Discover more from innocence itself is no protection
Seduction, Corruption, Desire, Part 2: The Music Man (1962)
The seduction of small-town America, outsiders in love, and the expansion of the state
I may have left panic about my own sexuality behind, but I still fear being seduced out of my principles-- or being seduced into admitting I never had any. Which is to say, I project this aim onto people who desire me. I fear finding principles that make sense to me, even if they are opposed to the person I think I am.
The Music Man (1962) is, like last week’s One Two Three, also a film (and before that, a musical) about a silver-tongued con man getting his way, and in terms of macho chauvinism, convoluted lies, and propaganda about white America, it’s similar to One, Two, Three. It also came out just a year later, though its source material is older. But rather than a Sadist mauling of an innocent Kruschev fanboy, it depicts a mutual seduction between small-town America and big-city canniness, between staid, stony-faced settlers and the consumer culture that will give them an identity other than pioneers. In this case--if you haven’t seen it-- Harold Hill (Robert Preston), notorious con man, arrives in River City, Iowa with the intent of selling its children a lot of instruments on the promise that he’ll direct a boys’ marching band--though he plans to skip down before actually delivering. In a cute little irony, Harold Hill capitalizes on small-town close-mindedness and fear of big-city (and perhaps more culturally diverse) entertainment such as pool, dancing, and magazines in order to sell the promise of his boys’ band. The boys’ band, Harold promises, will keep young men from playing pool, chewing tobacco, and from dancing with “scarlet women” down at the armory. The remainder of the plot centers on him evading detection while falling in love and being persuaded that, rather than leaving to pull further cons, he’ll remain in River City and become a semi-honest man-- to actually create the upstanding white-bread musical wholesomeness that he has been faking interest in preserving.
I should mention, for everyone’s sake, that I’m familiar with this musical because I was in a production of it at age eleven, where I sang the misogynistic song “Pick A Little, Talk A Little” while wearing a hat with a dead bird on it. Olympia, WA in 2007 had a small but very self-important community theater scene. The gay man directing the summer youth production, Jeff, said I couldn’t wear glasses because they weren’t period accurate. Unable to see, I fell down twice onstage, and the dead bird flopped horribly down over my face. My best friend Mason, also eleven and also a pre-hatched transmasc, got to be in the barbershop quartet, because he was a tenor. When the gay man in charge of costumes, Troy, spotted him in his pinstripe suit, he intoned drily, “honey, you look like a lesbian.” Troy was disliked among the other Pick A Little actors. He had a habit of insulting everyone’s hair. Feathery layers were popular among teens in 2007, and Troy thought they looked stupid; he made everyone with layers wear uncomfortable, makeup-covered wigs.
Jeff, like Troy, was mean: the previous year, when I was cast as a very small Roman soldier in the summer production of AFunny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, he had snapped to my nine-year-old friend Sage that “people named after spices” shouldn’t criticize his choreography choices. Even outside of his choreography tyranny, Jeff made my parents uncomfortable. As a middle schooler, I assumed this was because he was gay. In 2007, my mother had not broached the topic of homosexuality with me except to ask if I was gay when she discovered I was keeping a dossier on a girl who played flute in school band. Even saying the word made her uncomfortable. I remember being conscious of a contradiction: Jeff was a cultural community figure-- he served on the City Council-- but at the same time, my parents didn’t like him or completely trust him. Was it because he was mean, or because he was gay? Or was it because we saw him hand in hand with a much-younger twink in checkered shoes at Old Navy? Nevertheless, much like the people of River City sign their children up for the boys’ band led by a mysterious stranger, my parents signed me up for a summer theater camp with Jeff, presumably to keep me out of trouble and culturally enrich me. And it did, in a way, though I did my best to overhear gossip and cause mischief in the long, cement-floored backstage hallways. The long hours of rehearsal with nothing to do also gave my friend, who I was in love with, lots of time to share his earbuds so we could both listen to Panic! at the Disco’s first studio album and read his brother’s Sandman comics.
