The movie opens with a number of traveling salesmen in a railroad car in 1912, lamenting the things that are making their livelihood difficult--changes in society and the economy, and dishonest salesmen who give them a bad name. They are particularly scornful of a certain "Professor" Harold Hill (Robert Preston
), who goes into a town, sells the kids musical instruments, instruction books, and band uniforms, under the promise that he will form a band for them, and then disappears. Someone mentions that "He don't know one note from another!". (This opening song has interesting musical accompaniment: the sound of the train's steam locomotive.) At the end of the song, just when the train is about to start up from a station stop in River City, Iowa, one of the people reveals that he is Harold Hill, and quickly escapes from the train before the others can catch him.
Hill finds himself in a small turn-of-the-century Iowa town, full of taciturn people with small-town values. They sing him a song of welcome, explaining that Iowans are stubborn but good natured and generous. He is delighted to find an old friend and colleague from his earlier days as a crooked salesman, Marcellus Washburn (Buddy Hackett
). Marcellus says that he is now making an honest living, has settled in River City, and that he likes the town and the people. The two friends reminisce about their shady dealings in the past, and that "Professor Hill"'s current racket is boys' bands. Marcellus says that it will be difficult to make headway on that front, because the town librarian and piano teacher, Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones
), is quite smart and will expose him instantly. Harold takes that as a challenge, both professionally and romantically. Harold also mentions that he'll be in town longer than his usual stretch, a week, because not only will he con the town into buying the instruments, but also uniforms, which will take several weeks to arrive. Marcellus still sees the scheme as a very risky one.
The mayor's wife, Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn (Hermione Gingold
), shows up at the Madison library; she is extremely prudish, ignorant, and outspoken. She complains that the book that Marian recommended for her daughter Zaneeta, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
, is smutty: "People lying out in the woods, eating sandwiches, and drinking out of jugs." (This is a reference to the famous line "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.")
Harold needs some interesting current event or fad to hang his pitch on, and Marcellus says that a new pool table is being installed in the local billiard parlor. Harold goes into action. He starts buttonholing local merchants, telling them that this pool table will have a corrupting influence on the youth of the town, and that they need to keep the kids moral. Many townspeople gather around, and he sings the song "Ya got trouble / right here in River City / with a capital T and that rhymes with P / and that stands for pool."
Marian stops by to look at the crowd, and Marcellus points her out to Harold with a prearranged signal. Then, as she goes home, he attempts to flirt with her with some trite pickup lines. She is very cold to him. When she arrives home, a little girl from the town, Amaryllis (Monique Vermont
), is there for her piano lesson. Marian tells her mother that a man had attempted to follow her. Mrs. Paroo (Pert Kelton
) is excited, as she wants Marian to get married and settle down, but Marian is not impressed with the intellectual caliber of the men she meets. The two of them sing an argument, accompanied by Amaryllis playing a piano exercise, about whether Marian's expectations are unrealistic.
While Amaryllis is getting a drink from the outdoor water pump, Marian's much younger brother Winthrop (Ron Howard
) comes by. Amaryllis invites him to a party she will be giving. Winthrop says no. His mother insists that he say it politely, with her name. He says "No thank you, Amaryllis." But he has a serious lisp, and botches the "s" in her name. Amaryllis giggles at first, but when Winthrop runs inside crying, she is mortified. She tells Marian that she likes Winthrop very much, and says goodnight to him every night on the evening star, but he hardly ever says a word to her. Marian tells her that the lisp is just part of Winthrop's problem, that he hardly ever says anything even to his own family, and that everyone needs to be very patient and understanding with him. She explains that, if Winthrop isn't the right person to say goodnight to on the evening star, she can say goodnight to an unnamed "someone". They sing the song "Goodnight My Someone".
The town's annual Fourth of July celebration is held in the high school, presided over by Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford
) and his wife. Mayor Shinn is pompous, foolish, and verbally inept. A silly patriotic tableau is presented. Tommy Djilas (Timmy Everett
), a teenage boy, sets off a firecracker, right behind the Mayor's wife, causing a ruckus. Amidst all the silly goings on, Harold Hill gets up and complains about the pool table. He is joined by others, and egged on by Marcellus. He gets into his band director's uniform, takes the stage, and makes an impassioned plea for the creation of a boys' band, to keep the youth of the town wholesomely occupied. This turns into the musical song and dance number "Seventy six trombones led the big parade / with a hundred and ten cornets close at hand / they were followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuosos / the cream of every famous band."
