What more does one say about a movie that continues to be - as Fox publicity of its day so astutely heralded - "the happiest sound in all the world"? Today, too few movie musicals are made – none with the musical genius, inspiration or enduring poignancy of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. “What’s wrong with sweetness and light?” Rodgers once quipped, “They’ve been around for an awfully long time.” Yet, even R&H’s most ardent supporters were slightly put off by The Sound of Music’s cloying concoction of nuns and Nazis; the bristling Captain Von Trapp (on stage played by a very stern, Theodore Bikel) whose heart of stone is softened by the perky novice nanny (Mary Martin). She transforms his militarily precision run household into a veritable Viennese choral of bubbly joy and effervescence. The critics were decidedly not keen on the Von Trapp’s family saga. Audiences, however, couldn’t get enough of it.
As Robert Wise’s 1965 movie has eclipsed the reputation of this stagecraft, people today forget Broadway’s The Sound of Music was hardly regarded as a towering achievement. Indeed, it broke no new ground in musical theater as Oklahoma!, The King and I and South Pacific had. Instead, it was unabashedly old fashion and sentimental. Yet, while the movie versions of these aforementioned R&H hits were successful at the box office, none quite equal in reputation to their Broadway predecessors, The Sound of Music would be different. Most movies make their biggest windfall on opening weekends. In The Sound of Music’s case, a decidedly tepid start steadily gathered steam; the picture lasting more than half a year in some theaters with repeat business pushing its final tally of ticket sales well into the black – an unqualified hit.
The word ‘prolific’ seems at once both fittingly appropriate, yet grossly inadequate in summarizing Rodgers and Hammerstein. Unequivocally, their musical partnership had the trappings of the ideal marriage; a symbiotic union for which Hammerstein remained the jokingly more envious of the two; waxing to the press how he toiled for weeks on a lyric, only to have Rodgers sit as his piano and perfectly realize his words into musical notes in a mere few hours or days. It is rumored, as example, that Rodgers wrote ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’ for Carousel in the time it took his wife and daughter to attend a Saturday matinee. Rodgers always protested the insinuation his contribution to their collaborative efforts came easily. “I think the moment of creation should be a spontaneous one,” Rodgers would clarify years later in an interview, “But I have to do an awful lot of thinking for an awful lot of time before I actually do a few notes.” In point of fact, by the time Rodgers actually sat in front of his piano several months of intense discussion about character design and motivation had facilitated a good solid understanding for the anticipated mood, tempo and pacing of the melody.
Today Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music is widely regarded as the very best of the R&H stage to screen adaptations, endlessly revived during the holiday season, despite the fact the film contains not a single sequence taking place at Christmas time. The Von Trapp’s tale of heroism and escape was first brought to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s attention by Mary Martin and expressly written to suit her talents. But the Broadway derivative was not an overnight sensation. Moreover, it had one of the longest gestation periods of any R&H show. Gradually, it built its reputation during out of town tryouts - enough for 20th Century-Fox to acquire the film rights in 1960 to produce it. But then the property languished, partly because the studio had little faith in it; also because musicals had quietly fallen out of fashion, but most of all, because Fox had neither the time nor the money to invest in a big and splashy musical. Badly needed revenues had been siphoned off to complete Cleopatra (1963); a film that had virtually halted production at Fox and threatened to close the studio for good.
For a while, it seemed The Sound of Music might never get produced. By 1965, the Hollywood musical was even more the red-headed stepchild than it had been five years earlier. Occasionally, a studio gamble could yield an expensive masterpiece that gelled with the public. Warner Bros., as example, had great success with its adaptations of The Music Man (1962) and My Fair Lady (1964). However, more often the effect derived from these costly ventures proved too heavy-handed and overproduced. Audiences shunned these spectacles in song. After Oscar Hammerstein’s death in 1960, Richard Rodgers agreed to go it alone and write several new songs for the film version of The Sound of Music, after producer, Saul Chaplin and director, Robert Wise were given a green light by studio chief, Richard Zanuck, who also hired screenwriter extraordinaire Ernest Lehman to rewrite the play. Lehman’s prowess cannot be overestimated; his ever so delicate reorganization of both the order of the songs and the narrative course of events smoothing out the awkward kinks in the stage show. Rodgers eventually contributed both melody and lyric to two of the film's best recalled musical moments; the romantic ballad, ‘Something Good’ and Maria's bombastic travelogue through Salzburg en route to the Von Trapp villa, ‘I Have Confidence’.