[Video: I Constantly Thank God For Esteban]
The Music Man would not be nearly so interesting if it were just about a con man fooling a lot of stupid small-town idiots and then realizing that’s mean. Instead, there’s one person who sees through Harold Hill, and who he has to defeat/seduce in order to sell the children instruments; ultimately, she makes the complicated choice to love him even though she knows he is a con man, and trust him even though she knows he is untrustworthy. Part of this is informed by her own status as outsider in the town, and others’ unwillingness to trust her. Uptight small-town librarian Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones) is not seen as a local or decent, though to a modern eye she seems as buttoned-down and white bread as anyone else in Iowa. Idk; they say she is Irish.
Marian tries diligently to “improve Iowa City’s cultural level” after inheriting a library’s worth of books from a philanthropist she may have had a thing with. At the time she inherited the library, there probably was no higher education program around librarianship available in her area, but it does add a fun frontier recklessness to realize that she’s basically got this respectable public-service profession through chaotic rich-person sex nepotism. In the 1962 movie, Marian also lives in an astonishingly well-furnished and pretty house that this guy maybe gave her, which is good, because in exchange for running the library, it seems like Marian’s main reward is being called a slut for recommending Balzac. Despite Marian’s local bad-girl image, Harold Hill initially perceives her as virginal and Puritanical, and so finds it easy to dismiss her (accurate) criticism of him as a no-good con man. When he realizes that she’s actually cultured, research-oriented, probably sexually experienced, and possibly smarter than him, he changes tacks, and attempts to appeal to her sexual desire and sense of romance. He professes being in love with her to distract her from his scent, and while it starts as a con, his zeal gradually increases, until it seems quite sincere. This works; she falls. But he does too. Both of them are flawed in the eyes of River City’s community--her for fucking or reading stuck-up books about fucking, and him for being a smooth-talking scam artist-- and they enrich it anyway; Marian arguably puts more on the line (since she is already disliked in her town and vouches for a man who she knows set out to rip everyone off), but Harold is tied to her in his love. He sort of adopts Marian’s sybillant little brother Winthrop as his son. Curtain.
I found The Music Man kind of a cheap drama when I was eleven, and I still think it’s corny and ham-handed. What, I thought-- we’re supposed to believe Marian likes this guy? Now, as an adult, I can say I have fallen for that guy many times: someone who is from a world unfamiliar to you, who has experience and competence you don’t, who appreciates the ways you are unique, deviant or different, even if you know he might also be kind of flaky or has values repugnant to you. As an adult, I find a sad beauty in Marian’s song “My White Knight” (cut from the 1962 version, but etched into my memory)-- it’s a song about how she’s already decided to settle for anyone who is genuinely interested in her and can appreciate beauty the same way she can, even if he’s not “A Lancelot or an angel with wings.” Prim Marian’s values are ultimately not terribly strict; she knows what she actually values, though she also feels sour about Hill’s scam artistry. Meanwhile, Harold Hill says he actively wants everything Marian is-- someone canny, who can read the room and see what’s going on and understands who he is and where he’s been, who isn’t virginal and doesn’t need him to teach her new information. Watching this musical as an adult, it seems like a better love story, though beneath the tale of informed compromise and intelligent adults knowing and loving each other, there is still a lot going on, aesthetically and politically, that I hate. The musical argues that these two rough-around-the-edges, clever people are well suited for each other-- that’s good, I like that. It also argues that America’s destiny is bound up in the cultural improvement of white-settler small towns, and that one needs to commit to the project of loving these places, and building lives there, and building them up.
The Music Man’s real seduction is convincing the audience that this is good. It is about nostalgia for a time when trains promised progress (and were actually a functional piece of infrastructure), and of the assimilation of criminality and bad-faith unchecked frontier scammery into American order, white picket fences, and good faith. Like One, Two, Three, this musical/movie insists on an inevitability in this assimilation, though unlike One, Two, Three, it matters to The Music Man that Harold/Unchecked Outlaw America is really supposed to be sort of good at the end, and isn’t out of control. It’s a lot like cowboy movies in this way, though it’s set probably sixty years after most cowboy movies. It argues that dangerous men can be tamed by a combination of women’s sexuality and women’s ability to see the good in someone who doesn’t have a lot going for him. Rather than One Two Three’s “we’re pretty bad, but it’s the only option, so get on your knees” this is a movie about how someone who seems bad can be persuaded to instead become a family guy. Marian tames Harold, and brings him into a moral fold, even as he transforms her city. In return, she lets her hair down.
