What is this? The basics: The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a 1957 made-for-television musical, derived from the folk tale by way of the Robert Browning poem. According to some sources it was originally a Thanksgiving special and was later shown in theaters. The music is drawn from a variety of Edvard Grieg sources, with lyrics by Irving Taylor (the man who wrote the lyrics to “Everybody Loves Somebody” and the theme to “F Troop”); the rhyming dialogue is by Taylor and Hal Stanley. Van Johnson plays the P-Piper and also plays a young man (well, a man) in the town of Hamelin. Claude Rains, looking skeptical, plays the town mayor; there’s a cameo song by Kay Starr.
That’s what this is. I bring it up because you may have seen this movie in childhood and relegated it to some corner of your mind where old nightmares live, only to be brought up, in flashes, throughout your life. I wasn’t alive in 1957 but I saw the film on TV at some later date and some tender age, and although it is not overtly scary it gave me a profound shudder. Seeing the movie in adulthood – it’s in the public domain and can be easily found in washed-out prints (color, though), including YouTube – reveals a professional, if not quite ready for Broadway, production with a few evocative moments.
One of those good moments is in the opening scene, when the Piper comes slithering down on his belly from a tree – an unexpectedly pagan touch in an otherwise stagey production. It isn’t Van Johnson, but a double. Though Johnson, in a devilish goatee and “queer long coat from heel to head/Was half of yellow and half of red” (as Browning described his get-up) is really pretty good in the part; he seems to be reveling in a sinister role. In his second role as the romantic lead, he looks more like himself, but duller. The script nudges into a little social-commentary territory by having this second role carry hints of what happens to Fifties-era men who disagree with the official line – Rains’s Hamelin Corporation rules with a heavy fist – but not so much that it gets obvious.
The songs are a tortured lot, even if Grieg lends himself to show music (Song of Norway, folks, another childhood memory). The Pied Piper of Hamelin has one show-stopper that appears patterned after the “Trouble” number in The Music Man, although actually The Music Man didn’t open on Broadway until a month after this thing debuted on TV, so maybe not. It’s a description of the Piper’s adventures in ridding other places of their bothersome vermin, as he is promising to do with the rats that have taken over Hamelin; the melody is drawn from “Anitra’s Dance” in “Peer Gynt,” so Johnson has some fancy syllable-punching to do. It’s pretty crazy, but you appreciate the effort.
The production is directed by Bretaigne Windust, that Tolkien-named fellow who did a lot of Broadway (he had Life with Father and Arsenic and Old Lace running at the same time) and The Enforcer onscreen with Bogart and then later some TV episodes; he died three years after The Pied Piper, at age 54. Except for that snake-like entrance and the film’s most exciting scene, The Pied Piper mostly looks flat and studio-bound, without a whole lot to distinguish it.
That one exciting scene, though: whew. Even if you never saw this show, you know which scene it is. One night Johnson’s Piper takes his flute and, having contracted with the Corporation to lead the rats from Hamelin, goes into the streets to do his dark magic. And you know the music has to be “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” building madly from disturbing murmur to insane shriek, as the Piper glides around corners and alleys, and the rats – real rats but seen only as shadows – scurry along in helpless thrall to the music. And the children sleep in their beds, because they can’t hear the music. Only the adults, those other rats, hear it.
Seen in childhood, this was terrifying. And even in adulthood it raises the chickenflesh pretty well. There’s one shot – of a stairway leading down to the river, where the Piper has perched and where the rats are throwing themselves willy-nilly into the water – that has stayed in my mind, almost exactly the way it is, for decades.
Of course, the fact that the Piper later leads the children out of town is also troubling, and the source of the folk tale’s enduring creepy power. (Some mixed feelings there: the fear of being separated from home, but the promise of exotic fun inside a magic mountain.) This production doesn’t stick with the original ending, instead going for a happy reversal and restoration of that which was lost, which sells out the whole thing. But still, there’s quite a bit here to freak out any unsuspecting Thanksgiving-evening viewers in 1957. And, in a supple way, to make a permanent impression on a young brain.
(You can watch the big scene here, if you dare.)