Accentuate the Positive
Proposing the essential classics of American musicals raises all sorts of questions on what constitutes an American Musical along with overworked ideas of what it means to be American. To cut to the quick, by “American Musicals” Warner Home Video means shows of an idealized turn-of-the-century WASP-y middle-American life, as represented by The Music Man, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Contagiously enthusiastic and dripping in popular folk idioms, the set celebrates wholesome values laced with occasional Mark Twain-style cynicism. It’s the most carefully realized of Warner’s Essential Classics sets, even if the execution is a little slap dash. (No attempt is made to hide the fact that two of the discs are plopped in from older multi-disc sets and you may find yourself looking for nonexistent bonus materials.)
This is a conformist America as it was defining itself in the mid 20th century, a young superpower looking backwards for grounding. The characters are brash and loud and charismatic. They are thoroughly comfortable in their stock stereotypes. The heroes speak in cleaned up, outdated slang and reference long gone detritus like Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang. The men are on the make and the women are there to keep them in their place. The scope of racial diversity is typified by the omnipresent Irish brogue and a community where Lithuanians are seen as racially exotic and temperamentally suspect. The characters can-do work ethic is mirrored in the technical precision of the actors, the polish barely shaking off the relentlessness of the studio system and the Broadway stage. Their hard work conceals the effortlessly high-low aesthetic infused through these patriotic musical affirmations.
The Music Man
As a show, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man contains the most stringent examination of the popular American character. Robert Preston, in his career-defining role as fraudulent musical salesman Professor Harold Hill, riffs on the Yankee transposed neatly to the musical idiom as a literal song and dance man. As Hill sets out to dupe a small town, Wilson satirizes and pays tribute to his Iowa boyhood, portraying the citizens of River City as stubborn, morally upright, and hypocritical rubes. The music incorporates John Philip Sousa, barbershop quartets, folk dance, piano lesson exercises, and Stephen Foster, and the lyrics are a thrilling and fast-paced mélange of sales pitches and front porch patter.
Morton DaCosta, who also directed the Broadway production, captures the bouncy spirit of the show’s first act, the camerawork is broad and all-encompassing, with enough movement to break its stage and studio boundaries (particularly during the “Marian the Librarian” number). He creates a neat visual trick analogous to a spotlight by irising in and dimming the background lights to isolate key characters at the end of the major scenes. However the pacing in the second half is slow and repetitive in the irritating tendency of most ‘60s musicals, in their aim for an epic experience contrived by pushing the running time to three hours.
Though it incorporates a love story and familial drama into the plot, The Music Man is mostly about community. Its closing, in which all problems are blithely solved with a fantasy dance number, reinvigorates its bonds while spoofing the kind of American optimism that overcomes a problem by ignoring it and barreling right through. The town folk have been taken and the moral is that ripping people off by selling them something they don’t need is okay as long as you spin a worthwhile fantasy – a business philosophy that has propelled the politics and culture of America from snake oil salesmen of the Midwest to the movie studios and televangelists of today.
Meet Me in St. Louis
Much less cynical is the family melodrama of Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the most emotionally gripping slabs of hokum ever produced by Hollywood. Vincent Minnelli’s tribute to, as daughter Liza says in the introduction, “the bonds that tie us to each other”, is powerful essentially because the director treats the material with as much seriousness and respect as the main characters face their happy lives. The overlying plot, in which the Smith family considers then abandons moving to New York, is deceptively thin and Minnelli harnesses the great technical abilities of Arthur Freed’s storied MGM “unit” to produce bravura visuals both ostentatious and delicately textured in effect. (According to the commentary track, led by John Fricke, the film was partially made because they got their hands on a rare war-time Technicolor camera.)
This includes well-known sequences, such as Esther (Judy Garland) and “boy next door” John Truett (Tom Drake) turning off the lights in her house from above and the dark undertones of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and Tootie’s (Margaret O’Brien) subsequent destruction of the snow family in their front yard. But almost every scene, no matter how minor, is brilliantly conceived. When Tootie, on Halloween, walks down the street to play a prank on a scary old man in a long tracking shot, the subtle gradation of light and color that flickers on her face reveals the little girl’s inner struggle between fear and courage to give emotional depth to an otherwise maudlin moment.
Meet Me in St. Louis creates the illusion of the perfect American family unit, clearly a fantasy yet achingly real in the best Hollywood tradition. On the commentary Arthur Freed’s daughter, Barbara, says for her father this film was about the “family life he wished he had but didn’t.” Others comment on its “warmth, splendid charm, and vivid performances” and “nostalgic charm”. O’Brien, whose role seems to be to shoot down any whisper of on-set controversy, says, “What made the musical a classic was that everybody got along and everybody liked each other and we really were a happy family and it had to be that way for the movie to be successful.” While Meet Me in St. Louis is undoubtedly the most “classic” in the set, it also illustrates MGM’s tendency to draw a precarious line between escapist entertainment and mythic delusion.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Like The Music Man and Meet Me in St. Louis, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers takes place in an America of folk dances and persnickety old-fashioned courting rituals that always seem to work. Where the other films are set in the Mississippi Midwest, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is located in the mountains and pine forests of Oregon, the perfect setting for a cruder and rougher sensibility in this story about a group of lonely lumberjacks wrangling wives. Rare is the American movie today that would have the heroes singing about how they need to be more like the Romans when they raped the Sabine women then reenacting it. Or the heroines, after being captured by the men, sighing about how they can’t wait to get pregnant the minute they get married.
Director Stanley Donen glosses over the subtext the same way Harold Hill works a sale, by charging through with a wide smile that barely gives you time to register the facts. Though the story is odd, there is a certain amount of self conscious humor to its execution. The men and women are clearly presented as Li’l Abner throwbacks and caricatures of virility like Howard Keel’s barrel-chested Adam. The musical’s biggest fault is a lack of overly memorable songs, somewhat alleviated by Michael Kidd’s ingenuous choreography that incorporates work movements and popular dancing in a style that seems natural (given the context) for mountain men and not abruptly balletic or stiffly composed. The dancing captures the show’s essence: a Cinemascope tribute to booming sexuality as representative of the frontier spirit and an American Eden.
In American Humor: A Study of the National Character Constance Rourke cites “a sequence which had prevailed within American attitudes, that of flight away from oppressive circumstances into comedy.” (Constance Rourke and Greil Marcus, New York Review Books Classics; Reprint edition, February 2004) Whether concerning love, family, or community, all three musicals contained in this set are marked by relentless optimism indicative of their time period and an image of America as land of opportunity. There are obvious faults with always looking on the sunny side. The Music Man, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers shake them off with characteristic aplomb, making a convincing case for the blithe affirmation of a song.