Marian is completely unimpressed by the spectacle. She tells Mayor Shinn that he and the four members of the school board are being hoodwinked. In response, Mayor Shinn directs the school board to get Harold's credentials.
Tommy Djilas gets apprehended by the constable. Mayor Shinn berates Tommy for endangering his wife with the firecracker, and for hanging around with his oldest daughter Zaneeta. Harold says that he will take responsibility for Tommy, and takes him under his wing. Since Tommy is older than the intended age range for the band, Harold suggests a leadership role instead, and charges him with fashioning a device that will hold music for a marching piccolo player. Tommy runs off to find a piece of wire.
At the Fourth of July celebration that evening, Harold is met by the School board, who ask him for references. Showing his con artist skill to the utmost, he points out the amazing discovery that they have extraordinary singing talent. Before long, Harold has them (the school board are played by the famed barbershop quartet The Buffalo Bills
) singing barbershop songs in perfect harmony. Harold then tries to strike up a friendship with Marian, who is again extremely cold to him. He tells her that he is a graduate of "Gary Indiana Conservatory, gold medal class of '05." Marian remains utterly unimpressed.
Harold begins the process of persuading the River City parents to part with their money, for musical instruments and band uniforms, by telling outlandishly exaggerated stories of their children's natural talent. He is quite a con artist.
Harold runs into the fashionable ladies of River City in the livery stable, and, in contrast to Marian, they are "all agog" over his talent. He tells them he wants to form a lady's classic dance auxiliary. He flatters Mrs. Shin, in the most preposterous way, over her alleged physical grace. The ladies are enthused over the formation of this group. Then he mentions Marian, hoping that they can help win her over by putting her in the dance group. They are instantly hostile about her. They say that, as librarian, she advocates dirty books--titles by authors such as Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac. Furthermore, she made "brazen overtures" to "Old Miser Madison", the man who had donated huge amounts of money to the town, building many of the town's facilities. He left the Madison Library to the town, but left the books to Marian personally. They also paint her as a spinster of sorts, having seen her frequenting his house many times. They sing the song "Pick a Little, Talk a Little" about this. Then the school board people show up, demanding Harold's credentials. He distracts them by singing the line "Good Night, Ladies" at the ladies, and the school board breaks into a barbershop rendition of that song, while Harold slips away. The two songs, by the ladies and by the school board, are then sung as an "ensemble song", simultaneously and in harmony with each other.
That evening, Harold tells Marcellus that his interests in women are not toward the pure and wholesome type, but the worldly and more experienced type, which he now perceives Marian to be. He sings the the song "The Sadder but Wiser Girl."
The next day he goes to the library and attempts once again to strike up a relationship with Marian. He tells her that he knows about Mr. Madison, and that he forgives her indiscretion in the matter. Marian is incredulous, and once again totally rejects his advances. He sings the song "Marian the Librarian" causing organized chaos in the otherwise silent and peaceful library.
Harold continues to work the townspeople, at one point almost persuading Mayor Shinn himself to sign up his son for the band, before he realizes that he has no son. He gets to the Paroo home, and persuades Mrs. Paroo that her son Winthrop will be a natural cornet player. Winthrop shows up, and Harold tells him about the band, and the cornet, and the uniform. Winthrop asks "Will it have a ...." and draws a line down his outer pant leg; he doesn't want to say the word "stripe" because of the "s". Harold assures him that it will have a stripe; Winthrop then runs off. Mrs. Paroo explains that Winthrop hardly ever talks. Harold tells Mrs. Paroo about his alma mater--"Gary Conservatory, gold medal class of '05." He sings the song "Gary, Indiana."
Marian shows up; Harold hadn't realized until then that she was part of that family. Marian tells Harold that they are not interested in the band. Harold suggests that the boy's father should be asked. Marian tells Harold that he should not meddle in the family's affairs, and that their father died two years previous. She says that this event was so devastating to Winthrop that he has become the withdrawn and unhappy child that he is.
After Harold leaves, Mrs. Paroo urges Marian, once again, to settle down and get married, and says that Harold might be her last chance. Marian sings "Being in Love", about what she's looking for in a man.
At the library, Marian comes upon the Indiana State Educational Journal
, and looks in it, finding information that contradicts Harold's claims about the Gary Conservatory.
