Pay Up: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

American television network NBC premiered a new musical on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1957. Based on the famous poem by Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the new Technicolor spectacular used music by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg with special lyrics added for the movie.

The Piped Piper of Hamelin Thanksgiving special tells the story of the town of Hamelin and the efforts of the Mayor and his council to win a royal contest. “To this end, the mayor outlaws play (which is a bit hard on the children) and refuses to help a rival town when it is flooded.”  A huge pack of rats flee the flooded rival town and invade Hamelin. The desperate citizens appeal to the Mayor and he agrees, very reluctantly, to hire a mysterious piper. The piper plays a magical tune (Grieg’s beautiful In the Hall of the Mountain King) and leads the rats out of Hamelin and to their doom. The greedy Mayor then uses trickery to get out of paying the piper and the piper takes his revenge on the town of Hamelin.

Van Johnson, a popular Hollywood star of the 1940s and 1950s, has a dual role. He plays both the Pied Piper and the town’s teacher, Truson. As Truson, Van Johnson is in love with the Mayor’s daughter, Mara, but also has to speak out against the Mayor’s harsh decrees. Johnson dons a goatee and a gaudy cape to play the magical Pied Piper. TV viewers of the time so loved Van Johnson as the Pied Piper that in 1966 when he guest starred as a villain on the camp comedy TV series, Batman, his role of the Minstrel was modeled after the Pied Piper.

Other actors in The Pied Piper of Hamelin include movie star Claude Rains, in his only singing and dancing role, as the Mayor, Lori Nelson as the Mayor’s daughter, Mara, Jim Backus as the shallow and conceited King’s Emissary, popular singer Kay Starr as the mother of a missing boy, and Doodles Weaver and Stanley Adams as two goofy town councillors.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is an enjoyable and very colorful movie. The three strip Technicolor process makes the colors just pop. Some viewers may not enjoy the vivid saturation of colors but I just love it. When we put a new template on this blog the other day, Gen asked my opinion of the colors. Everyone else liked the neutrals but I kept picking out the flaming reds and deep blues. I love the colors in some of the dresses the town women wear, especially a blue gown the mayor’s daughter, Mara, wears. Though I have to admit that the colors actor Van Johnson wears in his roles as both the Piper and the teacher Truson are just a bit too much for me.

Many of composer Edvard Grieg’s most famous musical pieces was used in The Pied Piper of Hamelin but with lyrics added just for the movie. “Nearly all of the dialogue in The Pied Piper of Hamelin was written in rhyme (in a nod to the original poem by Robert Browning), much of it directly lifted from the poem.” Among some of my favorite lines from the movie:

  • Truson’s complaint to the Mayor and council: “You mock your neighbor in his hour of need / Blinded by arrogance, bloated with greed / You’re selling your souls in the shoddiest manner / For a worthless rag a king calls a banner.”
  • The Mayor insults his council: “Did I promise much when I said you’d think?”
  • The Mayor is skeptical of the Piper: “You have an invention?” And the Piper replies, “I attract attention / Chiefly with a secret charm / On creatures that do people harm; / The mole, the newt, and viper / (chuckles) Who doesn’t know of the Pied Piper?”
  • The Mayor complains about the Piper’s fee: “What would you do with such a sum?” The Piper replies, “Have fun!”
  • The Mayor dislikes the town’s children: “There’s nothing that makes food taste more vile / Than the yammer and clammer of a juvenile.”
  • The Piper threatens the town: “The time has come to pay the Piper!”
  • Mara is frightened of what the Piper might do: “I’m afraid of music I can’t hear.”

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is strictly a fantasy movie. The Pied Piper does some mysterious, magical things although the special effects are very primitive. The movie is also a mishmash of facts and styles:

  • The clothing ranges from late Medieval to a sort of Renaissance style.
  • Hamelin is an actual town in Germany but everyone sings about using “guilders” which are a Dutch coin.
  • The “guilders” the town uses are gold but in real life they are silver. 
  • Gold is too soft to make a bell and if the townsfolk just coated the bells in gold then they would not need 50,000 “guilders”.
  • The children sing about gathering straw to make bricks and the women sing about gathering mud. But adobe bricks are made of straw and mud. The townsmen are obviously using a kiln to make the bricks. Kiln bricks are made of clay, sand, and some metal. Not straw or mud.

