Director Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music for 20th Century Fox is an opulent and lavish production. The 1965 movie musical, written by Ernest Lehman, is melodic and cinematic. At the start of its nearly three hours, with sweeping aerial photography in famous opening shots, it falls and centers upon a solitary figure in harmony with nature.
The movie, adapted from the Broadway stage production, is Maria’s story. Portrayed by Julie Andrews with plain, plucky charm and a beautiful singing voice, Maria Rainer gives a singular voice to Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s music and lyrics, which contrast the plot’s looming conflict.
“Salzburg, Austria in the last golden days of the 1930s” is how Oscar’s Best Picture winner for 1965 describes the unnamed Nazi prelude in subtitle, eerily agnostic on a fascist takeover of Austria. The young, freethinking novitiate nun exudes wholeness with the world just as the world constricts around her. The picture moves from extreme exteriors to extreme interiors as the music stops. It is replaced with the sound of a whistle, blown by a single father, Captain George von Trapp (gallant Christopher Plummer) who substitutes shows of discipline for expressions of love when parenting his motherless children.
Enter headstrong Maria, on assignment as a governess from a mother superior at the abbey. Maria is the captain’s equal and she acts in defiance of the master of the house.
After an initiation, the film’s first matter for parental guidance and governance is emergent sexual tension displayed in a charming rain dance between the older child, Liesl (Charmian Carr), and her suitor, Rolf (Daniel Truhitte), which dovetails with the main plot conflict, even as the song’s lyrics are a recipe for lifelong mental health therapy (“Sixteen Going on Seventeen”). This colorful movie was made, to paraphrase the film, in the last days of Hollywood’s golden age, before scripts turned dark and malevolent, before casting scorned the wholesome and good-looking and before the culture widely went bankrupt.
The story of an independent Catholic girl and the stern widower with whom she falls in love juxtaposes with Nazi Germany, and, as with other pre-Nazi depictions such as The Mortal Storm (1940) and Arise, My Love (1944), combines enchantment with impending doom. As much as The Sound of Music is both an artistic and commercial success, and it is solidly both, it is in retrospect easier to see how it endures primarily as a piece of fondly remembered musical cheer involving a governess skipping and singing in the Alps.
In fact, screenwriter Ernest Lehman originally recruited director William Wyler (Roman Holiday, The Big Country, Funny Girl) a German-born artist who sought to enunciate the anti-totalitarian theme, when Lehman’s West Side Story director, Robert Wise, was otherwise engaged. Wyler scouted locations and eventually exited over creative differences, saying “I just can’t bear to make a picture about all those nice Nazis.”
The Sound of Music does have a Nazi problem. The movie, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, minimizes moral judgment of fascism. First, the baroness character (Eleanor Parker) and her friend, Max (Richard Haydn), explicitly appease the Nazis. In Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s original play, this is the reason the captain breaks up with the Viennese aristocrat, and the play’s songs underscore the plot point. The tunes are cut for the film. Here, the Nazi sympathizer is benign, offering a mea culpa after scheming against Maria. Worse, the baroness is the voice of egoism, urging the captain: “Do try to love yourself.” Second, the film’s voice of reason opposing the Nazis, the captain, enacts Christian forgiveness for a Nazi—worse, a Nazi that hunts his family. Third, while the captain forgives, the Nazi rejects the act of Christianity, endangering the entire family. The captain’s presumably deadly mistake is never addressed, let alone repudiated, by the movie, which ends with Von Trapp’s family fleeing into the mountains. The upshot: the only real conflict in The Sound of Music (after Maria’s wedding to the captain) is left essentially unresolved; an existential, universal evil goes fundamentally unchallenged.
This is disturbing for several reasons. It means that escaping evil is possible without naming, confronting and ending what makes it evil, the opposite of the plot-theme of Casablanca. The Nazis are outsmarted, as against denounced, in The Sound of Music. By contrast, consider Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which is unforgiving of National Socialism, released in the same era. The Sound of Music conveys that Nazis may be bad, but it implies that Nazis may also deserve forgiveness—and that cooperating, cavorting and conspiring with Nazis is morally defensible (it is not). One might say that this movie is a musical, not a drama like those other films, and it’s a different genre. But this makes the point more pointed; taken as a whole, The Sound of Music‘s theme is that music matters only as an aesthetic salve or temporary diversion; it has nothing to do with real life, let alone high ideals. The opposite, as masterfully depicted in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and South Pacific, both of which name, confront and defeat evil, and do so with music, is true.
The muddled morality is contradicted by the poetic and ingenious words and music in The Sound of Music.
