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The Sound of Music is a good opportunity to celebrate Robert Wise, an RKO editor turned director of horror films under Val Lewton who had a truly remarkable film career. Sticking to crime thrillers and action epics through the 1950s, he remained a journeyman talent while trying to break into the higher strata with the hard-hitting 'issue' films I Want to Live (capital punishment) and Odds Against Tomorrow (race prejudice). He finally made the leap when the Mirisch brothers needed a no nonsense, bottom line-appreciating director to balance out Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins on West Side Story. Robbins' artistic excesses added immensely to the quality of the film, but he was canned in mid-production and Wise finished alone to public acclaim and a welcome into the industry's top ranks. For the next few years he'd be able to film whatever he wanted, as his own producer.
The Sound of Music is a case of grabbing the perfect gold ring at the perfect time. Wise helmed a streamlined production reuniting most of his musical and design experts from the West Side Story project -- Saul Chaplin, Ernest Lehman, Boris Leven and Maurice Zuberano. For choreographers he chose the creative Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, fresh from Julie Andrews' Mary Poppins. The timing of the optimistic, romantic and politically complacent The Sound of Music couldn't have been better -- it seemed the entire world embraced it in 1965 and it played seemingly forever, even in smaller cities. In San Bernardino it stayed in one theater for the better part of a year. I think that every time a baby-booomer household couldn't find an 'acceptable' family film for a Saturday night outing, they'd just go see The Sound of Music again.
The Sound of Music works, there's no denying that. Savant resisted its charms for years because of its insipid treatment of Nazi Evil being oh-so easily conquered by the supposedly unstoppable power of love, music and saccharine charm. I never liked movies about 'cute' nuns and priests - The Bells of St. Mary's with its 'romantic' subtext between Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman always revolted me. Escapism is good and it's needed, but in his younger days I associated the appeal of this picture with the inability of the public to face reality. Complacent folk would point to The Sound of Music as proof of goodness in the world, and my head would spin. The same thing happened about seventeen years later when a group of adults was insulted because I told them I felt that E.T. the Extraterrestrial was unfit entertainment for children!
Well, a lot of time has passed and I can see that my sympathies were in the right place but my perspective was more than a little narrow. The Sound of Music is not the opiate of the masses and I had no particular corner on cynical wisdom. The movie is saccharine but it's not a tooth-decay picture on the order of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It simplifies the Von Trapps into an ideal family unit that simply takes a walk in the hills to evade the pernicious Nazi authorities ... but it doesn't make any blanket statement that the Reich could be so easily fooled by everybody. As for those cutesy nuns that ask forgiveness for mischievously sabotaging the Nazi vehicles to abet the Von Trapp escape, they are ..... still pretty unforgiveable! I guess the filmmakers can be forgiven for not showing the Abbey sisters being sent to concentration camps for their part in the Von Trapp escape. Ah, if this is just the first couple of months of the Anschluss, maybe they could get away with it all.
With those gripes out of the way, it's easier to concentrate on just how smartly Robert Wise and his confectioners have put together The Sound of Music. Wise was frequently criticized as a director more interested in efficiency than working with actors or suprising us in the drama department. But he's always had a good graphic sense and with his stellar team of designers The Sound of Music is as handsome as movies get. The opening aerial shots of the Austrian Alps are a calculated repeat of the beginning of West Side, a super-travelogue for the View-Master crowd. Then Julie Andrews comes running across a grassy meadow to the opening bars of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, and the work of winning over 95% of the middle-class audience is done.
I remember hearing "Ahs" of approval with every new view of the Von Trapp estate, every mountain meadow, every incredibly photogenic cobbled lane in town. Wise and editor William Reynolds employ different design ideas on a few songs, like the now-overused trick of jumping a continuous song across multiple locations. Most efforts just replay the stage situations in parlor rooms, Maria's bedroom or other harmonious surroundings. But very little time passes before Wise hits us with another pleasing visual, like Maria walking slowly through a line of white-barked trees, left to right as she sings. Late-night meetings at the summer house amid a lot of symmetrical compositions have a slight fairy tale quality that's pleasing to the eye. Reynolds was quoting as saying that every sticky editing problem had a solution: When in doubt, cut to Julie Andrews. In the design department, only the supposed folk music festival comes up a little short, as it takes place in a cold stone amphitheater and the audience seems remote. I suppose in the theater all of this material was done with a spotlight on an empty stage?
