The Pied Piper of Hamelin is an American ninety-minute musical film in color, originally made as a television special and first shown by NBC on Tuesday, November 26, 1957, as one of their Thanksgiving Week offerings for that year. It preempted that evening's telecasts of The Nat King Cole Show and The Eddie Fisher Show. Based on the famous poem of the same name by Robert Browning and using the music of Edvard Grieg arranged by Pete King with special lyrics by Hal Stanley and Irving Taylor, it starred Van Johnson, Claude Rains (in his only singing and dancing role), Lori Nelson, Jim Backus, and Kay Starr. It was directed by Broadway veteran Bretaigne Windust. In a direct nod to Browning's poem, nearly all of the dialogue in The Pied Piper of Hamelin was written in rhyme, much of it directly lifted from the poem.
Unusually for a made-for-TV family special of the era, it was not presented live but on actual motion picture film, and the color process used was not NBC's usual "living color", but three-strip Technicolor, which had previously been used on television only in the one-hour science specials Our Mr. Sun and Hemo the Magnificent. Theatrical prints, however, erroneously bill the film as having been made in Eastman Color.
The program was successful enough it spawned an LP record album and was repeated on NBC in 1958. It was then syndicated to many local stations, where it was rerun annually for many years, in the tradition of other holiday specials. The film was briefly released to movie theatres in 1966, where it did not fare nearly as well.
Years later, Van Johnson's performance as the Pied Piper was still so fondly remembered that he played a Piper-like criminal called "The Minstrel" on the 1966 TV series Batman.
The Pied Piper (Van Johnson) is first spotted working magic in Hamelin by a disabled boy, Paul, and playing his signature tune In the Hall of the Mountain King. Paul tells his best friend, the schoolteacher Truson (=true son), also played by Johnson, but Truson is skeptical.
The town of Hamelin has entered a competition in order to win a banner from the King. To this end, the Mayor (Claude Rains) exhorts the people to work incessantly, even the children, to the extent that they are denied school and play. Truson protests, but his protests go unheeded by the arrogant Mayor. As part of a competition between several villages, the Mayor and his cabinet plan to construct golden chimes to impress the King's Emissary, who is due to pay a visit to Hamelin. But their efforts are temporarily halted when the town is invaded by rats, which have fled the neighboring city of Hamelout after the Weser River flooded and destroyed the town.
It is then that the Piper magically appears before the Mayor and his councilors. (He can appear inside the council room although the door is bolted.) Asking to be paid all the money in the town's treasury, (fifty-thousand guilders) he offers to rid the town of the rats. An unusual element is introduced into the story here: whenever the Piper plays a happy tune for the children, only Truson and the children can hear it. When he plays "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and leads the rats to their doom in the river, the children quickly fall asleep and only the material-minded adults such as the Mayor, but not Truson, can hear the music.
The Piper rids the town of the rats, but rather than simply paying him, the Mayor and his Cabinet attempt to use legal pettifoggery to trick him into an agreement whereby he must deposit a certain amount of money as a guarantee that the rats will not return, and if they do he must return the rest of the money that he has been paid. Furious, the Piper leaves without his money, and the Mayor plots to use the gold to construct the chimes. Truson, who is in love with the Mayor's daughter Mara (Lori Nelson) is thrown in jail for speaking out against this injustice. The Mayor plans to marry off Mara to the King's Emissary (Jim Backus), but at this point, the Piper takes his revenge. Playing a happy variation on "In the Hall of the Mountain King", he leads the children of Hamelin away and into a beautiful kingdom concealed by a cave which magically opens to let the children in. But Paul is accidentally left behind, after he falls while trying to catch up with the other children and the cave closes before he can pass through.
