Wednesday, November 16, 2011



In 1966, for the second year in a row, the Academy decided to award a sweet, popular, musical as best picture; at a time when the country was still reeling from the assassination of president Kennedy and   was roiled by the civil rights movement, the escapism provided by both of these films resounded with both the Academy and the general public.  THE SOUND OF MUSIC is a film that tends to divide people, based on its bright, good natured tone that often sinks into sickly sweet territory.  And while I do agree that the film is almost too light hearted at times, it wins me over with it's fine Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstien score (those songs stick in your head, whether you want them to or not!), beautiful location shooting (a big improvement over the fake sets used in the previous year's winner, MY FAIR LADY), and, of course, it's sprightly, winning performance from Julie Andrews, in the role of Maria Von Trapp.
It's story began in 1949 when Maria Von Trapp published her autobiography, THE STORY OF THE TRAPP FAMILY SINGERS, which was turned into a popular German film (THE TRAPP FAMILY) in 1956. In 1959 Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote a musical for the Broadway stage based on the book, with Mary Martin as Maria.  Originally, they planned to use songs the Trapp family actually sang for the score, but Martin asked Rogers and Hammerstein to write a song for her, and eventually they wound up doing the entire show.  The musical was enormously popular, and 20th. Century Fox quickly bought the rights  for a film version.  Robert Wise, who had directed WEST SIDE STORY so successfully in 1961, was slated to direct.  After watching advance footage of MARY POPPINS, he cast Andrews in the lead.  He also cast  Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp,  thinking that Plummer could bring some darkness to the role to balance out Andrews's sunniness.  And, after auditioning literally dozens of children, five girls and two boys were chosen to play the Von Trapp children.  Most of the shooting was done on location in Salzberg Austria, and while it went over schedule and over budget (around eight million dollars), it would become the biggest hit film of the decade, grossing almost one hundred and sixty million dollars in the US alone; adjusted for inflation, it remains one of the top money making films of all time.  And the fact that a "singalong" version of the film is still being run at revival houses to this day shows what a lasting impact it has made.
Set in Salzberg, Austria in the 1930's, it tells the story of Maria, a young nun whose spirited ways cause he nunnery to  send her to take care of the children of Captain Von Trapp, a wealthy widower.  Although she has trouble at first, she wins the children over by teaching them how to sing.  Eventually she even warms the heart of the Captain, who ends his engagement with a Baroness (Eleanor Parker) and marries Maria.  As the Nazis come to power in Austria, the Captain, an outspoken opponent of them,  takes Maria and the children across the border into safety.

Julie Andrews

As he did with WEST SIDE STORY, director Stevens  showed that he had a real flair for opening up a Broadway show into a movie, and  nothing displays this better than the film's legendary opening shots, (taken in a helicopter), that pass over stunning, mountainous scenery for over two minutes, until the camera finds Maria, joyfully singing the title song in a field of flowers. I also enjoy the way he uses quick cuts to different locations when Maria takes the children out singing, or the way that he elegantly frames Maria and the Captain in their romantic moonlit stroll.  Stevens also makes sure to keep his simple story moving along briskly, so that the film never sags despite being almost three hours long, and he even pulls off some nice suspense scenes towards the end. (Although I wish he'd explained just how the Von Trapps managed to get from the theater to the nunnery without any of the Nazis seeing them!).
Interestingly, Andrews reportedly considered turning down the role of Maria because it was too similar to the one she played in MARY POPPINS, and in many ways those two films have become a millstone  around her neck, often limiting what other kinds of roles she could take, (she really tried to put that idea to rest in the 1981 film SOB).  Still, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role, whether she's wonderfully singing  about "whiskers on kittens", or lovingly attending to the children and the Captain, Andrews's Maria simply radiates goodness.   If Andrews was reluctant to be in the film, Plummer has often said that he outright regretted it, but I think he does bring enough of an edge to the role, at least in the beginning, to keep the film's light tone from being overwhelming.  Plus the chemistry between him and Andrews is sweet, and he is believably brave when standing up to the Nazis.

