Grable/June Haver cycle of turn-of-the-century musicals. In the 1950’s such excursions were less likely to succeed at the box office; albeit, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1955), costarring Shirley Jones, proved a formidable splash in Todd A-O and/or Cinemascope, and, Jones again would make something of the ersatz ode to Midwestern magnificence, this time alongside Pat Boone in the contemporary fable, April Love (1957). But by 1960, the appeal had worn thin – at least, at the movies. Movie musicals, however, were poised for something of a comeback, particularly in their lengthier road show engagements. These would continue to dominate the decade with intermittent victories until 1969.
At 151 intermission-less minutes, The Music Man isn’t a road show, and therefore proved something of a minor gamble to make, despite its Broadway pedigree. To keep costs down, Jack Warner elected to shoot the entire movie on the backlot and stage-bound sets; the town square and depot built for, and seen in, countless westerns, convincingly subbing in for River City. The Music Man is blessed to have been photographed in Technicolor’s own patented 4-track stereo, anamorphic widescreen process, Technirama, yielding superior color reproduction and a clearer image than its competing format, Cinemascope.  To helm the production, Warner made an interesting choice, turning to a time-honored stage director, Morton DaCosta, who had made the seemingly effortless – if all too brief – transition to directing films. DaCosta’s biggest screen hit to date had been easing a manic Rosalind Russell through a very big-hearted performance in Warner’s memorable hit, Auntie Mame (1958). After The Music Man, DaCosta would direct only one other picture; 1963’s forgettable, Island of Love, before returning to his first love – the stage.   
However, as production on The Music Man began, DaCosta faced an unanticipated challenge when costar, Shirley Jones surprised everyone with the news she was already a month along in her pregnancy and destined to become progressively more so as filming began. Undaunted, DaCosta shot the more elaborate musical sequences first to accommodate Jones' condition, thereafter instructing costume designer, Dorothy Jeakins to employ an elastic-stretching girdle that could gradually let Jones’ secret out while cleverly concealing the actress from mid-stomach down behind desks, plants and other props and paraphernalia. Meanwhile, choreographer, Ona White grumbled about co-star, Buddy Hackett’s inability to perform the necessary bell-kicks she had devised for his big song and dance number – ‘Shipoopi’. In the final analysis it mattered not – for Hackett proved an adept comedian, whose considerable girth and mugging antics were more than ample counterbalance for his lack of terpsichorean skill.
Arguably, The Music Man is a one man show; Meredith Wilson’s Americanized re-telling of the time-honored Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ re-conceived as an exuberant tribute to the likes of a would-be John Philip Sousa. Too bad Professor Harold Hill is actually a con artist par excellence who arrives in the pert, if nimble-minded town of River City Iowa as a spellbinder of a salesman…that is to say – a fraud. Elsewhere, Harold has sold subscriptions to boy’s bands, light-footedly absconding with the collected funds before a single instrument or uniform can be ordered. This bait and switch has made him many enemies across the Midwest, including legitimate anvil salesman, Charlie Cowell, who is determined to put an end to Harold’s illegal operations and restore the good name for all men who make their livings going from door to door. Harold’s introduction to River City takes some getting used to. Despite the relative snootiness of the populace, who collectively are brought to consider the ‘caliber of disaster’ innocuously lurking in their midst, exposed to them via Harold’s blistering condemnation of a billiard hall, destined to lead their youth along the path to self-degradation, the town’s mayor, George Shinn is as easily distracted by notions of establishing River City as a hub for modernity and culture. After all, his wife, Eulalie Mackechnie is the head of the ladies auxiliary; self-appointed as the arbitrator of good taste, condemning something as innocuous as Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám as “a smutty book”.
Harold promises a great deal to these town’s folk, wheedling hard-earned savings out of their hot little hands to secure an order of band uniforms and instruments delivered by the Wells-Fargo Company. He also pitches himself as a musicologist from the Conservatory of Music in Gary Indiana; the man who will mold this young and unschooled brood into a professional marching band. Harold’s one-time coconspirator, Marcellus Washburn, encourages Harold to ‘cheese it’ while the getting is good. He has no desire to see his old friend tarred and feathered. Also, Marcellus has since settled down into a semi-stable relationship with Ethel Tofelmier. Harold’s first order of business is to get the town’s perceived troublemaker, Tommy (actually, a good kid) romantically involved with the mayor’s oldest girl, the naïve and perpetually grinning Cheshire, Zaneeta; paving the way to true love by paying for their first romantic rendezvous at the local ice cream parlor. When Mayor Shinn finds out he is appalled. Great honk!
However, even as the whole town, generally opinionated and stubbornly remote, suddenly begins to buzz with a whirl of communal excitement about the band, the town’s librarian, Marianne Peroo starts to question Harold’s credentials. Her imploring falls on deaf ears, chiefly because she has been ostracized by most everyone for her one-time affiliation with a man known only as ‘miser’ Madison; an ironically benevolent and wealthy benefactor to the town, bequeathing all sorts of monuments and buildings, even a public park named in his honor. The town’s folk, however, begrudgingly suspect the widow Marianne was more than a casual friend to Madison who, on his death bed, left the public library to River City, but gave the contents of its literary masterworks to Marianne, who now presides over its hall of study with a stern determination to withstand the gossip and rumors.
