THE SOUND OF MUSIC (DIR: ROBERT WISE) (SCR: ERNEST LEHMAN, BASED ON THE MUSICAL OF THE SAME NAME BY HOWARD LINDSAY AND RUSSEL CROUSE, BASED ON THE BOOK THE STORY OF THE TRAPP FAMILY SINGERS BY MARIA AUGUSTA TRAPP)
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.
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.
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.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
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.