The movie, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, is based on the poem of the same name by famous English Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning. His poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, was originally printed in a self-published book titled Dramatic Lyrics (Bell and Pomegranates No. III) published in 1842. While both the poem and the movie tell the same basic story, the movie was padded quite a bit to make a 90 minute show. The poem is simply the story of how the town is overrun with rats, the Mayor and the council hire the Piper but then refuse to pay him, and the Piper uses his music to lure the children away, never to return. The poem does not have any real characters other than the Mayor and the Piper. The movie added Truson and Mara and the King’s Emissary and other bit parts. The movie also added the whole plotline involving the contest to win the king’s banner. The endings of the poem and movie also are vastly different. The children never return in the poem. But the movie is a “family special” so the happy ending was added.

Some of my favorite lines from the poem include:

  • The children follow the Piper: “And like fowls in a farm-yard when bailey is scattering / Out came the children running / All the little boys and girls / With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls / And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls, / Tripping and skipping, / Ran merrily after / The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.”
  • The Piper leads the children into a mountain: “When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side, / A wondrous portal opened wide, / As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed, / And the Piper advanced and the children followed.”

Both the poem and the movie are based on a legendary event that supposedly occurred in the town of Hamelin (Hameln), Lower Saxony, Germany. “The earliest mention of the story seems to have been on a stained glass window placed in the Church of Hamelin c. (about) 1300.” The window was destroyed in 1660 but there are several surviving accounts of the window featuring a colorful Pied Piper and several children dressed in white. Also the earliest written record in Hamelin’s town records starts with the cryptic entry from 1384: “It is 100 years since our children left.”

Historians generally agree that something happened in Hamelin and that the stained glass window and the record entry were created in memory of a real life tragic event. But historians do not agree on exactly what the tragic event was. Among the theories:

  • The children died of illness like the Black Death which swept through Europe starting in 1348.
  • The children were killed in an accident. Maybe they drowned in the River Weser or were killed in a landslide.
  • The children were lured away by a pagan or heretic cult to live in the Coppenbrügge (the mysterious Koppen “hills” in the poem).
  • The children left on some sort of pilgrimage or crusade similar to the Children’s Crusade of 1212 (which may be based on two actual movements that occurred in 1212).
  • A large number of children may have been killed by a psychopathic pedophile.
  • The children may have been unwanted or illegitimate children or orphans that were sold to a recruiter from the Baltic region of Europe.
  • The children may have been unemployed youths who joined a German drive to colonize its new settlements in Eastern Europe.
  • The children may have been actual young adults who were recruited by landowners to help settle parts of Transylvania, Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania, and the Teutonic Lands which had suffered under lengthy Mongol invasions.

The website of modern day Hamelin favors the last theory.

So, overall, the movie The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a brightly colored musical movie that lasts about 90 minutes. There are several popular actors and actresses in the movie who played roles ranging from the mysterious and slightly weird Piper, the greedy Mayor, the goofy councillors, the grieving mothers, and the daffy Emissary. The music is wonderful especially In the Hall of the Mountain King (listen to it here) which is one of my all-time favorite musical pieces. Singer / actress Kay Starr sings a lovely lament for the missing children. The rhyming lyrics are a cute idea but it leads to some awkward and just plain lame phrases. The whole movie is very family friendly, nothing is too scary or sad. Even the rats are only seen as shadows on the walls except for one scene where they jump into the river. But the special effects in that scene (and many other scenes) are so primitive that it is actually hard to make out the rats. The audio skips a bit in a couple of places but the visuals are very bright and clear. And the original poem by Robert Browning is a short, quick read.

The movie The Pied Piper of Hamelin is free to watch in the Public Domain. Please click this link to go to The Internet Archive and watch The Pied Piper of Hamelin. You can watch it on the site or download it to your computer.

The original poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning, is also in the Public Domain and is available free from a variety of sources:

Project Gutenberg has two different simple text only versions that you can read online or download here and here.

WikiSource also has a simple text only version of the poem here.

The Internet Archive has a text only version of the poem that you can read online or download here.

The best version of the poem is a lovely book illustrated by Kate Greenaway and published in 1888 (I used some of her illustrations when I talked about the poem). You can find the best version of the Kate Greenaway version here.

There is another version of the Kate Greenaway book that you can read or download here at The Internet Archive.

Project Gutenberg and The Internet Archive have an audio reading that you can listen to that also includes the Kate Greenaway illustrations here.

LibreVox has audio versions of the poem that you can listen to or download. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is poem number 10 in this collection here ) and it is poem number 12 in this collection here.

2 thoughts on “Pay Up: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

  1. It was actually completely a coincidence that this turned out to be a Thanksgiving special. I was just looking for a light, fun movie to review. It was not until I started researching that I realized when it premiered. It was perfectly timed. 🙂

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