In her spare time, Marianne also teaches music lessons. One of her pupils, Amaryllis, is sweet on Marianne’s younger brother, Winthrop who, owing to a chronic lisp, has remained introverted and extremely shy. Harold plies the ladies auxiliary with pledges to host the town’s cultural renaissance, a repertory of Grecian dances staged in Madison Park, appointing Eulalie as the head of the program. In doing so he, of course, immediately ingratiates himself to the mayor’s wife who, at the start, remained one of his most ardent skeptics. While Marianne cannot abide Harold’s flourish of self-confidence, finding his spellbinder’s ability to hornswoggle the entire town into following his lead irreprehensible at best, she begins to warm to his almost astonishing ability to get Winthrop to come out of his shell. Perhaps Harold has a heart after all – one inclined toward goodness…if properly swayed. In the meantime, Charlie Cowell has come to town. Informing Mayor Shinn and the town council they are about to be taken for a ride, an organized lynch mob is quickly formed to hunt the professor down in the street, just as Marianne is about to undergo a change of heart.
Dragged to the school gymnasium to stand trial and answer to these allegations of fraud, Harold is spared his confession when Tommy organizes the children to appear in their band uniforms. Earlier, Harold had filled their heads with the ‘think system’ for learning music; a fraudulent concept whereby the participants do not study notes on a page, but rather hear the music in their heads and are thereafter able to play it. Happy chance for all Harold’s unproven method of tutelage seems to have worked some sort of nominal miracle on this disorganized rabble. They do indeed manage a fractured performance that melts the town’s cynicism at a moment’s notice; the mayor and his council impressed and excited as to what the future may hold for their band. Exiting the auditorium, Zaneeta’s romantic fantasies about Tommy transform his rather meager duds into a sleek uniform. Likewise, when Harold exits he is renovated into the very incarnation of a grand band leader a la John Philip Sousa. The town rally along the sidewalks as Harold leads his elegantly attired marching band, stretching on to infinite; suggesting he has finally found his place alongside Marianne, the librarian and those ‘seventy-six trombones’.   
The Music Man is supremely satisfying entertainment with a capital ‘E’, galvanized by Robert Preston’s monumental and iconic performance. Preston, who had created and made the part his own on Broadway, brings all of his well-honed mannerisms to life for the movie, yet – and even more astonishingly – without even a hint of affectation as being rehearsed. Instead, we are allowed to witness an actor’s craftsmanship, succinctly in tune with his alter ego as second nature; the line between star and role completely blurred. Few actors have had such good fortune smile upon them. Yul Brynner’s emblematic King Mongkut in The King and I immediately comes to mind: Rex Harrison’s Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, the other. Preston’s Harold Hill belongs among them, chronologically sandwiched between their cinematic reincarnations.
Employing an iris lens fade-to-black trick previously mastered in Auntie Mame, to mark transitions and passages of time, director, Morton DaCosta creates a fertile bit of homespun escapism for The Music Man, perfectly invoking the world in which the play and film’s author, Meredith Wilson grew up. Fair enough, no movie is singularly beholding to its star to secure its place in history. We would also be remiss not to acknowledge art director, Paul Groesse and cinematographer, Robert Burke’s achievements. But The Music Man comes closer than most, almost entirely resting on formidable talents of one man’s service in this charming magic lantern show. Each co-star has been exceptionally well placed, and equally as well chosen for their parts. Although none are afforded a duration of screen time anywhere near rivalling the expectations of Robert Preston’s heavy load, miraculously, none are wasted or cast aside either.
What emerges is a wholly rounded, grandly amusing and thoroughly exhilarating ‘star plus’ show of shows. Yes, it’s still about the professor, the librarian and seventy-six trombones. But oh, what a marching band DaCosta has given us; what a fanfare, emotionally satisfying spectacle and bogglingly beautiful razzamatazz to precede it, bolster and follow this great fake around. Many Hollywood musicals have been as luxuriously appointed. Yet, too few hold up under today’s scrutiny. The Music Man retains its charm, its essential joie de vivre entirely wrapped up in its timpani, horse platoons, and slide trombones. As you read on, recall the image of this great American phony, having discovered himself in the cradle of the nation, reformed through love and set to the glorious strains of one of the greatest scores ever to adorn a bit of stagecraft and/or cinema. Then sit back and prepare to be dazzled yet again. Because The Music Man is a treasure chest meant to be unpacked and celebrated over and over again. All together… “Seventy-six trombones caught the morning sun…with a hundred and ten cornets right behind, there were more than a thousand reeds, springing up like weeds, there were horns of ev'ry shape and kind!” March on! March on!
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its tired ole DVD release.  Alas, its’ not perfect, nor does it represent the movie’s visuals as competently as it should. This 1080p transfer is razor sharp and reveals some fairly rich, bold and well-balanced colors. Contrast levels, however, remain just a tad boosted. Occasionally, we suffer more than hints of edge enhancement, particularly during the ‘Marianne, the Librarian’ gavotte. The Blu-Ray excels in its deep black levels and sports remarkable clarity with a stunning amount of fine detail evident in hair and fabrics. But the ever so slight imperfections already noted are obvious and, on occasion, distracting. Even less satisfying: the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is not lossless HD; something for which early Warner Blu-ray product was infamously underwhelming.  Extras are regrettably scant and have all been imported from the standard SE DVD from 1999, including the featurette, ‘Right Here In River City’ hosted by Shirley Jones.  

I cannot say enough about The Music Man. It is a perfect musical whose transition from stage to screen is nearly perfectly realized. The Blu-ray does not meet these standards, however. Bottom line: we need an updated hi-def release here. Aside: I could also rail against Warner’s abysmal cover art, attempting to homogenize its hi-def product with artwork that in no way is indicative of the glorious entertainment value to be had on the inside. Those viewing on smaller sets will wonder what all the fuss is about. Anyone attempting a more theatrical recreation in their home theater living spaces will immediately see considerable room for improvements. Judge accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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