What “The Music Man” teaches about dialogue research!

Do your research. Get your dialogue right! When it’s right, no one notices because it’s so smooth and accurate. When it’s wrong, you go to hell.

The film was made in 1964. The musical, 1957. The story takes place in 1912. The dialogue is incredibly specific.

“Trouble in River City”

Great scene. You can learn a lot about story structure from this scene! Look how the action builds!

Here’s a guy with a burning desire, for money (as well as the local librarian). He wants to stay in town to court the librarian and, to do that, because he sells band instruments, he must create a need in the townspeople to have a boy’s band. Does the town need a boy’s band? No town needs a boy’s band.

HAROLD
Well, either you are closing your eyes
To a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of a pool table in your community.
Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.
Why sure I’m a billiard player,
Certainly mighty proud I say
I’m always mighty proud to say it.
I consider that the hours I spend
With a cue in my hand are golden.
Help you cultivate horse sense
And a cool head and a keen eye.
Did you ever take and try to give
An iron-clad leave to yourself
From a three-rail billiard shot?
But just as I say,
It takes judgement, brains, and maturity to score
In a balkline game,
I say that any boob can take
And shove a ball in a pocket.
And I call that sloth.
The first big step on the road
To the depths of deg-ra-Day–
I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon,
Then beer from a bottle.
And the next thing ya know,
Your son is playin’ for money
In a pinch-back suit.
And listening to some big out-a-town Jasper
Hearin’ him tell about horse-race gamblin’.
Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no!
But a race where they set down right on the horse!
Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy
Sittin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil?
Well, I should say.
Now, friends, lemme tell you what I mean.
Ya got one, two, three, four, five, six pockets in a table.
Pockets that mark the difference
Between a gentlemen and a bum,
With a capital “B,”
And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
And all week long your River City
Youth’ll be fritterin’ away,
I say your young men’ll be fritterin’!
Fritterin’ away their noontime, suppertime, chore time too!
Get the ball in the pocket,
Never mind gettin’ Dandelions pulled
Or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded.
Never mind pumpin’ any water
‘Till your parents are caught with the cistern empty
On a Saturday night and that’s trouble,
Oh, yes we got lots and lots a’ trouble.
I’m thinkin’ of the kids in the knickerbockers,
Shirt-tail young ones, peekin’ in the pool
Hall window after school
You got trouble, folks!
Right here in River City.
Trouble with a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda parents.
I’m gonna be perfectly frank.
Would ya like to know what kinda conversation goes
On while they’re loafin’ around that hall?
They’re tryin’ out Bevo, tryin’ out cubebs,
Tryin’ out Tailor Mades like Cigarette Fiends!
And braggin’ all about
How they’re gonna cover up a tell-tale breath with Sen-Sen.
One fine night, they leave the pool hall,
Headin’ for the dance at the Armory!
Libertine men and Scarlet women!
And Ragtime, shameless music
That’ll grab your son and your daughter
With the arms of a jungle animal instinct!
Mass-steria!
Friends, the idle brain is the devil’s playground!

TOWNSPEOPLE
Trouble, oh we got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital “T”
That rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool,
That stands for pool.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City,
Right here!
Gotta figure out a way
To keep the young ones moral after school!
Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble…

HAROLD
Mothers of River City!
Heed that warning before it’s too late!
Watch for the tell-tale signs of corruption!
The minute your son leaves the house,
Does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee?
Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger?
A dime novel hidden in the corn crib?
Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang?
Are certain words creeping into his conversation?
Words like “swell?”
And “so’s your old man?”
Well, if so my friends,
Ya got trouble,
Right here in River city!
With a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City!
Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock and the Golden Rule!
Oh, we’ve got trouble.
We’re in terrible, terrible trouble.
That game with the fifteen numbered balls is the devil’s tool!
Oh yes we got trouble, trouble, trouble!
With a “T”! That rhymes with “P”!
And that stands for Pool!!!

And here’s the meaning of the specific dialogue that the writer got right.

rig — slang for any carriage or coach

tank town — A small town. So called because trains would stop there only to replenish water.

grip — A suitcase or valise.

Billiards — Also known as caroom (or carom) billiards, played with three balls (one cue ball and two object balls) on a pocketless table

Pool — Developed much later than billiards. Also known as pocket billiards, using a cue ball and 15 object balls on a table with six pockets
iron clad leave to yourself from a three-rail billiard shot — leave is slang for a favorable position for a stroke in billiards (circa 1850). Three-rail billiard shot refers to the fact that in caroom (or carom) billiards, the cue ball must contact at least 3 cushions before it hits the second object ball in order to score any points. This sentence seems to imply that the player has, through excellent strategy and difficult maneuvers, put the balls in such a position as to give him an excellent shot at making points.

balkline — A line parallel to one end of a billiard table, from behind which opening shots with the cue ball are made.

pinch-back suit — from pinchbeck – serving as an imitation or substitute; “pinchbeck heroism” (noun): an alloy of copper and zinc that is used in cheap jewelry to imitate gold. Made of pinchbeck; sham; cheap; spurious; unreal.

Jasper — any male fellow or chum, usually a stranger

Trotting race — A horse that trots, especially one trained for harness racing. Very genteel pastime.

Horse race — With a jockey on the horses back, running much quicker than the trotting race.

