Is there any more wholesome all-American family movie than The Music Man? Set in an idyllic small town in the early years of the 20th century, it features no violence or foul language. Robert Preston exudes decency even while playing a con man. Buddy Hackett also appears and does not work blue. There is aimable broad comedy, romance unsullied by sex, a running gag involving a barbershop quartet, and of course a happy ending. For my money, the last twenty minutes or so drag, but this is a movie you can watch with grandma, and the musical numbers are solid throughout.
The best one is “Trouble in River City”, in which Harold Hill senses an opportunity in the people of River City’s unswerving belief in their own decency sets about exploiting it. You’ve probably heard the song before, but here, listen again. In part for the sheer joy of it–and to marvel at the way every cell of Preston’s body radiates effortless grace–but also pay attention to the surface, to what’s going on in the plot.
Here’s the dialog from just before the song begins.
–I need some ideas if I’m going to get your town out of the serious trouble it’s in.
–River City ain’t in any trouble.
–Then I have to create some. I must create a desperate need in your town for a boys’ band…So why does everyone keep rubbering into the billard parlor?
–Oh, they just got in a new pool table.
–They must have seen a pool table before.
–No, just billards.
–That’ll do it.
One of the jokes in the marvelously intricate patter that follows is the contrast Harold Hill draws between the honest decency of billards and the wanton sinfulness of pool, a tactic that gets the crowd riled up while leaving those of us in the contemporary audience thinking, “Wait a minute–I thought billards was pool.” Was there some early 1900s difference between the two games that the ensuing decades have effaced, or is Harold Hill such a genius that he’s able to spin one up on the spot? It doesn’t matter. In order to exploit people Hill needs them frightened, and in order to frighten them he merely calls attention to the most recent new thing that has appeared in their lives. There’s nothing special about pool. If he rolled into town today it would be sexting.
The Music Man should be mandatory viewing around election time, because it gets the mechanics of moral panic exactly right, and the fact that its trenchancy comes wrapped in such a sincerely square and old-fashioned package makes it subversive. What’s more there’s something distinctly liberal about it, and not simply because liberals have a monopoly on subversiveness (any more than conservatives have a monopoly on dogmatism and groupthink) but because its critique of the interaction between piety and novelty is a distinctly leftist† one. So right wing media bias hawks take heart: you’ve been proved correct. The rootless cosmopolitans have been running Hollywood all along.
† In the right-wing version of The Music Man, there would have been a pool table in town for years and Harold Hill would convince the townsfolk that pool was now considered unsophisticated.