I don’t know why Jeff from my 2007 local production of The Music Man ended up in Olympia directing children’s theater; certainly he didn’t seem to like children very much. I’m also not sure why he became a city councilman, since he also had no small amount of disdain for local adults, who--for a variety of reasons--often returned the feeling. Part of this was because he was seen as a marginal, potentially deviant outsider; in 2008, there was an anti-gay mailer which smeared him for his sexual orientation and alleged he might be involved with boys at his theater. As councilman, however, he was in favor of order and the status quo. He advocated more condos and higher buildings in downtown, and he is still remembered locally for pushing anti-homeless ordinances which criminalized sidewalk loitering (still in effect). In an episode I mention only because it’s cinematic, protesters did civil disobedience outside his theater, where he was coincidentally playing the titular role in Scrooge: The Musical. In 2010, Jeff also informed on fellow gay city councilman Joe Hyer for selling weed before it became legal in Washington. But he did try to improve our city’s cultural level: it was at our local theater that I first saw Rent, Little Shop of Horrors, Annie, and Urinetown, and where I took acting classes for two years on weekends. Was my exposure to these pieces of popular theater, and to the creative freedom that theater classes gave me, worth the cruelty Jeff inflicted on kids? Is his art at all related to his small-town statecraft?
Marian’s position within River City really is to tame it, too. The impulse of philanthropists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to spit their names out all over public works and provide libraries or other institutions of learning or culture, had a lot to do with preventing Americans from noticing or commenting on the violence and exploitation they or others were subjected to in the process of settling, farming, and laboring on recently-stolen U.S land, and from keeping class consciousness from getting too feisty. In The Music Man’s nostalgic trip to 1912 Iowa, this role is remembered, though class and the racial/genocidal element of America’s project more or less disappears. As a white librarian, I’m part of this legacy too-- the president of my library makes 800K, we don’t send bookmobiles into many of the poorest/proportionately Blacker neighborhoods, and most of our booklists are still white authors, though we pay a lot of lip service to Diversity and Equity. But oh, is our library run by people with the best of intentions. Marian wants people to have pleasure in literature, and to be part of a bigger world-- this is why she sees the value in Harold’s art, even if it comes with a scam. Just like she can give in to Balzac, even if it’s seen as immoral, or Harold’s kiss, even if it seems a lot like on-the-job sexual harassment. Marian succumbs, understanding that her values and Harold’s aren’t necessarily diametrically opposed after all, mothering him into a new, harmonious relationship to (white settler) community. And Harold yokes himself to her local project, making a place for himself within it.
The feeling of giving in to things you know are ‘bad’ is an erotic feeling, sometimes, but mostly in fantasy. This is kind of my feeling with both this week’s and last week’s very propaganda-oriented patriarchal and nationalist movies. One, Two, Three appears to ultimately argues that, for all his flaws, American Macnamara is the biggest, most efficiently masculine dog in the fight, who will ultimately subdue and consume all the other dogs regardless of virtue-- he’s the imperial Father Knows Best, even if he’s lousy, inattentive, and a bad father. He might not be doing things the best way, but he will win, partly because he’s ruthless. I am repelled by this argument, politically, but it makes me hot for Otto’s narrative of helpless destruction/seduction, and for his helpless stupidity. The Music Man argues that intelligent straight people in love can improve the imperial project-- that the wedding of small-town settlers with big-city high culture will create an pleasant, indefinitely brass-band obsessed American white culture destined to nourish us all. I grew up in a town colonized in the 1890s, which has always been dependent on land theft, labor exploitation, and poverty; I am middle class and white; I resist these takes. I am still seduced, in my heart, by Marian’s informed decision to allow herself to be overcome by lust on the trust that she can change a reckless man.