Thursday, July 22, 2010

The 100 Best Movies: #56

56. The Music Man (1962)

This is one of my favorite musicals of all-time, so it is extremely natural that its stellar 1962 film adaptation would make it onto this list. The songs, the story, the cast of characters and even its very style are embedded in my memory ever since I first saw the film at a very young age. And the fact that all of it came from the mind of one man, Meredith Wilson, makes it that much more fascinating. Meredith Wilson was born and raised in the small town of Mason City, Iowa. He grew up loving music and eventually made his way to the Julliard School in New York City. After studying under some of the most famous composers and conductors (like John Philip Sousa and Arturo Toscanini), Wilson became a composer himself in Hollywood, where he met (and was mentored by) Broadway legend Frank Loesser. Wilson would entertain him with tales of the people he knew and observed while growing up in Iowa. Loesser insisted to Wilson that those stories would make good material for a musical.

Wilson had tried the idea on several different producers before Loesser got him in touch with producer Kermit Bloomgarten and writer Franklin Lacey. Lacey helped Wilson flesh out a more thorough storyline that would be more palpable to audiences. What they brought before Bloomgarten was the story of a con man who dupes a small Iowa town into believing he will start a boys' marching band. The producer saw the show as a vehicle first for Gene Kelly and later for Danny Kaye. When both stars rejected the idea, director Morton DaCosta had an idea. He took the risk in casting Robert Preston, who had mostly been a film actor in supporting character parts, as con man Professor Harold Hill. The show began rehearsals in the summer of 1957. To give Preston proper musical support (Wilson had written over 40 songs for the musical initially), they surrounded him with some the best dancers, singers and musical-comedy performers on Broadway at the time including the leading lady, Barbara Cook (who had been a critical success the year before in Leonard Bernstein's musical-flop Candide). The show opened in December 1957 at the Majestic Theater and was a massive critical and box-office hit (and Preston became a musical-comedy legend). It received several major awards including the Tony Award for Best Musical (beating the landmark musical West Side Story, which had opened 3 months earlier) and Tonys for both Preston and Cook.

After the huge success of the show, Warner Brothers bought the rights to the movie adaptation. The studio chose to have stage director Morton DaCosta and star Robert Preston repeat their stagework for the film. Preston's perfect performance (say that three times fast!) as Hill is so remarkable (see the above clip!) that it would have been a shame if he had not been cast in the film version (and it is a real shame he was not nominated for an Academy Award, but I digress). For the movie's leading lady, they cast movie-musical star Shirley Jones who, at the time, had just won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the dramatic film Elmer Gantry. Jones brings the same charm she had brought to #98: Oklahoma! to the role of Marian Paroo, the librarian who teaches piano lessons. Both leads are delightfully supported by a top-notch ensemble that includes the hilarious Buddy Hackett as Preston's sidekick, the scene-stealing Hermione Gingold as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (the Mayor's wife) and a young Ronny Howard (long before he was Oscar-winning director Ron Howard) as Winthrop Paroo (the character loosely based on the young Meredith Wilson). The movie-musical was a huge success and is fine representation of the good things about "Small Town America," good-natured and trusting people who look for (and find) the good in others.

Next Post: #55

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