“My Favorite Things” celebrates finding the good, which Maria later does after being rejected by the captain. “Do-Re-Mi” teaches a lesson in music to the children as they hop and frolic in nature and relish in the manmade, such as bicycles and a carriage, to a tune which imparts hierarchical knowledge as they experience the world for the first time. Music is crucially meaningful, not temporarily beneficial, in The Sound of Music. By the end of the first hour, the captain is at last in harmony with his children, reprising the title tune and infusing its initial theme of solitude with solidarity, as he reawakens to the value of family, his family, does his own mea culpa, and pleads with Maria, whom he has fired, to stay on. The yodeling song cements this bond, with “Edelweiss” performed with solemnity as the children explicitly choose to embrace their father’s seriousness one by one, displaying both loyalty and ability to their tutor, Maria.
The Austrian folk dance between the captain and Maria is beautifully framed, shot and choreographed as it expresses the movie’s playful, romantic sense of life—he tells her: “I’m sure you’ll make a very fine nun”—before the baroness desecrates what’s holy in the secular, sexual sense between man and woman just before intermission. The last shot of Maria exiting the Von Trapps’ manor mirrors her earlier entrance into the captain’s home. As the poster art suggests, the music is lilting, light and cheerful, countering the harsh, dark and funereal sensibility of the swastika and its philosophy. The Sound of Music is as striking and enduring as it is in expressing gaiety because, and only because, it contrasts with the heavy, serious political theme. This is elementary in each design detail of every scene.
Maria’s story is framed as her search for meaning in life, through an affiliation with the Catholic Church. As in The Painted Veil, the Church’s maternal nun figure (Peggy Wood) possesses an enlightened view of Catholicism. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is a song of life lived in the moment, here on earth, whatever its ecclesiastical implications. The reverend mother all but advises Maria to fight for a man, fight for love and fight for herself. It is a song of self-assertion. The Sound of Music is a Cinderella story—the tale of a prince and a country girl, an aristocrat and his servant—pitting baroness against governess. While the baroness seeks the worst of man and turns the other cheek, away from her knowledge of the captain’s true love and from the Nazis, the governess seeks the best of man and refuses not to see the truth, whether challenging the captain when she thinks he’s wrong or standing by him when she knows he’s right.
What the reverend mother has to say about this part of the plot is important, too. Hers is a comparatively secular blessing consistent with the movie’s heroic nuns who act to physically stop the Nazis. Suggesting that Maria should actively look to her own life as the standard of value, she asks: “And have you?” Maria’s contemplative, absolutist, and egoistic, answer—”I think I have. I know I have.”—precedes her wedding, reprising the nuns’ song about solving “a problem like Maria”, who is neither a will of a wisp nor a clown. Wedding bells ring, transitioning to a bell ringing as the agents of total government control march into Austria, with affable appeaser Max imploring the captain that “the thing to do these days is to get along with everybody” before the captain rips the Nazi flag and the family takes refuge behind gravestones at the mercy of a nun who is foremost kind old woman.
Julie Andrews as would-be Sister Maria deserves singing credit, of course, though the film’s success owes equally to its commanding hero, portrayed by sunburnt, daring and handsome Christopher Plummer, who plays Captain Von Trapp as what today’s intellectuals might call an “extremist” for liberty and individualism. After all, he thinks forbidden thoughts and abandons his country and his vast property for an act on principle: a life for his family in liberty, not tyranny. The sound of music is, in this sense, subservient to the reality of philosophy.
Fifty years later, most remember only the music.
The Sound of Music is popular, I suspect, because it is close to sublime but also because it is mixed, romanticizing religion and minimizing Nazi Germany, pushing audiences not to think seriously about philosophy, while elevating the good. Like Life is Beautiful (1997), as against Bob Fosse’s dark, decadent Cabaret (1972), this light, entertaining and partially serious musical epic featuring wonderful songs of life commits a small yet crucial error in its depiction of goodness; it portrays the good and the innocent as merely separate from, rather than superior to, the evil and the monstrous.
That the hills are alive, to borrow the title song’s iconic line, is contingent upon whether one is free to live. As much as there is to enjoy in The Sound of Music‘s melodious splendor—and the movie musical is spectacular—in what amounts to a wholesome family’s secular triumph, it mitigates an essential moral contrast and condemnation, leaving me pondering whether William Wyler’s more serious version might have made something good even better.
