Friday, December 7, 2012

THE SOUND OF MUSIC: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1965) Fox Home Video

What more does one say about the movie that continues to be - as Fox publicity of its day so astutely heralded - "the happiest sound in all the world"? Quite simply, Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965) is required viewing – the perennial ‘feel good’ and a cornucopia of everyone's 'favorite things' made more sentimentally meaningful with each passing year. The story of the Von Trapp family and their harrowing escape from the Nazis had been told several times in foreign language films prior to Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's monumental musical undertaking, though arguably never with more lush and frothy accoutrements.
People today forget that the stage version of The Sound of Music was hardly considered the towering achievement that Oklahoma!, The King and I and South Pacific had been. And, while the movie versions of these aforementioned titles were successful at the box office, they never quite equaled their Broadway originals for many. The Sound of Music, however, was different. Indeed, today it is widely regarded as the very best of the R&H stage to screen adaptations, endlessly revived during the holiday season despite the fact that the film contains not a single sequence taking place at Christmas. The Von Trapp’s tale of heroism and escape was first brought to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s attention by Mary Martin. The duo would expressly write it to suit her talents. But the Broadway derivative was not an overnight sensation. Gradually it built its reputation during out of town tryouts - enough for 20th Century-Fox to acquire the film rights by 1960.

Yet, the property languished on Fox’s script shelves for several years, primarily because the studio remained in dire financial straits following their monumentally perverse spending on the disastrous Cleopatra (1963); a weighty 'would be' epic more infamous for its back story involving Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's illicit love affair. For a while, it seemed as though The Sound of Music might never get produced. By 1965 the Hollywood musical was in a very steep decline - occasionally yielding an expensive masterpiece that gelled with public tastes, but more often coming across as just another heavy-handed and overproduced clunker with schmaltz to boot.
After Oscar Hammerstein’s death in 1960, Richard Rodgers agreed to go it alone and write several new songs for the film after producer Saul Chaplin and director Robert Wise were given a green light to develop the project. Rodgers eventually penned two of the film's best remembered songs, the romantic ballad, Something Good and Maria's bombastic intro to the Von Trapp villa, I Have Confidence. Timing, as they used to say, was everything. Fresh from her Oscar-win in Mary Poppins the year before, Julie Andrews assimilated the part of Maria Von Trapp as a sugary-sweet Austrian governess with a pert exuberance that convincingly translates into a believable romantic longing for the Captain.
To see Andrews high atop those picturesque Alps, deliriously spinning as she belts out the opening strains of the title track, is to be magically teleported to an alternate universe where goodness and light are always in vogue and fashionable. But Andrews is far more than just a golden voice or a fresh face. Indeed, she brings to the part a deliciously tart underlay of perfect comedic timing; as when – after having been taught by the captain on how to blow calls for the children on a marine whistle she devilishly squirts a sour note in his direction, adding, “Excuse me, sir. But I don’t know your signal!” The words belong to Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, but the delivery is all Andrews and she manages to be ‘practically perfect’ in every way.
It must also be noted that Christopher Plummer’s captain is a far cry from the stage’s stern disciplinarian. Played by Theodore Bikel on the stage, Capt. Von Trapp was little more than a curmudgeonly interloper – deprived of the real captain’s more genuine affection toward his children. The film manages to soften the character’s appeal. But it is Plummer’s dashing good looks, coupled with his uncanny ability to exude both authority and sex appeal simultaneously that make his retired sea captain more visually, as well as more socially, desirable to the young novice who comes to share his home, but winds up sharing his heart instead.
The Von Trapp Family is a story unto themselves and quite unlike the clan depicted in the film. Maria was indeed a novice at the abbey when her Mother Superior assigned her the duties of looking after the captain’s clan for the summer. But it was the family’s spiritual advisor who taught the family to sing, including Maria. Their notoriety as a musical group steadily grew in Europe throughout the 1930s and helped to keep the family’s dwindling finances afloat. The real Von Trapps were hardly as wealthy as their filmic counterparts.  The family was twice requested to sing for Adolph Hitler. The captain’s first refusal was politely viewed in good faith. His second, however, came under political scrutiny after the Anschluss or ‘peaceful’ annexation of Austria by the Nazi government.
Knowing full well what the future might hold the captain elected to abandon his ancestral home. The family escaped, not on foot across the Alps as depicted in the film, but via the last train out of Salzburg before the borders were closed. Making their way to America with their spiritual advisor in tow they settled in Stow Vermont; a climate and landscape not unlike the beloved Austria they left behind. Throughout the war years they toured the United States, making friends wherever they performed. But it wasn’t until Maria began to tell her stories of what their lives had been like in Austria to entertain the audience during a concert in which the arrival of their instruments and songbooks had been delayed, that an eager publisher took notice and suggested she write her biography down.
Upon publication, the book had modest sales. But it caught Mary Martin’s eye. She made Rodgers and Hammerstein aware of its possibilities as a musical play. As a film, The Sound of Music endures for several reasons: its love story notwithstanding, we are blessed with a melodic score and lush locations in and around Salzburg. But other film musicals have had as much to their pedigree and have still miserably failed. Still, Robert Wise’s snapshot of this Tyrolean charm and serene pastoral beauty almost didn’t make it to the screen. Inclement weather dogged the production. At one point Julie Andrews had to be carted to the top of a hillside to film the iconic pre-title sequence in an ox cart; the rain having turned all available dirt roads leading upward into the mountains to mud.