The rest of the plot concerns the resolution of the Truson-Mara love story, the attempts of the adults to bring back the children, and the townsfolk and the Mayor. A happy ending showing the Piper's forgiveness and his returning of the children was added to the story in order to keep the program a family special.Van Johnson as Pied Piper / Truson
Claude Rains as Mayor of Hamelin
Lori Nelson as Mara
Jim Backus as King's Emissary
Kay Starr as John's Mother
Doodles Weaver as the Mayor's Councillor
Stanley Adams as the Mayor's Councillor
As in the 1944 Broadway musical Song of Norway, many of Grieg's most famous pieces are heard here, albeit with lyrics. The first movement of the Piano Concerto in A Minor serves as the tune for the lovers' duet; Wedding-Day at Troldhaugen serves as a work song for the townsfolk of Hamelin, and Grieg's Peer Gynt music is used for most of the other musical numbers.Van Johnson (dubbed by an anonymous flute soloist) and offscreen orchestra conducted by Pete King - "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (Music by Edvard Grieg, orchestral arrangement adapted from Grieg's music for Peer Gynt)
Doodles Weaver and chorus - "Work Song" (Music by Edvard Grieg adapted from "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen", lyrics by Irving Taylor)
Van Johnson - "How Can I Tell You?" (Music by Edvard Grieg adapted from "Piano Concerto in A Minor", lyrics by Irving Taylor)
Claude Rains, Doodles Weaver, Stanley Adams and Councilors - "Prestige" (Music by Edvard Grieg, lyrics by Irving Taylor)
Van Johnson and Villagers - "Feats of the Piper" (Music by Edvard Grieg adapted from "Anitra's Dance" from Peer Gynt, lyrics by Irving Taylor)
"Morning Waltz" (Music by Edvard Grieg adapted from "Morning Mood" from Peer Gynt adapted and conducted by Pete King)
Van Johnson - "Flim Flam Floo" (Music by Edvard Grieg adapted from one of the "Norwegian Dances", lyrics by Irving Taylor)
Van Johnson - "Fool's Gold" (Music by Edvard Grieg adapted from "Solvejg's Song" from Peer Gynt, lyrics by Irving Taylor)
Lori Nelson - "My Heart Will Fly To Heaven" (Music by Edvard Grieg adapted from "Wedding Day at Toldhaugen", lyrics by Irving Taylor)
Villagers - "The Emissary's Song" (Music by Edvard Grieg adapted from "Arabian Dance" from Peer Gynt)
Van Johnson and Lori Nelson - "How Can I Tell You?"
Kay Starr - "A Mother's Lament" (Music by Edvard Grieg adapted from "Aase's Death" from Peer Gynt, lyrics by Irving Taylor)
The film was one of several telecasts in the 1950s of musical fantasies aimed at children and shown as specials. This trend was caused by the enormous success of the first two live telecasts (in 1955 and 1956) of the Mary Martin Peter Pan, which had gained the largest audience for a TV special to date. In late 1955, Hallmark Hall of Fame had presented a live telecast of the 1932 stage adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. This had been followed in 1956 by the first telecast of MGM's 1939 film The Wizard of Oz (starring Judy Garland), and the first, live version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's only musical for television, Cinderella (1957), starring Julie Andrews. Both The Wizard of Oz and Cinderella also drew large audiences on television. And only a month before the telecast of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, NBC had presented live a live-action musical adaptation of Pinocchio, with Mickey Rooney as the puppet who longs to be a real boy. In 1958, a live musical version of Hansel and Gretel, with Barbara Cook and Red Buttons, would also be televised. Both Pinocchio and Hansel and Gretel boasted scores by Alec Wilder. Cole Porter would follow in 1958 with Aladdin, starring Sal Mineo and Basil Rathbone, and that same year, ABC, with the help of Serge Prokofiev and Ogden Nash, would combine the elements of musical comedy, marionette presentations, and classical music in a successful special entitled "Art Carney Meets Peter and the Wolf".
Rarely telecast now, The Pied Piper of Hamelin is currently available on DVD and can also be seen online, though there has never been a restored release, because the movie is now in the public domain. The DVD was re-issued in 2004 by Digiview Productions.