The Wells Fargo wagon comes to town, an event that is always met with great anticipation because of the interesting things that it brings from far-off places. Just before it arrives, Marian tells Mayor Shinn that she has found incriminating information in a book. But Mayor Shinn puts her off for a moment, since this delivery will be very special: the band instruments. The townspeople sing "The Wells Fargo Wagon." When the wagon stops, Harold distributes the instruments, including Winthrop's cornet. Winthrop is utterly beside himself with enthusiasm. He goes to Marian and speaks very excitedly and exuberantly: "SisterSisterIsn'tThisTheMostScrumptiousSolidGoldThingYouEverSaw? INeverThoughtIdEverSeeAnythingSoScrumptiousAsThisSolidGoldThing. OhSister!" Marian realizes that, con man though he is, Harold is also a miracle worker in the change she has seen in Winthrop. She has a change of heart about Harold, and secretly tears the incriminating page out of the Journal before handing it over to Mayor Shinn.
Harold distributes the other instruments, and tells the kids to stay off the streets and to think about Beethoven's Minuet in G. (He has what he calls the "think system" of music. Instead of dealing with reading music and memorizing notes, one just needs to think about a melody, and it will come out.)
At the high school, the women's dance committee meets, under the leadership of Mrs. Shinn, and engages in some ridiculously foolish dance practice. Elsewhere in the school, Harold is exhorting the students: "If you want to play the Minuet in G, think the Minuet in G." The boys ask reasonable questions about such elementary things as how to hold their instruments, and Harold deflects the questions with his usual subterfuges. He then has them just sing the Minuet in G. He tells Tommy Djilas to take over the rehearsal, having them sing for another hour or so.
At the ice cream parlor, Harold treats Tommy and Zaneeta Shinn (Susan Luckey
) to sundaes--he has been encouraging their romance, even though Mayor Shinn doesn't want his daughter hanging around with Tommy. The Mayor bursts in, and upbraids Tommy. Tommy stands up to him, as does Zaneeta. He throws Tommy out of the place, and takes Zaneeta home. Marian is there too, and protests the Mayor's actions, to no avail. Mayor Shinn also complains to Marian that he was unable to find any incriminating evidence in the book.
Marian and Harold discuss his educational methods, and says that Winthrop never actually plays his cornet. Harold tells her about his "think system". They are very friendly and cordial.
On his way home, Harold is met by the school board. They demand his credentials immediately
. He distracts them once again by discussing famed female bassoonist Lida Rose Quackenbush. They sing the barbershop song "Lida Rose" while Harold escapes yet again. Meanwhile, Marian, on her front porch, sings the song "Sweet and Low". Then the two groups, even though they are separated, turn these into another ensemble song, singing them together.
Winthrop comes by while Marian and Mrs. Paroo are on the front porch, and shows them a pocket knife that Harold gave him, describing in detail and with great enthusiasm all its many blades and features. He says that he and Harold spend a lot of time together. Marian asks what they talk about. "Sometimes we talk business, and sometimes we just talk." Harold taught Winthrop a song "with hardly any "s"'s in it", which he sings--the "Gary, Indiana" song.
There will be a big public "sociable" at Madison Park that evening. But first, Charlie Cowell (Harry Hickox
), an anvil salesman, shows up at the Paroo residence. (He had been one of the salesmen speaking about Hill's nefarious dealings in the train scene at the very start of the movie.) He has extensive written documentation of Harold Hill's fraudulent methods, and he wants to give it to Mayor Shinn. When he sees the sign in Marian's window about giving piano instruction, he discusses it with her; he assumes that she saw right though Harold from day one. Instead, she defends Hill, and says that Charlie is making a big mistake. Charlie is under a tight time constraint because his train is just making a short stop. Marian uses her feminine wiles to delay him so he won't have time to get to Mayor Shinn. She succeeds at making him miss the train. He angrily walks off, after telling her that Harold Hill has a girl in every county of Illinois, and cozies up to all the piano teachers also.
Harold comes by, and he and Marian talk. She is upset by what Charlie Cowell said, and confronts him about his many alleged romantic relationships. "One hears rumors about traveling salesmen." He says "One hears rumors about librarians." She assumes that's a reference to the rumors, by the fashionable ladies of the town, about Mr. Madison. She tells him indignantly that he was "Uncle Maddy", her late father's best friend, and that he gave the library's books, and the librarian job, to her personally so that the family would be provided for after her father's death.
Harold suggests that she meet him at the footbridge at Madison Park. She is reluctant at first, because meeting at the footbridge has serious romantic connotations in River City folklore, and she's never been to the footbridge with a man before. But he persuades her.
