The Music Man is a musical about a traveling salesman, “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston), who is also a con artist. According to his nemesis, Charlie Cowell, an anvil salesman, Hill’s latest swindle is to sell small towns on the idea of a boys’ band. After collecting money for the musical instruments and for the uniforms, he leaves without fulfilling his promise to teach the boys how to play because he doesn’t know one note from another. In so doing, he ruins things for legitimate salesmen like Cowell, who get chased out of town by citizens ready to literally tar and feather them and run them out on a rail.
But, Cowell goes on to say, just as the train that he and other salesmen are on crosses the state line, Hill wouldn’t have the nerve to try to pull that stuff in Iowa on account of the surly, no-nonsense people that Hawkeyes are known be. Unbeknownst to him, Hill is also on the train, and he cannot resist the challenge, so he disembarks before Cowell and the other salesmen can put their hands on him.
Hill’s first encounters with the citizens of River City make it clear to him that this will be a tough sell, so he needs to create a problem that he can then promise to alleviate by means of a boys’ band. When he hears that a pool table is being added to the billiard parlor, he creates a distinction between billiards, which improves the mind and builds character, and pool, which encourages sloth and introduces young men to the ways of sin. A boys’ band, he promises the townsfolk, will keep their sons away from the pool table.
Hill learns that a big obstacle to his plan will be the town librarian, a maiden who gives piano lessons, wears glasses, and will see right through him. Hill realizes he will have to make love to her to keep her from spoiling his plans, which he will be more than happy to do when he finds out how beautiful she is. Said librarian is Marian (Shirley Jones), the only person in town of any appreciable intellect. She has somewhat scandalized the town because it is falsely rumored she had an affair with “Old Miser Madison,” an unappreciated philanthropist, who gave the town their library, but who left the books to Marian for their safekeeping. Many of these books are regarded as being of a salacious nature, though we recognize them as classics.
Marian lives with her mother and her brother, Winthrop (Ron Howard), who is unhappy and withdrawn because he has a lisp. Her mother is exasperated with Marian’s high standards regarding men, which may result in Marian’s becoming an old maid. Marian, on the other hand, simply wants a man who will love her and not merely be interested in possessing her sexually.
Marian finds proof in a reference book that Hill is a fraud just as the musical instruments arrive in town. She is about to expose him, but then she sees how happy Winthrop is, and how he is no longer afraid to express himself on account of his lisp. She tears the incriminating page out of the book and keeps it to herself. Moreover, she realizes that everyone in town has become happier on account of Hill’s presence, leading her to start falling in love with him.
Hill and Marian make up a sexually dangerous couple, dangerous in the sense that we fear that he will take advantage of her. As Cowell says to Marian later in the movie, “That guy’s got a different girl in every county in Illinois, and he’s taken it away from every one of them.” The pronoun “it” in that sentence has no antecedent, but we may assume it to be their virginity. Hill and Marian stand in contrast to a sexually safe couple, Tommy and Zaneeta. Zaneeta is the daughter of Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford), who doesn’t want his daughter having anything to do with the likes of Tommy. But we know that there is no danger that Tommy would seduce Zaneeta and then abandon her. Instead, we figure they will end up happily married.
Hill’s only instruction to the boys with their new instruments is what he calls the “think system.” He tells them to think Beethoven’s Minuet in G. Eventually, the uniforms arrive, money is collected, and it is time for him to abscond, but not before collecting what he calls his “commission,” which involves some dalliance with Marian. He gets her to meet him at the footbridge, a rendezvous for young lovers, a bridge where young girls cross over to the other side, as it were. They start kissing. But then he finds out that she knows he is a fraud, yet she doesn’t care, owing to the happiness he has brought her and others. She pulls the incriminating page out of her bosom and hands it to him, saying, “I give it to you with all my heart.” Soon after, they learn that Cowell has informed the townsfolk that they have been bamboozled. As a result, they are now looking for Hill to tar and feather him. Marian tries to get him to run, assuring him that she understands and that it is all right.
I believe we are supposed to use our imagination here. It would be no big deal for a traveling salesman to kiss a woman a couple of times and then leave town. In other words, it was not merely the page kept in her bosom that Marian gave to Hill, but herself as well. Only when understood in that way is her telling Hill it is all right for him to leave her of any significance. Furthermore, the way the scene is filmed is also suggestive of this interpretation. As Hill and Marian kiss while standing on the middle of the footbridge, and it is a kiss of sensual longing, we see their reflection in the stream below. Something drops onto the stream, distorting the image to the point that it is just a blur. This is reminiscent of the fireplace trope, in which the camera pans away from the kissing couple and focuses on the fire, allowing us to imagine that they are having sex. When the image becomes clear again, their expressions have changed, and they seem to be in the afterglow of sex, as reality slowly begins to set in once more. Now aware of the cool night air, she asks Hill to walk her home so she can put something on to keep her warm.
The fact that Marian let Hill “kiss” her while knowing he is a fraud causes him to fall in love with her, which in turn keeps him from leaving town before the mob can get to him. The townsfolk are about to tar and feather him, but they think better of it when they slowly realize, as Marian has, that Hill has brought them a lot of happiness. Still, he did cheat them out of the money paid for musical instruments and uniforms.
But then the boys’ band appears in their cheap uniforms. They manage to play a rather sad version of the Minuet in G. One by one, however, the parents of the boys get excited by the fact that their sons are actually playing in a band. In their imagination, the boys become accomplished musicians outfitted in brilliantly colored uniforms, led in a parade by Hill, arm in arm with Marian.
