THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)

  • Director: Robert Wise
  • Writers: Screenplay by Ernest Lehman, with Music by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the Stage Musical by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse
  • Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker, Richard Haydn, Peggy Wood, Charmian Carr, Nicholas Hammond, Heather Menzies, Duane Chase, Angela Cartwright, Debbie Turner, Kym Karath, Daniel Truhitte, Bill Lee, and Margery McKay
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#40), 5 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Robert Wise, Best Adapted Score, Best Film Editing, Best Sound), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actress – Julie Andrews, Best Supporting Actress – Peggy Wood, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The Sound of Music is, for me, a sort of case study about familiarity. It can certainly be argued that today we’ve sort of entered a nostalgia black hole, in which Hollywood and TV would rather always remake an old thing with a name people know instead of an actual new thing. But just because you know something by heart doesn’t actually make it good. This is a musical where it’s fairly likely you’ll recognize almost every song, even if you’ve never seen the movie. Certainly I did. But I’d also argue that it’s not actually a good movie. I don’t mean I don’t like individual things in it. Both Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer give top-notch performances, and there are a couple of Rodgers & Hammerstein songs that really do feel, out of context, like high art. But most of them are super cheery and not much else, and the story… oh boy, the story is a mess.

The story is (very loosely) based on a real-life story of the Von Trapp family, which formed a traditional singing group consisting of seven children in 1930s Austria, then fled to Switzerland on foot so that their father, a vehement opponent of the Nazis, would not be forced to serve in the German military. In the movie, Julie Andrews plays a woman studying to be a nun at an abbey in Salzburg, who because she is seen as the abbey problem child is sent off to serve as governess to the seven Von Trapp kids. She finds that they are subjected to strict discipline by their father, Captain Von Trapp (Plummer). He is at first furious with her for occasionally allowing them to smile, basically, but then he hears the song she’s taught them to sing and does a complete and very sudden 180. Soon after, the pair realize they’ve fallen for each other, and Maria flees back to the abbey. But after the intermission and an encouraging song from the Abbess (Peggy Wood), Maria returns and before long the two of them are getting married (they sort of skip dating and go straight to enormous cathedral wedding). But around the same time the Anschluss (in which Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany) takes place, and after a climactic appearance at a local singing contest, the family has to flee from the Nazis. 

I won’t be the first to note that this movie takes a hard turn in the last act, which in the world of the movie is basically not set up at all, from silly songs about “whiskers on kittens” to Nazis yelling stuff like “I’ll kill you!” If you didn’t know it was coming, the first doofy kid a solid seventy minutes in this movie who suddenly yells “Heil Hitler!” would definitely come as a major shock. The guy who ends up being the main Nazi villain (Ben Wright) gets approximately two lines before intermission. I get that is probably how a lot of people actually experience history or whatever, but as a story it’s a bizarre and sudden juxtaposition.

But even meeting the movie on that level, the main plot of the first two-thirds has to do with Maria meeting the kids and teaching them and also the father how to have fun, right? Except that the kids are rebellious to begin with and have tortured the last dozen governesses into leaving. The oldest girl (Charmian Carr) sneaks off to meet up with her boyfriend, where they sing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” (leaving me genuinely flummoxed about whether she’s serious or sort of sarcastic about the lyrics, in any other movie it would definitely be sarcastic, but…). So all Maria really does is give them permission to do what they’re already doing. Meanwhile, the Captain’s transformation is so sudden and complete that we’re left wondering what his deal was if that guy was in there the whole time. Side note, I understand that he’s a real dude, but the whole idea of him being a famous sea captain in the Austrian Navy, at a time when Austria was a completely landlocked country, feels… pretty bizarre? What is his deal? (I looked it up and he served in the German navy during World War I, which makes sort of some sense, but the movie never gives you that info)

Julie Andrews had just made her movie debut as Mary Poppins after several years on stage, which was a megahit and won her an Oscar. Several of the team set to make The Sound of Music had the chance to see that movie before it was released, and the story goes that only a few minutes into the movie director Robert Wise turned to writer Ernest Lehman and said, “Let’s go sign this girl before someone else sees her and grabs her!” It’s a very different performance, than I, a millennial, am used to seeing from Andrews. She’s almost an ingénue, flying into the movie in full on Magic Pixie Dream Girl mode. She had played older in Mary Poppins, but here she’s playing younger.

The recently deceased Christopher Plummer had probably the best known role of his career as Captain Von Trapp. He was asked about the movie throughout his life, but hated talking about it and apparently hated making it. He wouldn’t call it by its actual name, calling it “The Sound of Mucus” or “S & M,” and said that working with Julie Andrews on a movie was like “being slapped in the face with a Valentine’s Day card, all day every day.” He was not the only one with misgivings about the movie, but this did not prevent it from being a mega-hit. Some have even postulated that the movie saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy after the huge bomb that was the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton version of Cleopatra. The Sound of Music became the number one hit of the year 1965 and was the big winner at the Oscars. Just as there are certainly directors coming up today who form their identities partly through the rejection of current trends, the “New Hollywood” of Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, et al., defined themselves partly as rebelling against Hollywood’s repeated attempts to catch the same lightning in a bottle that they did with The Sound of Music. During the era of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, and Dr. Strangelove, Hollywood gave Best Picture Oscars to this movie, Oliver!, and My Fair Lady. We act like having a split culture is a new thing, but that is clearly not true.

Robert Wise directed this movie only a few years after helming another massive musical hit, West Side Story, which we’ll cover here someday soon. Interestingly, that movie also starts with a long (longer than any studio would ask a 2021 audience to put up with) series of overhead shots before finding the main character and zooming in on them, though the shots in that movie are of New York City and in this case it’s the Alps. You’d think from those two huge successes that Wise specialized in musicals, but that is not the case. His other filmography included The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He reportedly took the job after Billy Wilder turned down the movie, saying “no musical with swastikas in it will ever be successful.” In fact, the city of Salzburg tried to prevent the production from putting up Nazi flags, believing it would hurt the city’s image, until Wise threatened to use actual newsreel footage of the flags in the same locations and the city caved.

Look, I’m not saying that the songs aren’t great. Rodgers & Hammerstein are geniuses, and I’m not going to argue against “Edelweiss” being this perfect thing. I also think that “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” is straight-up poetry, while simultaneously not buying for a second that it describes the Maria we actually meet in this movie. It seems to be some other, much more interesting Maria. And that’s the issue for me, the plot and characters do not support the songs, or even really come close. It’s interesting to look at the songs that were cut from the stage version to the movie, including one called “No Way to Stop It,” in which the Baron’s friends try to convince him not to stand up too much to the Nazis, basically. If you just put that song back in I think it would solve like a third of my problems with this movie. I’m including the recording below from the NBC live version they did a few years back with Carrie Underwood in the Maria role, though you can’t hear her on this track: 

6 thoughts on “THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)

  1. The real Captain Georg Von Trapp was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian navy. Prior to WWI, the empire was certainly not landlocked, but after the war, he was out of a job. He was one of the most highly decorated submarine captains, having been the first to successfully execute a nighttime attack and having sunk eleven cargo vessels, including the Leon Gambetta which resulted in a loss of almost 700 sailors. As a person whose grandfather was a merchant mariner during WWII and sunk twice by U-boats during the Atlantic convoys, I’m glad Captain Von Trapp declined the Nazi’s invitation to return to duty.

    Liked by 1 person

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