Dear Reader: We’re probably going to lose all credibility after sharing our view of today’s movie, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957).
We can’t help it. We liked it.
Wait – hear us out. This made-for-TV extravaganza, based on the medieval legend, was filmed in three-strip Technicolor, with impressive sets and costumes. Plus, there are lots of Toe-Tapping Tunes!
Now, if you look at the user reviews on IMDb.com, you’ll see lots o’ love for this quirky flick, from those who adored it as a child to those who see its unintentional(?) camp appeal.
The thing is, this film shouldn’t work. For example, characters speak in lumpy, uneven rhymes. Sometimes the language flows, and sometimes it don’t.
Then there is Johnson’s love interest, played by Lori Nelson, who is far too movie-star glam for this role.
Yet, there are moments of real pathos, such as the young lad left behind when the other children disappear with the Piper. “Please! Take me with you!” he cries in anguish.
The script has plenty of amusing lines – most of which are, rightly, given to Rains. In one scene, Rains-as-Mayor sits at a banquet table, sampling wine and delicacies. “Ah, the burdens of office,” he sighs.
This production of The Pied Piper of Hamelin sounds silly, and it is. But it works because the actors are committed to the fantasy, and they show no hint of irony or self-consciousness.
That includes Van Johnson, who must, must be credible in his dual roles. This he is able to do, without Breaking a Sweat.
Johnson was a big star in the 1940s and 1950s. Although by 1957 his career was starting to wane, just a bit, this movie proves he still had It, meaning star quality and talent, as evidenced by The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Van Johnson #1 here is earnest and forthright, a man with a social conscience and the courage of his convictions. He is the opposite of Rains’s character, a buffoon who believes nothing is more valuable than Prestige.
Van Johnson #2, as the Pied Piper, is a treat to watch in his swishy red-and-yellow costume and slick charm. His scenes with Rains are delightful, especially since we the audience know what the Pied Piper is capable of, while Rains, the poor slob, does not.
Also: The Piper has the upper hand because kids love and trust him, which, as you know, leads to their downfall.
When Van Johnson #2 leads the children out of town, in a scene eerily similar to his escorting the rats, he seems menacing, but the actor doesn’t push it too far. His approach is All Business. His character believes the mayor put him in an untenable position and That is That.
Even though the townsfolk remark on the physical similarity between the two Van Johnsons, the personalities couldn’t be more dissimilar. He makes us believe they are two different people.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin was one of several musical television specials produced for family audiences in the 1950s. Many of these specials were televised live, but this movie was shot on film. It was directed by Bretaigne Windust, a French theatre and film director.
The script is based on the poem by Robert Browning, and the book was written by TV producer Hal Stanley and songwriter/composer Irving Taylor. It originally aired on NBC during the 1957 American Thanksgiving season, then again in 1958. Thereafter, it was syndicated and became a holiday staple on many U.S. television stations.
The movie is in the public domain now, which may be why there has never been (or ever will be?) a restored version.
Even so, the YouTube version we watched is still worth it. The quality does not diminish the value of the script or the actors’ performances.
Besides, Claude Rains and Van Johnson are always fabulous, restored or not.
This post is part of the The 4th VAN JOHNSON Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves her Classic Films.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin: starring Van Johnson, Claude Rains, Lori Nelson. Directed by Bretaigne Windust. Written by Hal Stanley & Irving Taylor. Hal Stanley Productions, 1957, Technicolor, 89 mins.