At this point we might note that it is not only the dreams of the people of River City that come true regarding the boys’ band, but the dream that Hill has had as well, for earlier in the movie we see him fantasizing about actually being a band leader, and then feeling disappointed that he is not.
What exactly is this movie telling us? That by being the victim of a fraud we can find happiness? There is no question but that people sometimes think they have found happiness while they are being swindled, only to be brought to grief when later they discover they have been lied to. The misery they experience then makes a mockery of their false happiness, which they would have been far better off without. Winthrop’s tears when he finds out the truth are a gesture in that direction, but Marian is able to persuade him and everyone else that they are better off for what Hill has done.
Or is this movie telling us that as long as we realize we are being victimized, that makes it all right? Finally, if both the con artist and his mark have the same wish, which is that the promises of the con man actually be fulfilled, will that make those promises come true? Is that the key to happiness?
Perhaps my saying that the movie is “telling us” something is inapt. Rather, we might better ask ourselves why this story appeals to us. Why do we enjoy the fantasy that by succumbing to a fraud we can find love and happiness? The movie could not successfully tell us this or anything else were we not already receptive to it.
While I was mulling this over, I kept getting the feeling that the movie reminded me of something. Finally, The Rainmaker (1956) popped into my head. It has the same formula, so let’s review it first, before trying to understand the message that these two movies have in common. The con artist in this movie is Bill Starbuck (Burt Lancaster). His thing is to get farmers to give him money to make it rain. But just as Harold Hill could not read a note of music, Starbuck has never been able to make it rain. Hill had to manufacture a problem to be solved, the morally corrupting influence of pool, whereas the problem in The Rainmaker is real, a drought.
Corresponding to Marian is Lizzie (Katherine Hepburn), a woman who is in danger of becoming a spinster. According to her father and two brothers, she is too intelligent for her own good, which was pretty much the same attitude Marian’s mother had toward Marian. The idea is that a man doesn’t like it when he meets a woman that is smarter than he is. That’s probably true. I don’t know what I’d do if it ever happened to me. In any event, in addition to being a major reason for still being unmarried, the intelligence of these two women is essential for our believing that they knowingly allow themselves to be taken in by the con.
Lizzie’s older brother Noah (Lloyd Bridges) corresponds to Charlie Cowell. He is the one who knows Starbuck is a swindler and is the one most against him. Her younger brother Jim (Earl Holliman) believes Starbuck can make it rain, and he even helps out by beating a drum. He and his sweetheart, Snookie Maguire, constitute the sexually safe couple corresponding to Tommy and Zaneeta in The Music Man, as opposed to the sexually dangerous couple, Lizzie and Starbuck.
Starbuck gets Lizzie’s father to pay him to make it rain, while allowing him to sleep in the barn for the time being. While Starbuck works his gizmos, Lizzie’s father and brothers try to get Deputy File (Wendell Corey) to come to dinner, but he cynically says he does not want to get married. Lizzie is humiliated when she finds out, and in her frustration turns to Starbuck. Like Marian, she knows Starbuck is a fraud, but he makes her happy by seducing her.
In the end, Lizzie’s father and Jim realize that Noah was right, that Starbuck is a fraud, but because of the happiness he brought Lizzie, they do not want to press charges, and even Noah goes along with that in the end. Starbuck gives them their money back and leaves. But no sooner does he get about a mile out of town than it starts to rain. Just as the boys’ band is actually able to put on a great performance at the end of The Music Man after the townsfolk are willing to let Hill go, so too does it start to rain in this movie after Lizzie’s family is willing to let Starbuck go. Just as Hill wished he actually were a band leader, so too has Starbuck wished all along that he could actually make it rain. Filled with jubilation, he returns, collects the money, and asks Lizzie to come with him. At the same time, Deputy File realizes he loves Lizzie and asks her to stay. She accepts, realizing that Starbuck was just for a night, not for a lifetime. This is, perhaps, the main difference between the two movies: Hill and Marian are together at the end of The Music Man; Starbuck and Lizzie are not together at the end of The Rainmaker.
Now let us try to answer the question raised previously: What are these two movies trying to tell us? That we should allow ourselves to be victims of a fraud because it will make us happy? That when we know the swindler for what he is, and when he knows that we know, his flim-flam will be transformed into reality, and his dishonorable intentions will turn into true love? This cannot be the message of these two movies because it is all too obvious that it just isn’t so.
Furthermore, if that were the message, the sexually safe couples in these two movies would serve no function. Both movies were made before the sexual revolution, a time in which couples were supposed to wait until they got married before having sex. Furthermore, both movies were set at an earlier period than when they were made, 1912 for The Music Man and in the 1930s for The Rainmaker, in which we may imagine that the prohibition against fornication, especially for women, was even stronger. In The Music Man, the safe couple in question are so innocent that it would never occur to us that they would actually have sex, but in The Rainmaker, the required sexual restraint is made explicit when Jim tells how he almost had sex with Snookie, but then stopped because he realized that would be wrong. Therefore, we are supposed to regard what happens with the dangerous couples as being exceptional and not behavior that should be emulated. And Lizzie’s subsequent rejection of Starbuck’s offer for her to come with him in favor of staying put and marrying Deputy File underscores that point.
Though we pay scant attention to the subplot of the sexually safe couples in these two movies, yet they allow us to indulge the fantasy of giving in to a seduction, first in the form of the sexually dangerous couple, and then in the form of the promises of a swindler in general, by reassuring us that prudence and the moral order still prevail. Unleavened by the sexually safe couples, these stories might have been taken to suggest that we abandon all reason and live in fool’s paradise. This we would be unable to go along with, and the fantasy would be spoiled.