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Nobody thought Meredith Willson could turn out a hit musical back in 1949 when he started working on a story inspired by his Iowa childhood and the time he spent playing piccolo for John Philip Sousa. He'd never written a musical before, just incidental numbers for Broadway, film and radio, and the background score for Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940). His original producers dropped him as work dragged on over eight years. But his mentor, songwriter Frank Loesser, stuck by him and ended up producing The Music Man, one of Broadway's biggest hits of the '50s.
Leading man Robert Preston went into the project an underdog, too. He had been the perennial second lead in Hollywood during the '40s, usually dying before the final reel. In the '50s, as the studios were cutting back production, he moved to the stage, where he had enjoyed a few modest hits. But he had never done a musical before. Nor was he first choice to play Harold Hill, the musical con artist. Wilson had written the role for his friend, bandleader Phil Harris, but Harris had decided not to risk the move to Broadway. Then it was offered to and rejected by Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye and Ray Bolger before they settled for the perfect man for the part, Preston.
With over 800 performances as Harold Hill and a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, Preston would have seemed the logical man to star in the film version, but once again, he wasn't first choice. Both Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby tried to buy the film rights, but Wilson turned them down. He finally said yes to Jack Warner, who wanted box office insurance in the form of Cary Grant. Grant's refusal became famous: "Not only will I not play it, but if Robert Preston doesn't do it, I won't even see the picture" - though the line turned up again two years later when he turned down the Rex Harrison role in My Fair Lady. Finally, after much pleading from Willson and the show's original director, Morton Da Costa, Warner cast Preston and got the studio's biggest hit of the year.
With Preston in place Warner decided to keep on several other cast members, including the barbershop quartet The Buffalo Bills; Pert Kelton, the one-time movie vamp who was now playing the heroine's mother; and Paul Ford, who had taken over the mayor's role from David Burns. Among new additions were Shirley Jones as leading lady (in place of Broadway legend Barbara Cook) and as her younger brother, the young Ron Howard, who would one day become one of Hollywood's top directors.
In another rare move for Hollywood, the film retained almost all of the show's songs. The only change was in Marian's romantic ballad, with Willson writing a new song, "Being in Love," to replace the original "My White Knight." The reason given at the time was that the new song was more in Jones's range. According to show-biz legend, however, "My White Knight" had actually been written by Loesser (it's very similar to a number cut from his opera The Most Happy Fella), who refused to sell the rights to Warner Bros.
Director/Producer: Morton Da Costa
Screenplay: Marion Hargrove
Based on the Musical by Meredith Willson and Franklyn Lacey
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Art Direction: Paul Groesse
Music: Meredith Willson
Music Director: Ray Heindorf
Principle Cast: Robert Preston (Harold Hill), Shirley Jones (Marian Paroo), Buddy Hackett (Marcellus Washburn), Hermione Gingold (Eulalie MacKechnie Shinn), Paul Ford (Mayor Shinn), Pert Kelton (Mrs. Paroo), Ron Howard (Winthrop Paroo)
By Frank Miller