Musical Monday: The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

pied piper5This week’s musical:
The Pied Piper of Hamlin (1957) – Musical #723


Bretaigne Windust

Van Johnson, Claude Rains, Lori Nelson, Jim Backus, Kay Starr, Brian Corcoran, Doodles Weaver, Stanley Adams, Rene Kroper

The people of Hamelin are working to build a clock tower for a visit from the king. Because of this, they are driven by the mayor (Rains) to work constantly, with play and schooling outlawed. When the town is invaded by rats, a magical Pied Piper (Johnson) is called to play a special tune to rid the town of the rodents — the pure of heart won’t be able to hear his tune. After the piper frees the town of rodents, the mayor refuses to pay the piper, who says they will rue the day. Townsman Truson (also Johnson) begs the town to pay the piper before it’s too late and he fulfills his threat.

• The first movie made for television, according to a May 7, 1989, article in the Los Angeles Times.
• Based on Robert Browning’s poem “Pied Piper of Hamelin.”
• Aired on NBC on Nov. 26, 1957. The made-for-TV movie was not presented live but on motion-picture film using three-strip Technicolor.
• Though it was made for television, it was in theaters in 1966.
• Most of the musical numbers were adapted from Edvard Grieg compositions including “Peer Gynt.”

pied piper4

• Van Johnson
• Claude Rains singing

pied piper3

Notable Songs:
• “Work Song” performed by the chorus
• “How Can I Tell You?” performed by Van Johnson
• “Prestige” performed by Claude Rains
• “Feats of the Piper” performed by Van Johnson
• “Flim Flam Floo” performed by Van Johnson
• “Fool’s Gold” performed by Van Johnson
• “My Heart Will Fly To Heaven” performed by Lori Nelson
• “A Mother’s Lament” performed by Kay Starr

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My review:
Though this made-for-TV movie is only a footnote in Van Johnson’s biography, it is a colorful musical mixed with humor and a bit of tragedy.

This television storybook tale marked a new shift in the career of Van Johnson. Starting in films in 1942 as a young, boyish heartthrob, Johnson’s career was shifting just as all of Hollywood was in the late-1950s. No longer with his home studio, Johnson was now freelancing and starting to see the value in television. Prior to this made-for-TV musical, Johnson’s only television appearance was a guest starring spot on “I Love Lucy” in 1955.

“Pied Piper of Hamelin” was a made-for-TV movie that was not filmed live and aired Nov. 26, 1957, on NBC. The musical adaptation had songs set to the compositions of composer Edvard Grieg, and the dialogue set in rhyme. Based on Robert Browning’s poem, the film follows the people of Hamelin who are worked by a greedy mayor (Rains), making them build a clock tower and spending all the town’s money on gold chimes. When rats invade the town, a magical piper (Johnson) arrives and promises to play a song that will get rid of the rodent plague, but he expects to be paid. The money that will pay for the gold chimes will pay his fee. But once the rats are gone, the town celebrates and doesn’t pay the piper — he threatens that they will live to regret it. Time passes, and on the day a king’s emissary (Backus) arrives, the piper returns, playing a tune that lures the children away. The parents demand that the mayor takes action and pay the piper so their children can return.

Van Johnson plays a dual role, as both the Pied Piper and first-class-citizen Truson, who challenges the mayor and also encourages everyone to pay the piper before it’s too late. As the piper, Johnson gets to play the role a bit more sinister, with darker hair, beard and raised eyebrows. As Truson, he is his usual fresh-faced, red-haired self. And both roles wear tights!

While in his early days, Van Johnson was dubbed the “voiceless Sinatra” (meaning he had the bobbysoxer following but no singing voice) — Johnson could actually sing. I point you to any of his 1940s and 1950s musicals. However, Johnson isn’t in his best voice here, because the songs are a bit out of his range. “How Can I Tell You” seems a bit low for him, but the children’s song “Flim Flam Floo” was just fine for his singing voice. One 1957 article said Johnson’s singing was to be dubbed, but NBC changed it’s mind. I think that’s for the best because even if the songs weren’t entirely appropriate for his voice, it would be odd to hear him with someone else’s voice. However, there were some doubles for Johnson. At the start when the piper is slithering down a tree and then madly spinning and dancing, that is not Johnson (and it made me laugh). Later, Johnson played a similar pied piper character — but as a villain — on the “Batman” television show.

Overall, Johnson appears to be having a ball in this film as he gets to ham it up, as the piper.

Claude Rains as the dastardly mayor is also lots of fun. He brings some humor to the role, and even gets to sing! Jim Backus is also funny in this, occasionally breaking out into his Mr. Magoo laugh.

Lori Nelson as the leading lady is fine, but I would have preferred to see Kay Starr more, who is billed as a guest star and gets to perform one song.

If you aren’t a fan of rats, the film does this in a clever manner—just showing them as shadows.

Going into this movie, I was a bit worried about the rhyming lines. But somehow, the rhyming isn’t off-putting and doesn’t hit you over the head like it does in other films, and it even has some funny lines.

The was one moment I found very sad. As the piper is luring the children away and they are running through a crack made in the mountain, one little boy on a crutch was left behind and cries about it. It made me so sad!

On its release in 1957, this television special did not get great reviews. It said Rains was wasted, Johnson couldn’t sing and that Backus was annoying. But I can’t agree. It’s not the best work for any of the stars, but it’s still fun and is a good time.

Besides, could you ask for anything more than double the Van Johnson? Not me.

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