The powers that be at Fox had warranted concerns and misgivings. While the cast and crew shot alternate interior scenes to compensate for these delays, and also enjoying nightly excursions to the various beer gardens and symphonic halls to soak up Austrian culture and music, the studio’s balance sheet back home was teetering dangerously on the verge of bankruptcy. But there was little to fear. Despite tepid box office during its opening weekend, over the next few weeks The Sound of Music’s reputation steadily grew with overwhelming and uncanny repeat business and word of mouth praise that indeed made it "the Happiest Sound in All the World!” for Fox as well.

Plot wise: young Maria (Andrews) is proving an embarrassment to the nuns and Nonnberg Abbey. To ‘solve their problem’ that is Maria, the Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) decides to send her novice away for the summer to the sprawling country estate of Captain Georg Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) as a governess for his seven children: Liesl (Charmaine Carr), Freidrich (Nicholas Hammond), Louisa (Heather Menzies), Kurt (Duane Chase), Brigitta (Angela Cartwright), Marta (Debbie Turner) and Gretl (Kim Karath). At first, this move is just as awkward for Maria as her life behind the abbey walls. The Captain is a tyrannical patriarch with limited patience and the children are apt to play vicious practical jokes that backfire when Maria makes them all feel guilty for their undue belligerences. Gradually, Maria works her charm on this rigid household. Before long, she has the children stepping in line but with music filling their hearts. It helps that the Captain has departed for Vienna to woo Baroness Elsa Schraeder (Eleanor Parker); a woman unseen by the children but whom the captain hopes to make his second wife and their stepmother.
However, upon his return with Elsa and her chaperone, Max Detweiler (Richard Hayden) in tow, Georg discovers that his children have been transformed through love and proper musical training into a formidable singing group – one that Max would relish the opportunity to promote and/or exploit in the pending folk festival. Although immediately cross with Maria for having taken his children everywhere in some play clothes she made from the drapes that used to hang in her bedroom, the captain’s heart is stirred to fond recollections of his late wife after the children serenade Elsa. Rethinking what Maria’s presence has meant to both them and him, Georg softens, indulging the children’s whim to own a marionette theater. He also agrees to stage a lavish house party that will introduce Elsa to his friends. However, at this party Georg comes to the sudden realization that he has fallen in love with Maria, much to Elsa’s jealous chagrin.

