And sometimes: Exhilaration.
I love this movie. I love this musical. When the dorky animated credits start with the whistle blowing and the little toy marching band figures moving around, I enter another plane, securely in bliss from the opening rap—and it is, basically, a rap—to the closing “magical realism” marching band sequence/credits.
I don’t even like marching bands.
The story, in case you don’t know it, is that of a con man (Robert Preston) whose scam is convincing people in small towns to buy musical instruments and marching band uniforms by telling them he’ll set them up a boy’s band, and then absconding the with the cash as soon as the uniforms arrive. He sets down in River City, Iowa, a town full of grumpy-but-good-hearted (crusty but benign, I suppose Paddy Chayefsky would say) farmers and convinces them (with the help of an old associate, played by Buddy Hackett) that their town is imperiled by newfangled things like “Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang” (one of the original magazine/comic books which launched the Fawcett Publishing Company), as well as various trends in clothing and language.
This scene is, of course, parodied and re-immortalized in a classic Simpson’s episode “Marge vs. The Monorail”.
Our con man, who is going by the name of Harold Hill, is not a good guy. When he’s not evading the mayor and school board (who he turns into a barbershop quartet), he’s making love to the town librarian (Shirley Jones, looking and sounding divine) whom he believes is a “fallen woman”. He gets that idea from the nattering ladies of the town when he corrals their hen-party into a dance committee, but Marian (the librarian) is too smart and too suspicious to fall for his shtick, and threatens to undermine him even as he’s wooing her.
But—and here’s the thing that makes the story transcendent—it’s such a fine line between the thing and the illusion of the thing. To get the thing you have to be able to imagine the thing being there. And the Professor gets the whole town imagining something—I mean, this is an Iowan town! even if the same thing might be applied to dozens of towns across the west—where before their lives were farming, worrying about the weather and the occasional delivery on the Wells Fargo wagon.
And that, ultimately, is what this movie is about. The illusion is so good, it becomes the reality. And you can, of course, see the flip side of all of this: Harold Hill is the consummate politician, saying whatever needs to be said to get agreement, and producing nothing; or you could say in a world like today where people are constantly going through the motions of producing without actually producing, this premise seems much less charming.
But the essential truth is there: Before you can make something, you must imagine it.
None of this even speaks to the music, which is gem after gem. (The weakest number in the bunch is the one made for the movie, “Being In Love,” which Shirley Jones does an excellent job with, but which managed to not even get nominated for the Oscar.) I mean, if I think about it, I can rattle off great lines from every song:
Whaddayatalk? Whaddayatalk?Whaddayatalk? Whaddayatalk?
But he doesn’t know the territory!
So, what the heck, you’re welcome
Join us at the picnic
You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself
Oh, we got trouble!
Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock and the Golden Rule!
There’s not a man alive
Who could hope to measure up to that blend o’
Paul Bunyan, Saint Pat and Noah Webster
You’ve got concocted for yourself outta your Irish imagination, your Iowa stubbornness, and your liberry fulla’ books!
It is, of course, a great romance as well. Marian falls under Harold’s spell because she sees what it does to her little brother (Ronnie Howard!), which gives the spell more power than even Harold imagines it to have, including ultimately the power to capture him and make a new reality.
I’ve seen it before, many times—I think it was the first musical I ever saw, on a grainy 12″ TV in a mountain cabin with snowy reception at best—and I always see something new. This time I was struck by the comic genius of the ladies dance committee. They are priceless, both sympathetic as characters (for all their scurrilous gossip) and delightfully goofy in the loftiness of their cultural aspirations.
I’ve never really thought of it as an Independence Day movie, though I believe the big picnic is on the fourth of July (the movie takes place over about 6-8 weeks, I think, though it feels very much more compressed). More importantly, it is pure Americana: From the trains and the traveling salesman, to the farmers and townspeople, to the simultaneous suspicion and embracing of new things, and above all the dreams. “I always think there’s a band,” the Professor laments to Winthrop when the latter finds out he’s a conman.
The worst thing, though, would be never thinking there’s a band.