Blu-Ray & DVD Review
Everything one could want from this outstanding movie is on these five discs for Fox’s 50th anniversary Blu-Ray and DVD edition, which is strongly recommended for the movie’s fans (click on the image to buy the collection). The movie is featured in both Blu-Ray and DVD with a digital code, too. Director Robert Wise, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and other cast members offer audio commentary.
The features are wonderful, though don’t get too excited about the superficial piece on Julie Andrews’ visit to Salzburg, Austria, where The Sound of Music was filmed for exteriors (interiors were often filmed on 20th Century Fox studio soundstages). At 49 minutes and 41 seconds, it’s contextually skimpy on The Sound of Music. The word Nazi is never used and it’s more like an infomercial for Julie Andrews, who co-writes children’s books with one of her children.
Some bits appear on previous editions, including a 19-minute conversation between Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer which feels natural and is well done. See Mia Farrow’s and others’ screen tests and the A&E Biography of the real Maria von Trapp, portrayed by Andrews in the film. In real life, Maria was always in trouble. Feeling contrite, she tried to live in silence and subjugation but she was too unruly. Indeed, the abbey’s mother superior picked her to be a governess to the wealthy widower and Navy captain, to whom she was married on November 26, 1927, though not for love according to this documentary. She was 22 years old and he was 47.
Maria von Trapp did sing, though it was a Catholic priest who taught the children to sing. Maria is credited with bringing the gloomy family together. Eventually, the family sang for the pope. The Von Trapp singers were, in fact, asked to sing for Adolf Hitler and they refused, fleeing Austria by train, as many know, and heading to London, then to America. It’s a great American story—after being denied entry to the U.S., they were detained at Ellis Island until the National Catholic Welfare group, a private charity, apparently intervened on their behalf and they were allowed into the United States—though Maria von Trapp appears to have been both controller and catalyst for their livelihoods. She certainly comes off as an aggressive battleaxe, part tyrannical collectivist who lorded over her children and imprisoned them well into their 20s and 30s, subjecting one of the kids to a choice between a convent or a mental institution just for running away and forcing the girl into electroshock therapy. Maria von Trapp also drove the family’s singing and commercial success. She is the reason, however, that they did not profit from the movie’s success. The family was eventually offered 3/8 of a percentage stake in the Broadway musical. Fox’s The Sound of Music became the biggest box office musical success in Hollywood history.
The Blu-ray edition includes beautiful pictures of Salzburg, including Mirabell Gardens, the Nonnberg abbey and a marionette theater that’s over 100 years old, though the collection’s Austrian features are noticeably absent a single positive thought from any Austrian on The Sound of Music, which is apparently popular everywhere civilized on earth except Austria and Germany.
Footage of a Carnegie Hall special co-starring Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews parodying The Sound of Music before Andrews was cast as Maria is worth a few chuckles. The documentary, “From Fact to Phenomenon,” subcategorized under vintage programs, is outstanding and probably the best place to start before or after watching the movie. Narrated by Claire Bloom, this is the most comprehensive, non-fictional presentation of the Von Trapps’ amazing riches-to-rags story. In it, I learned that the children’s mother, Agatha, died of scarlet fever after the children had been infected. The kids, contrary to Hollywood casting, were seven dark-haired children as pictured and there’s an interesting backstory on Captain Von Trapp’s attempt to avert Austrian support for the National Socialists. One gets a strong sense from family interviews that, as it’s put here, he truly, deeply felt a “funeral for my country” when the Nazis marched into Austria.
“From Fact to Phenomenon” includes a brief overview of Fox’s studio history, too, with regard to The Sound of Music. Theodore Chapin is the most informative representative of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein estates’ joint organization, and Fox studio principals with other experts put this 1965 picture into a business context with Fox’s big budget releases of the black and white D-Day epic The Longest Day (1962) with John Wayne and its bomb Cleopatra (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor; The Sound of Music had been gathering dust after Fox bought the film rights in 1960 and this feature thoroughly deconstructs the adaptation from stage to film, with footage of Andrews in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on television in 1957 and a proper sequencing of shooting scenes. Julie Andrews makes the perfect point about the great musical team with a response to a journalist asking why she was adapting one of their other works—their most beloved musicals are Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific—with the line that no one would question a revival of a Puccini opera. At 90 minutes, this 1994 feature is easily the best, with Eleanore von Trapp best expressing the family’s gaiety and love for life.
One of the 5-disc collection’s exemplary archival features is its audio interviews.