Christopher Plummer

Speaking of that tone,  I do wish that the film had a little more darkness and conflict in it; it bothers me that the supposedly difficult Von Trapp children (who drove off their last governess in two hours!) take to Maria so quickly.  Or that the love triangle between Maria, the Captain and the Baroness is settled so easily, with the Baroness shrugging off her love for the Captain in a matter of seconds.  Also treated too lightly is the romance between eldest child Liesl (Charmain Carrof) and a young telegraph boy, with just a few encouraging words and a brief song from Maria curing Liesl's broken heart. (If only it were that simple!) Worst of all, I wish the film had made the Nazis more  genuinely scary instead of hardly mentioning them until the last forty five minutes of  the film; this is especially true of  Nazi leader Zeller (Ben Wright), who seems more like a buffoon than a real villain.  While I'm aware that this is supposed to be a feel good movie, I think a little more implied evil by the Nazis would have made the latter part of the film more exciting.  Interestingly, in the stage version of the story, the Baroness and the Captain break up mainly because of her acceptance of the Nazis, and I think that should have been left in the film to add some depth to both characters and the story.
Despite the problems I have with its sappiness,  which keeps this film low on my list of favorite musicals, I still find it irresistible and charming; hating on this film is like kicking a puppy.  But kick some people did and still do: legendary film critic Pauline Kael's scathing review of it probably got her fired from her job at MCALL'S magazine.  To argue my defense of the film to its detractors, I would like to compare it to another movie: in 1982, legendary director John Huston was given a huge budget to adapt a successful Broadway show that also featured much singing and dancing from children.  The result was ANNIE, a notorious critical and financial flop, which just shows how difficult it is to do this kind of story right, and what a great job Stevens and company did.


1965 was not a particularly good year for movies, with THE SOUND OF MUSIC'S biggest competition coming from David Lean's DR ZHIVAGO, which I find even more uneven.  And while I take a certain perverse pleasure in citing Roman Polanski's REPULSION as one of my favorites of that year (a film the Academy wouldn't have touched with a ten foot pole!), I won't argue with the treacly delights of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

Friday, November 11, 2011


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The Academy's choice for best picture of 1963 was a safe and easy one: an enormously popular adaptation of a Broadway musical, directed by a Hollywood veteran (George Cukor) and featuring one of the biggest stars in the world, Audrey Hepburn.  And, while MY FAIR LADY has a mostly terrific batch of songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and lovely costumes by Cecil Beaton (who won an Oscar), the film sags at two and half hours, and it often feels stage bound with it's painfully artificial sets. Compared to 1960's WEST SIDE STORY, which had dynamic dancing and beautiful location shooting, it seems stodgy and old fashioned.  Cukor's direction won him an Oscar, but I can't see why, it feels like all he tried to do is recreate the Broadway show on screen instead of making a real movie.  And Hepburn, for all her legendary loveliness and charm, was miscast and gives an uneven performance.
The film's story first began in 1914 as the play PYGMALION by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, which was very popular and revived numerous times.  It tells the story of Henry Higgins, a wealthy English gentleman and bachelor, who bets that he can turn a lowly flower girl, Eliza Dolittle, into a proper English lady in six months.  A film version was made in 1938, with Leslie Howard as Henry Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza Dolittle (Howard co directed the film with Anthony Asquith).  Personally, I find the earlier version of the story superior, with Hiller making a far more believable English flower girl than Hepburn.  What's surprising when watching both films back to back is how little Lerner and Lowe added to the story other than the songs: the plots are nearly identical, and whole chunks of dialogue (including the famous last line) are taken verbatim from the earlier film.

MY FAIR LADY the musical first opened on Broadway in 1956, with Julie Andrews as Eliza and Rex Harrison as Henry, and it played successfully for six years.  Film producer Jack Warner saw the premiere and immediately made plans to adapt it, paying a record five and half million dollars for the rights.  Harrison was cast to repeat his role, as was Stanley Holloway as Eliza's father Alfred.  But Andrews, not yet a proven star, was replaced by Hepburn ("I knew Hepburn had never made a financial flop" explained Warner).  Cukor was tapped to direct after Warner's original choice, Vincent Minnelli, wanted too much money.  (I think this is a shame, as I imagine Minnelli, who directed GIGI and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, would have made the film in a more lively manner than Cukor did).  The film was a very big production, with large 1912 London period sets being created while Cecil Beaton made over a thousand costumes for the huge cast, pushing the budget to over sixteen million dollars. But, buoyed by its success on Broadway and Hepburn's star power, it was an almost sure fire hit, earning well over seventy million dollars at the box office.