The Von Trapp kids no longer irk me as much as they once did; the story's key for family harmony is that everyone is simply congenial and happy at all times, and all of life should be a group activity. I've visited families that have tried to enforce those rules, and have yet to see it work. Maria's success with the Von Trapp kids and their father comes from her being able to do all the 'worldly' things frowned upon in the Abbey -- make noise, dance, sing -- proving that she really doesn't belong in the spiritual life. It is indeed weird to see the Nuns watching enraptured as Maria marries Chris Plummer instead of Christ. No matter how one dresses it up, their reaction reads as envy. Maria has achieved something they cannot.
Maria has no acknowleged selfish motives, even though everything she does magically results in a personal bourgeois victory for which any local fraülein would happily sell her soul. She basically moves in on the Captain's household like the goddess of music and harmony. The confused novice nun bit makes her impervious to accusations of widower-wooing. Yes, she does retreat before the Baroness, but those wily matchmakers back at the Abbey send her out once more. Score one for the sisterhood. Once again, Maria's wedding is a really confusing moment. The movie has kept base marital issues like sex far out of our minds, and now Maria is jumping into married life while still holding onto some notion of ultra-purity.
The threat of Naziism enters via a couple of telegrams, the snub of a local fascist leader and the overnight transformation of Liesl's boyfriend Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte) from cute messenger to Hitler youth. The Captain challenges Rolfe and scores a major moral victory (over a 17 year-old kid!). The Sound of Music allows this concerned father to flee with his entire family without harming anyone (a point is made that the servants must be given plausible deniability about the escape) or dirtying their hands. The story isn't about moral compromise but it does trivialize its Nazi-era background fairly severely. I doubt that many European refugees were able to pack alpine bags and sing their way to freedom along sunny mountain trails. Then again, I wasn't there. I understand that the actual facts about the real Von Trapps were not as unambiguously clean-cut as seen here.
The music of The Sound of Music is definitely superior, with some of Rodgers & Hammerstein's most inspirational tunes - even if Climb Every Mountain sounds as if the Mother Abbess is suggesting an escape route. Ernest Lehman has done a good job re-plastering the stage story, even though the visual crutch of the scenery overpowers any particular story detail. After many theater critics had taken the play to task for being too treacly, Lehman changed the reason for the breakup between the Baroness and the Captain. In the play both she and Max Detwieler (Richard Haydn in the movie) favored the Nazi cause, forcing the Captain to choose against them. In the movie, the love triangle remains just about love and almost all of the supporting characters are fervent anti-Nazis. Lehman thought the stage construction was too much like a history lesson, and the truth is that downplaying the Nazi issue was probably a sound commercial decision. 2
Julie Andrews is delightful as Maria and Christopher Plummer disguises his contempt for the show completely. It is reported that Andrews asked how they were going to avoid all the schmaltzy content, while Plummer repeatedly referred to the show as The Sound of Mucus. 1
Fox's hefty 40th anniversary edition of The Sound of Music is quite a beautiful transfer still marred here and there by a small vertical scratches. Overall it looks lovely, with terrific detail and a bright DD 5.1 soundtrack in English and alternate tracks in Spanish and French. (Savant hasn't seen earlier DVDs or laserdiscs since 1990 or so.) The set packs a ton of extra into two discs. See the full list below. Savant sampled most of them. The long-form docu hosted by Ms. Andrews has a lot of 'fond memories' wistfulness but delivers the goods as well. The Von Trapps are covered, along with the German movie that was the inspiration for the original musical play. We even see a few snippets of a TV parody of the stage play starring Andrews and Carol Burnett -- long before the movie.
Plummer and Andrews get together for a 'reminiscence' and share a few choice memories and kid-safe anecdotes. Charmian Carr takes us on a video tour of Alpine locations, also handled as a 'personal reminiscence' -- everybody on this set behaves as if the movie were the greatest cultural event in history ... well, for 1965 it practically was. Another featurette becomes a reunion of Von Trapp kids, many of whom are grandparents now. Heather Menzies and Angela Cartwright run a production company together.
