Monday, December 01, 2014


This version of the old folktale is a musical done for 50s television, but don't let that scare you away. It has its faults, including a couple too many songs and a happy ending that takes some of the wind out of what has come before, but mostly it works surprisingly well, and is worth at least one viewing if only as a novelty. The town of Hamelin is run with an iron fist by the Mayor (Claude Rains) and his board of counselors. Their current project is the building of a large clocktower in order to win a competition for Royal Clockmaker to the King; the mayor is not only making everyone work long hours on the tower, he's even enlisting the children to help, telling them there is no time for schooling or fun. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, a little lame boy named Paul sees something very strange: a piper dressed in multicolored garb (Van Johnson, pictured) comes slithering down a tree like a snake, performs magic, like making flowers grow out of mud and conjuring a rainbow in the air, then spins like a dervish and vanishes.

The Mayor is happy to hear that their rival town in the clock competition, Hamelout, has been flooded. The people ask for help, especially for the care of their children, but the Mayor refuses. However, a side effect of the flooding is that Hamelin becomes infested with rats escaping Hamelout. The townsfolk demand the Mayor do something, and who should show up but the Pied Piper (whose merry music can be heard by the children but not the adults), offering his services to get rid of the rats and asking in return 50,000 guilders, which is the town's entire treasury. Since the Mayor wants to melt most of that down to make gold chimes for the clock, he promises the Piper the money but has no intention of paying him. That night, the Piper plays a sinister-sounding tune—which in this case can be heard by the adults but not the children—and the rats follow him to the river where they drown. When the Mayor refuses to pay (amusingly citing labyrinthe legal language from a long, long scroll of a contract), the Piper plays a tune that only the children can hear, and they follow him out of town into a mountain cliff which splits open to reveal a magical land. The townspeople try to get the kids back but cannot open the cliff. Most versions of the tale end here, but in this one, the Mayor is taught a valuable lesson about hospitality and the Piper brings the children back when the Mayor agrees to help the town of Hamelout.

There is more to the story, including a major plotline that features Van Johnson as the friendly schoolteacher Truson (who, because of his sympathy with the children, can hear the same music they hear) and Lori Nelson as Mara, the Mayor's daughter who loves Truson against her father's wishes. Jim Backus appears as the King's emissary, in town to judge the clock contest, and 50s singing star Kay Starr has a cameo as a sorrowful mother looking in vain for her son on the night of their disappearance. Johnson also plays the Piper, and does a fine job in both parts. Doodles Weaver and Stanley Adams (pictured with Rains) provide comic relief as two of the Mayor's counselors. I haven't yet mentioned that: 1) all the songs use music by Edward Grieg, mostly from Peer Gynt, with "In the Hall of the Mountain King" used effectively as the song that catches the rats, and 2) all the dialogue is in rhyme. I thought that would bother me, but I got used to it fairly quickly. I was particularly impressed with Rains, who could have easily done his role in his sleep, but who really gives his all, even when has to sing—and he and his counselors have one of the best numbers, "Prestige." At 90 minutes, it feels a little padded in places, especially the numbers concerned with the romance between Truson and Mara. But it's colorful and though a bit stagy, has a more theatrical than TV-movie feel. Good holiday viewing, though I don't know how today's kids would take to it. [YouTube/DVD]

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