Audrey Hepburn

Thirty years after her last starring role, and twenty seven years after her death, Audrey Hepburn remains one of the most popular movie stars ever, with posters of her iconic, chic, "look" from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S hanging in bars and cafes while her famed movies like CHARADE  and SABRINA are shown at revival houses and on TV constantly.  Much of the attention she garners seems to be more for the way her sleek body could easily be draped in some of the most stylish clothes of her era than for the quality of her movies or her acting ability.  And, while I enjoy most of her films, and  can appreciate the way she wears a dress, I think the only movie she made that could be considered truly great is Willam Wyler's ROMAN HOLIDAY, for which she won a best actress Oscar.  There, her immediate charm and likability was used perfectly.  One problem I have with many of her movies is that she was often paired up romantically with male stars who were literally decades older than she was (in CHARADE, for example, she was 32 and Cary Grant was 64) while this was nothing new for Hollywood, Hepburn's waifish features and little girl voice made it all the more noticeable, and a bit creepy.  Returning to MY FAIR LADY, I've already mentioned that I think Hepburn was miscast in the film, with her poor flower girl's shrill Cockney accent that often sounds painful to listen to.  Also I find it disappointing that, although she trained to do her own singing, the vast majority of it is dubbed by Marni Nixon (who also dubbed Natalie Wood in WEST SIDE STORY and Deborah Kerr in THE KING AND I), and the transition from Hepburn's natural speaking voice to her singing voice is often jarring.  Still, once she loses the accent I find myself warming to her performance, even if I think that Julie Andrews would have been a better choice.   Andrews would have the last laugh though, as she wound up starring in MARY POPPINS instead of this film, and she won an Oscar for best actress for it, while Hepburn wasn't even nominated.

Rex Harrison

My favorite performance in the film is Stanley Holloway's as Eliza's ne'er do well father Stanley; he brings great energy and humor to the roll, and his two big songs ("With a little bit of Luck" and "Get me to the Church on Time") are the musical highlights of the film (and he does his own singing!).  And of course Rex Harrison, who won a best actor award, is also good, in a role that that he had literally portrayed thousands of times on Broadway.  With his beautiful voice and emphatic talk-singing style, not to mention his superior, English gentleman manner, it feels like the role was written for him, and he clearly delights in delivering Shaw's sharp, clever lines ("Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language, I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba!").  He's also good towards the end of the film, when he finally realizes he does have feelings for Eliza, thoughtfully singing "I've grown Accustomed to her face."  But this leads to a big problem I have with the end of the film: while I can totally believe that he would find himself missing her, I cannot for the life of me understand why she returns to him.  Higgins spends most of the story insulting and belittling her, pushing her harder and harder to learn her lessons, and then he doesn't give her a single word of praise after he wins his bet. He is a sexist, pompous, classist, egotist, and Eliza, who has a number of other options in her life, chooses to go to him of her own free will, presumably to marry him. And the fact that the last line of the film is an outright order to her ("Where the devil are my slippers?"), shows that he intends to continue to be condescending to her; honestly, I don't think he deserves her. Interestingly, I am not the only one who's ever felt this way; in the original 1914 production of PYGMALION, Eliza defiantly does not return to Henry at the end.  Clearly George Bernard Shaw, an ardent socialist, did not want a happy ending for a snob like Henry, but, sadly, stage directors starting changing the ending almost immediately, giving audiences a more conventional happy ending.  This enraged Shaw, who, even as late as the 1938 movie, was trying to make sure that his version of the ending got made.  Unfortunately, he lost that battle, and I think that this famous story is all the weaker because of it.


Clearly, I am not a big fan of this only middlingly pleasant trifle of a movie; really, if the Academy felt that they had to reward a musical, why couldn't they go with the far more original Richard Lester film  A HARD DAY'S NIGHT?  Along with the great Beatle music in that film, its clever style still has an influence on MTV to this day.  Perhaps even better is Stanley Kubrick's cold war comedy classic DR STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I STOPPED WORRYING AND LEARNED TO LOVE THE BOMB, which, unlike MY FAIR LADY, holds up wonderfully, and features a great triple performance by Peter Sellars.