Moving along ... a 'singalong' feature covers the Hollywood Bowl's Sound of Music Sing-Along-Night. A Biography episode uncovers the true story of the real Von Trapps, who are barely recognizable from the movie version (this is very good). Mia Farrow does a singing screen test (not so good) and then does a couple of dance steps. There's also a restoration comparison and galleries of advertising print and film, and behind-the-scenes stills.
The main feature has two commentaries, one by the late Robert Wise and one with Andrews, Plummer and various others. A Karaoke feature accompanies the songs with animated sing-along words.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sound of Music rates:
1. Savant personally regrets the cancellation of Julie Andrews' next blockbuster in 1966, a musical-thriller based on The Most Dangerous Game. We're still waiting to see the stills of her running in the mud for her life while warbling a ditty about "thorns in my feet and love in my heart." The title, in blood-soaked lettering, was to be The Hounds of Music.
First, thank you for doing such an extensive review of this movie. It is so easy for people to not really do a serious review for the reasons you state. You really covered a lot of the issues in the film, and I was very glad to see that.
Secondly, I really appreciate you crediting Margery McKay for the singing voice of the Mother Abbess. I was her voice student for a time and knew this, but so few people are aware of it in the way that the world knows of the various roles sung by Marni Nixon. I'm glad that Margery got some recognition for once. Thank you!
Not only am I a huge fan of the movie, I was fortunate enough to have played Maria in a small, local community production back in my college days. We were doing the original version of the stage play, and not the reconstructed one that many groups do to match what happens in the movie so as not to challenge an audience. Because of this experience I have great affection for the original version, and I felt I should point out that in the play Max and The Baroness didn't particularly favor the Nazi cause as you state in your review. Rather, they didn't favor fighting the Nazi cause because they felt it was pointless. This was the subject of the song "No Way to Stop It" which was cut from the movie. There was also another song in the play in which Max and The Baroness sang called "How Can Love Survive." Some of the background music in the ballroom scene is actually the melody from this second cut song. I always thought it was sad that they cut these two songs and made Max and The Baroness non-singing roles - it would have made the movie longer (unless one cut all the extra scenes that were added to begin with), but non-singing charachters in a musical just seem to be wrong somehow. And the mechanism for the Captain to be free to marry Maria kind of makes him seem a wimp in the movie - the Baroness sets him free out of the kindness in her heart - rather than him standing up for himself the way he does with "No Way to Stop It" and its immediate aftermath.
Other differences that I don't particularly like in the movie would include the fact that Rolfe actually turns them in in the movie; in the stage play they escape because he specifically finds them and does NOT turn them in because of his love for Liesl (no speech necessary from the Captain). And while in the play Maria is the strong one who says they can make it over the mountain, in the film the Captain takes on this role and Maria gets the line "But the children!" that the Captain speaks in the play. Having read "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers" several times in preparing to play Maria, making the Captain the strong one emotionally would seem to be a ridiculous twist - he simply wasn't that person in this relationship. Reading this book, in fact, is a strange revelation - seeing what is fact and what is fiction is intriguing. I believe that Maria was softened down and the Captain made stronger for commercial reasons, much like the other changes you note in your review, but it still makes a modern woman sigh. I find it glaring that they soften him in the one place in the play where he is emotionally the stronger person (the whole Baroness thing) and make him stronger at the expense of the Maria character in several other places.
Another song, "An Ordinary Couple" sung by the Captain and Maria, was replaced with "Something Good" at (I understand) Julie Andrews' request. I can't really fault that - "An Ordinary Couple" is an okay song but "Something Good" is clearly a superior one and the original composers added it. The title song is pitched up noticably to better suit Ms. Andrews (again, no harm there) and the ending of "Do Re Mi" is dramatically altered from the stage version. The only problem there is that the stage version (once again) now uses this version rather than the original. I do wish the original could be heard by people.
All of this using material from the film when doing a stage production, by the way, costs the production companies extra, yet those production companies feel they have no choice but to present what the audience expects based on the film. A little blackmail to avoid challenging audience members. Now that seems more like the "opiate for the masses" you mention in your review.
One rarely sees the original stage version anymore, so maybe none of this matters unless it is viewed as a cultural anthropology lesson, but it's nice to tell someone who has put so much thought into a review of the movie!
I apologize for writing such an extensive letter. I guess I am one of those people who love the movie a bit TOO much! I do appreciate your attention and thank you again for the wonderful review you wrote. Sincerely, Michele Mulidor