Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Sound of Music (1965)

My name is Bryan and I am a SOUND OF MUSIC snob. You heard me. A snob. For the longest time, I swore I would never watch THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965). When I backpacked through Europe in 1987 and stayed in Salzburg, Austria for a few days, I boycotted THE SOUND OF MUSIC tour. While my fellow travelers went to see the Von Trapp's house or the Mirabell Gardens, I went to a museum. In college, my friends would tease me. "You liked Blue Velvet but you've never seen The Sound of Music ?" they would say. It wasn't that Julie Andrews or the country of Austria had ever done anything to me personally. I was just a film snob. I hadn't discovered my sensitive side yet. I didn't want to succumb to Rogers and Hammerstein's beautiful songs like My Favorite Things or get teary-eyed when Maria (Julie Andrews) falls in love with Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer).

I have mellowed in my forties. I don't need to see just films with explosions or spaceships or car chases anymore. I now appreciate period films and romantic comedies and musicals. I'm even warming up to chick flicks. It was time to overcome my prejudices and finally watch THE SOUND OF MUSIC in its entirety.  I had seen bits and pieces of the film on TV from time to time but it was always the same bit or piece. For once, I would watch it from start to finish.

Based on the Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II about the real Von Trapp family, THE SOUND OF MUSIC's first excellent choice is having Robert Wise as director. Wise had co-directed WEST SIDE STORY (1961) with Jerome Robbins and he clearly understands how to film and stage a musical for film.  Each musical sequence is filmed so economically and beautifully with the perfect composition. There are no fast MTV video edits.  Wise borrows from his opening of WEST SIDE STORY where the camera floated high over New York and moves it to the Austrian Alps as a helicopter shot soars like an eagle through the snow-capped mountains before zooming in on Sister Maria running and twirling in an alpine meadow and singing "The hills are alive with the Sound of Music...", one of the great opening shots in movie history. Wise films many of the musical sequences outdoors, opening up the play, using the beauty of Salzburg and the surrounding Alps to great visual advantage.

I had never heard the opening song The Sound of Music in its entirety before. Why is Maria even singing on that hillside? Set during Austria's last golden days of the 1930's, we learn that Maria is a young nun at the nearby convent in Salzburg who grew up in the country.  She loves nature and animals and singing but she's not much good at following rules, much to the consternation of her fellow sisters. Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) is not sure that Maria is cut out for the convent. When Captain Von Trapp searches for a 12th governess to watch over his seven children, the good Mother recommends Maria.

Maria arrives at the Von Trapp lakeside residence and starts off on the wrong foot with the stern Captain Von Trapp.  She hits it off better with the seven Von Trapp children: Liesl, Louisa, Friedrich, Kurt, Brigitta, Martl, and Greta. The children are a bit unruly but Maria soon tames them. Von Trapp treats his children like an army, beckoning them with whistles and making them march in formation. Von Trapp is a shadow of his former self since his wife died and his children have suffered from his lack of love. Naturally, Von Trapp and Maria will clash as he demands discipline whereas she is a free spirit. Since his wife died, Von Trapp does not appreciate singing or laughter. It reminds him of his deceased wife. Maria will change all that.

Von Trapp is courting the wealthy and widowed Baroness Schrader (Eleanor Parker) from Vienna. He longs for his children to have another mother. The Baroness is fond of Von Trapp but not so much his seven kids. Von Trapp's friend, "Uncle" Max Detweiler (Richard Haydn) marvels at Maria's teaching the children how to sing. He's looking for a singing group for the upcoming Salzburg Folk Festival. Max sees fame and fortune for the Von Trapp family and himself.

Maria begins to have feelings for Von Trapp and the Baroness notices. She makes Maria feel guilty for her feelings, playing on Maria's naivety and persuades Maria to leave the house and return to the convent. The Von Trapp children are despondent without her. Von Trapp realizes that it's Maria he's in love with and not the Baroness. Maria returns from her seclusion to be the children's governess again.  Von Trapp breaks off his engagement with the Baroness and professes his love to Maria. Von Trapp and Maria wed but their happiness is short-lived as the Nazis move into Salzburg. Von Trapp is ordered to report to the German Navy by the local Nazi Herr Zeller (Ben Wright). Von Trapp despises the Nazis and what they've done to his native Austria. The Von Trapps try to sneak out that night but Zeller is waiting for them. With Max's assistance, the Von Trapp family perform at the Salzburg Folk Festival in front of Zeller and the entire town.  As the Festival's music winners are announced, the family flee the festival, hiding out in the abbey from the Nazis before escaping on foot through the mountains to Switzerland where Von Trapp, Maria, and his children will be safe.

The plot may sound very dramatic but throughout the film, it's the songs and music of Rodgers and Hammerstein that propel the story. Director Wise keeps his good luck with musicals going by using his great screenwriter Ernest Lehman  from WEST SIDE STORY to write the screenplay.  Besides Barbara Streisand and Gene Kelly, Julie Andrews is probably one of the greatest musical talents in film history. She takes the role of Maria and puts her eternal stamp on it. Probably the one actor overlooked in THE SOUND OF MUSIC who has the toughest role and makes it unique and unforgettable is Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp. His transformation in one pivotal scene from strict disciplinarian to proud, loving father all in a medium close-up is remarkable.

One of the more interesting sub-plots in the film is the character Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte), a young postal courier who Liesl Von Trapp has a crush on. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, Rolfe will evolve from innocent sweetheart to Nazi brownshirt. Caught up in the fanaticism of Nazism, Rolfe ends up almost capturing the hiding Von Trapp family in the abbey. Screenwriter Lehman uses Rolfe well to show that the golden age in Austria and Europe is about to end. I don't know if the Liesl/Rolfe subplot was in the original musical but Wise and Lehman use it for good dramatic effect in the film.

So who stands out as my favorite Von Trapp sibling in the film? None of them. They're all very good but they're just a little too perfect and Wise never really spends too much time fleshing out any individual characteristics of the children. They are a group, a family, and they're almost always filmed together. Most of the child actors would continue acting careers to some degree after MUSIC. Two in particular worked on some projects far different than this film. Heather Menzies as Louisa would later star in the horror cult film PIRANHA (1978) and Nicholas Hammond who played Friedrich was the first live action Spider-Man on CBS's television series THE AMAZING SPIDER MAN (1977-79).

I had heard many songs from THE SOUND OF MUSIC before but always out of context. I thought My Favorite Things was just a Christmas song.  Do-Re-Mi seemed like a silly school song. Hearing and seeing them in the film, each song tells an important part of the plot. Sixteen Going on Seventeen is Liesl (Charmain Carr) becoming a woman.  I Have Confidence is Maria's venture outside the convent to become a governess. And Edelwiess is Von Trapp's patriotic reminder to his countrymen and women to remain Austrian even when the country is occupied by Nazis. My test for a good musical, Broadway or film, is if the songs are catchy and I hum them weeks later.  THE SOUND OF MUSIC passes that test.

Looking back at my photos from my trip to Salzburg in 1987, I realized that even though I boycotted THE SOUND OF MUSIC tour, I still visited many of the locations as I walked around the city.  I just didn't know it. If I had watched the film before my trip, I might have had a better appreciation of Mirabell Garden or St. Peter's Cemetery. There is nothing wrong with viewing THE SOUND OF MUSIC and I had no reason to be snob about it all these years. Yes, the Von Trapp children may seem a little creepy with their cuteness and vocal perfection but it's a timeless, beautiful film to watch and listen to. (Update: Check out this Vanity Fair story on the 50th Anniversary of THE SOUND OF MUSIC and its two stars -- Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer).

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