Elsa goads Maria into running away from her true feelings, a move that forces her into seclusion at the abbey. But the Mother Abbess declares that Maria must face her destiny, explaining that just because she loves a man does not mean she loves God less. The love between a man and a woman is holy too. On this advice, Maria returns to the captain’s home where she learns that Elsa and Georg have become engaged. But although this reunion is bittersweet, the captain quickly realizes he loves Maria more. Anticipating the embarrassment of breaking off their engagement, Elsa ends the relationship with her pride intact. Georg pursues Maria who confides that she has been in love with him ever since the first day of her arrival in the country. The two are married with the blessing of the children and the nuns, before retreating to a month long honeymoon.
In Georg’s absence Max rehearses the children to perform at the Salzburg festival, something Georg has expressly forbade. However, upon his return to Austria, Georg learns that he has been ‘requested’ to accept a commission in the naval forces of the German Reich. Attempting a late night escape, Georg, Maria, Max and the children are confronted by Herr Zeller (Ben Wright) and a Nazi guard assigned to bring the captain to his forced command at Breymar Harbor. Georg lies that his family is just on their way to the festival to perform and Zeller provides them with an escort so that they will not ‘get lost in the crowd’. 
Predictably, and most deliberately, the Von Trapps do just that, taking refuge in the abbey until being discovered by Liesel’s ex-boyfriend Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte), now a Hitler SS officer. The family’s penultimate escape is ably abetted by some quick last minute interventions from Sister Berthe (Portia Nelson) and Sister Margaretta (Anna Lee); confiding in Reverend Mother that they have sinned by removing the spark plugs and distributor caps from the Nazis vehicles parked out front. This comedic afterthought dissolves to a breathtaking aerial shot of the Von Trapp family, having abandoned their car, now scaling the Alps to freedom on foot.  
The Sound of Music is a potent allegory of blind heroism chiefly because its core retains several nuggets of truth that make the story seem entirely plausible. Nevertheless, the film’s alternative theory of Maria and the Von Trapp family has been most successful at eclipsing the facts. Is it any wonder that this lighter-than-air confection of nuns, Nazis and good-nature children retains its freshness and vitality today? With Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score a myriad of instantly recognizable and hummable tunes, including the buoyant ‘Do-Re-Mi’ the whimsical, ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?’ and rambunctious ‘Lonely Goatherd’ The Sound of Music springs forth like "a lark who is learning to prey." I know of no other movie that can instantly fill our hearts with "something good", encouraging the human spirit to "climb every mountain" until we all find our own dreams. In the end, The Sound of Music endures because the fantasy of it seems real and the reality in it, more fantastically satisfying than the truth.

Fox Home Video has hardly been kind to this perennial classic. Early VHS and laserdisc incarnations were faded and worn. In 1999 Fox debuted a 'Five Star' edition on DVD that left much to be desired. Three years later, Fox repackaged the same shoddy transfer in an equally shoddy cardboard slipcase - then 'remastered' the film for its anniversary reissue. In all cases, the image was moderately impressive at best.
But now we really do get our favorite things with Fox's exemplary Blu-Ray incarnation. The Sound of Music bursts forth with renewed clarity and gorgeous color that lives up to the film's original 70mm road show engagement. This is Austria as it might have - or must have - been; at least at the time Robert Wise and his film company visited it, with every blade of grass as green and fragrant and each bluer than blue sky positively glowing off the screen.
Image detail takes a quantum leap forward as does color fidelity. The ‘wow’ factor is here too, as it is with the audio, freshened up in a 7.1 remix that truly adds sonic dimension to the visuals. The songs have never sounded better and dialogue more than ever seems natural and impressively clear without being strident. Truly, for lovers of great movies everywhere, The Sound of Music is this season's must have Blu-Ray purchase.
Disc One contains the entire 178 minute feature film with an interactive feature that allows you to go behind the scenes and experience the making of the film. We also get the original Robert Wise commentary track as well as another featuring Julie Andrews and Chris Plummer at their fawning best, plus a sing-a-long track that personally, I'll never play. Disc 2 is jam packed with featurettes, some new, but many vintage that cover the film's gestation, the stage play and the enduring success and restoration from every conceivable angle. Disc 3 I could have easily done without - a DVD copy of the film; presumably to convince me why the Blu-Ray is superior in all aspects. Oh well, it'll make a nice Christmas gift for a friend I know who loves this film so well.
To make matters even more enticing, Fox has padded its deluxe box set with a gorgeous brochure, some beautifully reproduced lobby cards, an original screenplay and a music box that plays – what else? – ‘My Favorite Things’. Bottom line: The Sound of Music is a must own Blu-Ray event. Fox has at long last done the film and its fans proud!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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