28 February 2001 | michael.e.barrett
But he doesn't know the territory!
It seems redundant to add my comments when so many people have already done justice to it, but I'm still in the glow of having finally seen this movie as God intended--in Cinemascope! When I saw it long ago on TV, I was struck by how unusual it was but kept noticing certain distracting bits around the edge of the screen--it was the fade-outs and split-screen effects I was missing! Watch this film in letterboxed form ONLY please--it's visually, musically and dramatically innovative.
Its splendors have already been mentioned. I add two minor treats: 1) appearance of lanky character actor Hank Worden (of "The Searchers" and "Twin Peaks") as the undertaker, and 2) script so full of bizarre slang and expressions, it's as if P.G. Wodehouse or Damon Runyan were writing turn-of-the-century Americana.
My two carps are minor: I would have told Morton Da Costa to lose all the heavy-handed cutaways to the train wheels ("Rock Island") and chickens ("Pick a Little, Talk a Little") because we already got the point, and Ron Howard's cute lithp is a turn-off for me, but I never like cute kids. However, he's good at the climax, and when Shirley Jones hears him singing "Wells Fargo Wagon" and tears the evidence against Harold Hill out of the book (a librarian!), it's one of the most convincing turnarounds in musical history. Especially because she's still not fooled by the hucksterism, she just perceives it differently in comparison with the easily manipulated small-towners around her. She realizes that he's selling hope and joy despite himself ("There's always a band.") And when she just thanks him for his gift ("Till There Was You") and doesn't mind if he flees, of course he realizes he would be insane to leave. Another heartfelt turnaround.
One of the most graceful musicals, marked by blurring of the line between straight dialogue and songs--as the line "there was love all around but I never heard it singing" implies, you can hear the singing if you listen for it in the world. It's in the trains and the chickens and the bands you hear in your head and the pride in your children playing that clarinet by the "think system." Moving.