Roger Ebert claimed never to have seen The Sound of Music. To my knowledge he never expanded on that statement, but it might be inferred that the great critic was suggesting he had no interest in seeing the film, perhaps because the tremendous affection that the movie has enjoyed in the fifty years since its first release might be reason to suspect it of appealing to the lowest common denominator in the audience—sacrificing art for popularity.
Certainly the film is nearly unparalleled in its appeal to wide audiences. Shortly after its release in 1965, it surpassed Gone with the Wind as the top-grossing domestic film of all time, and even now, fifty years later, The Sound of Music ranks third—right behind Gone with the Wind and the original Star Wars—in total domestic gross all-time adjusted for inflation.
I had occasion to watch a screening of the classic film at a local theater recently, marking the fiftieth anniversary of its opening in 1965, and so took some time to consider whether the film’s popularity is earned, or merely the product of its over-the-top sentimentality, pandering to the unsophisticated tastes of a mass audience.
The story itself is well known. Ernedst Lehman based his screenplay for the film fairly loosely on the memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria von Trapp: Maria (Julie Andrews) is a young girl who wants t be a nun, but, a bit too ipetous andindependent for the abbey, is sent by the Mother Superior (Peggy Wood) to be employed by a local Salzburg widower, the retired Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), to act as governess for his seven children. Not surprisingly, Maria and the Captain fall in love and, despite some token resistance from a sophisticated rival for the Captain’s heart (Eleanor Parker), Maria becomes the children’s new stepmother. Almost as an afterthought, the Nazis take over Austria, and the Captain, ordered to take command of a naval force within the Third Reich, is forced to flee with his family over the mountains into Switzerland rather than act in a manner that he believes will be against the interests of his Austrian homeland. (Though in reality, of course, Salzburg is 200 miles from Switzerland, and such a trek through the mountains would probably have killed them. In real life, the family just caught a train out of town.)
This simple story seems hardly able to sustain a three-hour film. And in fact, it doesn’t. The real focus of the film is the music. This is Rogers and Hammerstein’s most popular score, though the film does not have a great love song like South Pacific’s “Some Enchanted Evening,” or complex soul-searching songs like Carousel’s “Soliloquy,” or quirky or darkly ironic songs like Oklahoma’s “Poor Judd is Dead,” nor (though set against a backdrop of the coming Nazi terror) even seriously deep songs like South Pacific’s “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” What it does have are very catchy but fluffy tunes like “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” and “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” in addition to the most idiotic case of pretentiousness masquerading as sophistication ever put on film—in the middle of “Good-bye, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehn, Adieu,” when the second oldest Von Trapp child, Friedrich (played by poor Christopher Hammond) sings something like “Adjuh, adjuh, to yuh and yuh and yuh”—presumably forced to do so by the director (Robert Wise), since no actual person would ever say such a thing. No doubt Oscar Hammerstein II was rolling over in his grave, having clearly written the lyric “adieu” to rhyme with “you,” assuming it would be pronounced in the song in the Anglicized way that every American would pronounce it. But I may be getting off on a tangent here.
There are a few songs with more depth in the movie: the Abbess’s inspirational “Climb Every Mountain” is a high point, as is the simple but powerful “Edelweis,” purportedly the last lyric that Hammerstein wrote. And the title song is a masterpiece, especially in the opening sequence as the camera sweeps in from above on Andrews singing the song on the top of the mountain. But truth be told, if this film were made nowadays—if anyone were even to make it nowadays—critics would laugh it into obscurity as too simple, naïve, out of date, even childish. And those kids—fairly one-dimensional for the most part except for the oldest, Liesl (Charmian Carr)—seem too obviously intended to be cte in a sentimental way, rather than developed enough for current children in the audience to identify with. In a world dominated by Broadway hits like The Book of Mormon, how can anyone these days over the age of ten be expected to take The Sound of Music with a straight face?
As a matter of fact, much of the popularity of the movie that still persists actually doesn’t take it that way: much of it is camp (a kind of ironic emulation of a simpler time) or pure nostalgia. The fact is even in its own day, many of the early reviews of the film from east coast venues like The New York Times, were negative: it was the mid-sixties after all. How, in that most revolutionary of decades, could one have the audacity to promote a play that read like a parody of something from the World War I generation?
And yet people went to see it. In droves. And perhaps even in its first run nostalgia was one of the motives that spurred people to see the film. And eventually it was the positive critics who won the day. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning five of them, including best director and best picture (though a case could be made that Doctor Zhivago, which had also won five awards, should have received the Best Picture Oscar that year). Over the course of time, the film has grown in stature: Though one hears the film disparaged for all the reasons I’ve cited, those kinds of comments tend to come mostly from critics who, like Roger Ebert, never actually saw the film. It was ranked No. 55 o the AFI’s list of the “Top 100” films of all time in 1998. Ten years later, an update of that list placed the film at No. 40, suggesting that as time has passed, more critics have seen the virtues of The Sound of Music. And they are…?
Well, first, and probably foremost, it’s Julie Andrews. It doesn’t matter whether the material is hokey, she’s in for the long run and she’s giving it her all. Hers is an energetic, earnest and bold performance that has confidence in confidence alone.
And there are those songs I mentioned—some may be sappy or silly, but even those are stil memorable, and the film includes real classics like “Edelweis,” “Climb Every Mountain” and “The Sound of Music” itself. It’s no accident that AFI also ranked The Sound of Music as the third best musical ever—behind Wise’s other great triumph West Side Story, and Gene Kelly’s classic Singin’ in the Rain.
Third, there is Christopher Plummer, in his first significant film role. While apparently several other actors were considered for the role, including Yul Brynner and Maximilian Schell—and it is entertaining to consider what the film might have been like with one of those figures in the role—Plummer brings an interesting twist to the performance. While Andrews and the children bring a full-on honest intensity to their parts, Plummer often seems to be floating above things with an ironic smirk that is almost like a wink to the audience.
Fourth, the cinematography of this film is extraordinary. Beyond that magnificent opening shot, there are spectacular settings in the gardens, the castles and the religious houses in and around Salzburg, not to mention some brilliant framing of some of those musical numbers—the “Do-Re-Mi” song, for instance, is a staid and static number in the stage version, but is turned in the film into a vigorous romp through the streets of Salzburg that is a thrill to watch.
Fifth, there is that scene in the convent cemetery at the end of the film, when Rolf, Liesl’s potential beau, makes his choice to betray the family to the Nazis—it is the one scene in the film where we know for certain that even though the family will escape, happy endings are not the rule in life, and some of us will be lost along the way, sometimes by our own naïve or badly informed choices.
But despite that, last and perhaps most importantly: ultimately, no matter how many things there are in the film to scoff at from our 21st century heights of bored skepticism, there is a charm to this movie that is irresistible. Part of it comes from Andrews, of course, and a bit from Plummer. Not so much the children, except perhaps Liesl, the only part with any real meat. But the charm is really in the overall effect of the film. The beauty of the scenery, of the music, the optimism of the fresh smiling faces, the confidence that strength doesn’t lie in number or wealth, that if you climb every mountain you will find your dream, the ultimate certainty that a small flower will bless your homeland forever, and the urge to sing through the night like a lark that is learning to pray all may seem corny but they are what every heart longs for, and this is a film that tells you it can all be yours. So what if it lacks a little realism? It’s not a movie about realism. It’s a movie about dreams. And about holding moonbeams in your hand.
So I’m giving it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare. If you haven’t seen this movie, or you haven’t seen it in awhile, give it another look. Celebrate the golden anniversary of a real classic.