Dan Patch — (1897-1916) Most famous trotting horse ever, from Indiana. Dan Patch was a pacer, under his second owner he lost only five heats in 56 starts. Dan Patch had his own private railway car to travel in, and at home he lived in a huge barn that was so grand it was called the “Taj Mahal.” There is still a trotting competition named for him, and an historical railroad line because “Dan Patch was a famous race horse a hundred years ago, and the railroad was named after him because its tracks between Minneapolis and Northfield passed very close to his owner’s farm.” There seem to be whole districts in Indiana still named after this horse, and there was a movie called The Great Dan Patch (1949)

Frittering away their time — To reduce or squander little by little; frittered his inheritance away. To waste.

cistern — A receptacle for holding water or other liquid, especially a tank for catching and storing rainwater.

knickerbockers — Full breeches gathered and banded just below the knee (which is why moving them above the knee is such a shocking thing to do)

shirt-tail young ones — 1) Very young; shirttail kids. 2) Of little value; inadequate or small; a shirttail cabin in the woods

Bevo — From Anheuser-Busch. A non-alcoholic drink that tasted like beer. “Anheuser-Busch introduced Bevo, its new nonalcoholic beverage, in 1916 and elsewhere the flood of cereal beverages (near beer) were introduced during the 1917-18 period.”

Cubebs — the dried unripe berry of a tropical shrub (Piper cubeba) of the pepper family that is crushed and smoked in cigarettes for as a medicine for catarrh, an inflammation of the nose and throat with increased production of mucus. There were several cubeb cigarettes made–Marshall’s Prepared Cubeb
Cigarettes are perhaps the best known.

Tailor Mades — A tailor-made cigarette referred to any cigarette made in a factory on a cigarette making machine. A roll-your-own cigarette was made by the smoker from a sack of Bull Durham or the like. James Jones in From Here to Eternity mentioned tailor-mades being smoked by soldiers when they had money. Until 1883 cigarettes were handmade. In 1880 a 21 year old Virginian named James Bonsack invented a cigarette making machine that dramatically increased production. A skilled cigarette roller made 4 cigarettes a minute, whereas Mr. Bonsack’s machine turned out 200 a minute. These were called “tailor mades” to distinguish them from handmade cigarettes.
NOTE: This section talking about the boys down at the pool hall means they are trying to mimic adults, and look as if they are drinking beer and smoking tobacco, although they are drinking fake beer and smoking fake cigarettes.

Sen Sen — When a country swain went courting his rural sweetheart, he often carried in his pocket an unobtrusive little envelope of Sen-Sen. When his younger brother indulged in smoking behind the barn, he too, had use for the exotic little pellets. For Sen-Sen was to the 19th century what breath mints are to our time. Any country store worth its salt, prominently displayed a box of the handy little packets within easy reach of its customers.

Rag-time — A style of jazz characterized by elaborately syncopated rhythm in the melody and a steadily accented accompaniment.

corn crib — A structure for storing and drying ears of corn.

Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang — Started in 1919 (too late for Music Man, but I guess Wilson wasn’t worried about that!). From the book Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals, “Few periodicals reflect the post-World War I cultural change in American life as well as Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. To some people [it] represented the decline of morality and the flaunting of sexual immodesty; to others it signified an increase in openness. For much of the 1920’s, Captain Billy’s was the most prominent comic magazine in America with its mix of racy poetry and naughty jokes and puns, aimed at a small-town audience with pretensions of ‘sophistication’” This publication was to the male adolescent culture of the 1920s what Playboy was in the 1960s. Quit publishing sometime from 1932-36. This magazine created the foundation for Fawcett Publications, the publishing company that later created True Confessions and Mechanix Illustrated.

swell — (slang) excellent, wonderful, delightful (mid 19th century)

so’s your old man — catch phrase from 1900. An exclamation, used as a retort to an insult or slur.

The Maine — U.S. battleship sunk (Feb. 15, 1898) in Havana harbor, killing 260, in an incident that helped precipitate the Spanish-American War. The cause of the explosion was never satisfactorily explained, and separate American and Spanish inquiries produced different results. But the American jingoistic press blamed the Spanish government, and Remember the Maine became the rallying cry of the war.

Plymouth Rock — Plymouth, Massachusetts, is the oldest settlement in New England, founded in 1620. Plymouth Rock is on the beach where the Mayflower landed.

The Golden Rule — saying of Jesus, from the Bible — As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. Evolved into modern saying — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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7 Comments

Filed under Dialogue, Good Writing, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

7 responses to “What “The Music Man” teaches about dialogue research!

  1. One of my favorite movies. No one can top Robert Preston singing that, too.

  2. “which is why moving them above the knee is such a shocking thing to do”

    But the song portrays moving them BELOW the knee as the shocking thing.

    • Rod Wiesinger

      Young boys wore short pants that exposed their knees. To re-buckle the knickerbockers BELOW the knee made them seem more like long pants. Young men got their long pants at about age 16, a rite of passage into adulthood.

  3. Thanks so much for explaining these obscure terms. I knew many of them, but not all.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      You’re welcome! And thanks to Rod Wiesinger for clearing up the “below the knee” question. Very helpful!

  4. Robert Collins

    Love that scene in THE MUSIC MAN and Robert Preston is priceless! But the film adaptation was released in 1962, not ’64.

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