Listen to Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer as they were interviewed (apparently by pre-CNN Larry King) from the Salzburg set for a radio broadcast. Andrews is obviously young and inexperienced in the interview, while Plummer emphasizes the necessity for an actor to be physically fit and speaks about the importance of being objective by not seeing the stage musical in advance of his performance. The actress who portrayed the head nun, Peggy Wood, is the most interesting cast member interviewed, insightfully observing that Rodgers and Hammerstein “have a true kind of philosophy of music” and that they’re “making a wonderful film in a fairy book city” which, as anyone who’s visited Salzburg knows, it is.
“The flowers!” Wood exults when describing the town, going on about silent movie star Lillian Gish predicting that Broadway ingenue Julie Andrews, who’d made an impression as Eliza Doolittle in Broadway’s My Fair Lady, would be a modern movie star, though the cultural rot of the late 1960s would put an end to the notion of a movie star.
Besides the movie itself, the collection’s best asset is an audio interview with the film’s fountainhead, screenwriter Ernest Lehman. His nonstop audio comments are fascinating, historically rich and contrary to almost everything that’s been pasted and claimed on Wikipedia. The feature, “Ernest Lehman: Master Storyteller” amounts to an invigorating monologue by the screenwriter about his work—Lehman wrote Executive Suite, Sabrina, The King and I, North by Northwest, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Sweet Smell of Success, West Side Story—in which he examines The Sound of Music in its various stages of development, as only the screenwriter can.
For example, Oscar Hammerstein told Lehman that he had seen his Executive Suite at the movie theater at Radio City Music Hall, an early confidence booster that made an impression on the writer, who subsequently took it upon himself to all but bring the November 16, 1959 stage musical to motion pictures. Countering the notion that Lehman had Robert Wise in mind all along, he explains that he had approached Gene Kelly, who’d directed an adaptation of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s The Flower Drum Song (1961), pleading with the great dancer at his Beverly Hills home until Kelly escorted Lehman to the property’s gate, telling him to “go find someone else to direct this piece of s**t.”
Lehman tracks the seminal work in progress, explaining that he also went to directors Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, Charade) and Billy Wilder (Ball of Fire, Arise, My Love, Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, Sunset Blvd.), who he says told Lehman: “No musical with a swastika in it can ever be a success.”
Ernest Lehman is the one who suggested William Wyler (Wuthering Heights, Funny Girl, Ben-Hur) to Fox studio’s chief executive Daryl Zanuck, who wanted Doris Day, who’d just finished Move Over Darling for Fox which looked like it was going to be a hit. These stories, in Lehman’s telling, add to one’s appreciation for what became The Sound of Music. He convinced the Alsace, German-born Wyler to come to New York City, which he did, to meet Lehman and see the stage version. After that, the two were to meet Zanuck at the 21 Club. Lehman says that Wyler told Lehman after seeing the stage version that he hated the musical. Wyler refused to meet Zanuck. Lehman sold Wyler on the scene in which the father joins the children in song—Lehman rightly pitched it as an expression of closeness with one’s parents and vice versa and, in any case, as an almost subconscious, universal longing and fulfillment—and William Wyler relented.
Together, they conducted research and it’s here that one gets some sense of how Wyler might have wanted to adapt The Sound of Music. Apparently, Wyler had flown in a private plane over Austria’s Alps while scouting locations only to discover that the pilot was a Nazi. According to Lehman, a heated exchange ensued and the Alsacian native argued with the Nazi until the plane almost crashed. When Lehman, who admits snooping in Wyler’s office, noticed what he describes as a “stack of Anschluss books” about the Nazi invasion, he became concerned that Wyler’s vision was too serious. Robert Wise had turned down The Sound of Music “as too saccharine”, Lehman explained, and, as a last resort, Lehman came back to Robert Wise.
The Lehman audio commentary is 30 minutes, and, in it, one gets a glimpse of Lehman’s greatness—he says he was influenced by the opening of West Side Story in writing the legendary opening of The Sound of Music—and, whatever his limitations, he rightly sees the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as a “fairy tale that’s almost real” which he is inclined to think “will be watched a thousand years from now…” The collection includes the 50th anniversary soundtrack (read my review here).
This abundant set includes filmmaker Kevin Burns’ “Rodgers and Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies” documentary hosted by Shirley Jones (Carousel, Oklahoma!) with an impeccable breakdown of each film adaptation. The 90-minute piece is extremely thorough and well-researched. Fans will want to see the excellent 1985 Rodgers and Hammerstein feature hosted by Broadway’s original Maria von Trapp, Mary Martin, which includes rarely seen clips and interviews with Tales of the South Pacific author James Michener among others. Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers were “remarkably objective” about their own work, according to an interview in this feature. Fifty years after its motion picture release, their final collaboration, The Sound of Music, does both musical artists proud.