The Music Man has long been seen as the quintessential American movie. The film, adapted from Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical, stars Robert Preston as a fast-talking swindler who takes an Iowa town by storm, convincing them to buy expensive instruments for a marching band with the intention of swindling them and leaving town—until a local spinster librarian steals his heart. Scholar Leanne Wood writes that the prospect of exporting the film, seventy-six trombones and all, as a Cold War “weapon” capable of converting the world to Americanism got some viewers as excited as if the Wells Fargo wagon really were coming down the street.
In movie form, writes Wood, The Music Man’s “idealized vision of life in the USA could be easily reproduced and distributed to audiences around the globe.” This view was shared by plenty of viewers, who felt the movie could be a kind of cultural diplomat that could help America win the Cold War by transmitting its values abroad.
Wood notes that movies were changing at the time, and Warner Bros., desperate to fight potential moviegoers’ new addiction to television, launched a massive campaign to promote the movie nationwide. From barbershop quartet and marching band contests to Harold Hill-like door-to-door promotions, the studio pushed the movie hard.
These promotions, in turn, represented an attempt to tap into a growing strain of conservatism that tried to maintain spaces of privilege for white males in a changing world. “River City’s entirely white world offered viewers a fantasy of unchallenged white privilege,” Wood notes.
There was just one problem—the America so briskly portrayed in The Music Man didn’t exactly exist. The flag-waving small town Americana portrayed by Willson was long gone by 1962, and Willson himself skewers jingoism and “traditional” values by showing how easily they can be punctured and abused by a con man. The film portrayed a pretend America, portraying questionable moral behaviors. So why didn’t Americans criticize those aspects of the film? Wood thinks it’s a combination of escapism and a desire to portray the United States as positively as possible at the height of the Cold War.
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At home, the Civil Rights movement raged and major societal change was afoot. Overseas, a nuclear threat lurked. No wonder the United States wanted to love The Music Man. By focusing on the seventy-six trombones, they could ignore the dysfunction in their own backyards—societal evils much worse than trouble with a capital-t-and-that-rhymes-with-p-and-that-stands-for-pool.
In a way, the reception of The Music Man and the eagerness to promote it overseas mimics the excitement of the parents of River City, Iowa who are duped into purchasing expensive instruments and paying a fraudster to “train” their children in music. The movie they wanted to love presented a world that hadn’t just died—it had never been real to begin with. By downplaying the movie’s rambunctious, subversive subtexts, messages that are as American as high school bands and musical theater, Americans fell for their own mythology as hard as River City fell for the charming charlatanism of Harold Hill.