The festivities at the party begin with a huge dance number, with Marcellus singing "Shipoopi". Harold and Marian are then going to go to the footbridge.
While Harold is going to the footbridge, the next organized entertainment occurs: an extremely silly interpretation of Grecian Urns by the ladies dance auxiliary, under the leadership of Mrs. Shin. While this is happening, the constable summons Mayor Shin to go off and speak to Charlie Cowell, who has finally managed to contact someone in authority.
Harold and Marian meet at the footbridge. They are finally in love. She says that she knows he will have to move on to other towns, but that she is grateful for what he has brought to the town. They sing "Till There Was You". She tells Harold that she knew he was a fraud practically from the start; the Educational Journal said that there couldn't have been a Gary Conservatory gold medal class of '05, because the town hadn't been founded until '06. She gives him the incriminating page that she had torn out of the book. Though he is in love with Marian, Harold knows that he will either have to skip town or be arrested.
Back at the party, Mayor Shinn interrupts a barbershop song by introducing Charlie Cowell, who tells the crowd that Hill is a swindler, and that he has a large amount of written proof of it. The townspeople are aghast. Winthrop runs off, crying. The townspeople run in all directions searching all over town for Harold.
Not knowing anything about this, Harold and Marian arrive at her house. She goes inside to put on a shawl. Harold stays outside, singing "Seventy Six Trombones". Inside, Marian sings "Goodnight my Someone". They turn it into another ensemble song.
While the massive search goes on, with Marcellus attempting to mislead them, Mrs. Paroo arrives home, and warns Harold and Marian that people are talking about tar and feathers. Harold doesn't know what to say. Marian tells him that he doesn't owe her anything, and he needs to leave.
Winthrop arrives home, very upset, and Harold stops him. Harold realizes that he has been harming people whom he cares about, and he needs to drop his con-man persona and be honest with people. He tells Winthrop that he will level with him. Winthrop asks "Can you lead a band?" "No." "Are you a big liar?" "Yes." "Are you a dirty rotten crook?" "Yes." Harold then tells him "There are two things you're entitled to know. One, you're a wonderful kid. I thought so from the first. That's why I wanted you in the band, so you'd stop moping around and feeling sorry for yourself." "What band?" Harold sadly admits "I always think there's a band." "And what's the other thing I'm entitled to know?" "The other thing's none of your business, come to think of it." He glances up at Marian as he says that; clearly the other thing is that he wants to become Winthrop's brother-in-law. Winthrop says that he wishes Harold had never come to River City. Marian steps in at this point, saying that everything Harold promised actually came true, in the good way everyone in the town behaved all summer, especially Winthrop. Winthrop tells Harold he needs to leave, but he can't tear himself away from Marian. The constable catches up with him and leads him away in handcuffs. The Paroo family are all devastated.
People have gathered at the high school. Mayor Shin addresses the angry crowd. When he hears that Harold Hill has been caught, he announces, in his usual artless way, "The sword of restibution [sic] has cut down Professor Harold Hill." Hill is brought in. Mayor Shinn suggests that he will be tarred and feathered.
Marian gets up and makes an impassioned plea: "I should think some of you could forget your everlasting Iowa stubbornness long enough to remember what this town was like before Harold Hill came. Do you? Well, do you? And after he came. Suddenly there were things to do, and things to be proud of, and people to go out of your way for. Surely some of you can be grateful for what this man has brought to us. And I should think you'd want to admit it." Mayor Shinn stops her. He says that anyone who doesn't want Harold Hill tarred and feathered should stand up.
After a long pause, people slowly start standing up. Mrs. Paroo, Zaneeta, the school board, the dance committee, even Mrs Shinn, who stands up defiantly again when her husband orders her to sit down. Mayor Shinn reminds them that they were promised a band. "Where's the band? Where's the band?
" Then Tommy Djilas, out in the corridor, blows a director's whistle, the doors open, and the children file into the room, in uniform, with their instruments. They line up in concert formation at the front of the room. Marian gives Harold a podium and a makeshift baton. Harold gets up in front of the kids, but is frightened. Marian gives him a reassuring look. He mutters desperately "Think, men, think!" and starts to conduct. The kids play the Minuet in G, very badly, but recognizably. That's good enough for the parents. They are delighted. "That's my Barney." "That's Eddie."
The final scene is a fantasy in which the children's band is replaced by a large number of real musicians who parade down the street playing "Seventy Six Trombones".