In their preliminary stages of planning, Wise and producer, Saul Chaplin had concurred Christopher Plummer would make an admirable Capt. Von Trapp. Only Plummer worried that his thin singing voice would belie the poignancy of R&H’s ‘Edelweiss’ – the eloquently stated linchpin in understanding Georg’s dismissiveness of the Nazi high command. Wise had little difficulty casting the children. Charmian Carr proved a virginal Liesl on the cusp of her ill-fated ‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’ romance with Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte). Nicholas Hammond was later to muse how unorthodox Wise’s decision had been to cast him as the eldest Von Trapp male child, Friedrich. “Here I was, auditioning with a broken arm, a chipped tooth and a crop of dark brown hair in a room full of blonde-haired/blue-eyed kids. How he ever chose me, I’ll never know!” Kismet also proved the impetus for Wise’s decision to cast Kym Karath as the youngest child, Gretl. Apparently, even at the tender age of six Karath knew her own strengths, approaching Wise and Saul Chaplin in a matter-of-fact manner, talking a mile a minute and producing a portfolio of her work for their consideration. While Wise was steadily growing annoyed, Chaplin offered his director a bit of very solid advice. “How else can you get a child to do the things you’ll want her to do if she isn’t like that?”
Timing, as they used to say, is everything. In April of 1964, Wise and a company of 60 descended on Austria. By then, the socio-political and artistic landscape of Hollywood had been so dramatically altered as to barely make their project feasible. Indeed, nowhere had the crunch proved more detrimental than at 20th Century-Fox. Ever vigilante of the studio’s precarious financial situation and its expectation for a megahit, Wise was determined to bring his picture in on time and under budget. He was hampered in tandem by Austria’s chronically inclement weather; also, by a curmudgeonly farmer who had granted permission to shoot on his land, then set about punching holes in the basin of Wise’s man-made stream when his demands for more money were not met. When it came time to photograph Julie Andrews emblematic turn high atop the Alps, Wise encountered two additional adversities; first, the only way to reach the location was by ox-cart, and second, that the downdraft from the approaching helicopter assigned to capture this breathtaking aerial shot also created a minor hurricane, leveling Andrews into the very wet earth beneath her feet.
Nightly, cast and crew consoled themselves from the unusually frigid weather inside the local hotel, cozy pubs and beer gardens, soaking up the centuries-old atmosphere of old Vienna and indulging in its rich liqueurs and pastries. At one point, actor Christopher Plummer had to have several of his costumes let out to account for extra girth he had accumulated around his middle. Despite telegrams arriving almost daily, encouraging – nee threatening an early cancelation of his shoot, Wise trudged onward, eventually realized there was no way he was going to be able to complete the film on time and under budget. Still, what he had captured around town up – the Mirabell Gardens, the exterior of Nonnberg Abbey, Winkler’s Terrace, the lush greenery and mountain exteriors of Saltzkammergut and the Mozart footbridge – these proved intoxicating and were later to be seamlessly married to sets built at 20th Century Fox. Production designer, Boris Levin recreated the interior of Nonnberg Abbey down to its cobblestone courtyard, a miraculous feat.
When The Sound of Music had its world premiere on March 2, 1965, few at 20th Century-Fox could have hoped for a more successful debut. Despite only slightly above average grosses on its opening weekend, word of mouth and renewed ticket sales caused the film’s weekly intake to steadily rise during the Spring and Summer months – a virtually unheard of phenomenon. In the final analysis, The Sound of Music became the studio’s most popular and profitable film of the decade; eventually becoming the highest grossing movie musical of all time.
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 the picturesque Alps, deliriously spinning as she belts out the opening strains of the title song, is to be magically teleported to an alternate universe where goodness and light not only are enduring principles by which to live, but always refreshingly in vogue. Yet, Julie Andrews is far more than simply a golden voice and fresh face. Indeed, she brings a deliciously tart underlay of perfect comedic timing; as when – after having been taught by the captain how to blow whistle calls for the children, she instead devilishly squirts a sour note in his direction, adding, “Excuse me, sir. But I don’t know your signal!” These gems belong to Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, but their 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. On stage, the captain was little more than a curmudgeonly disciplinarian, infrequently interrupting Maria’s re-education of the children and depriving the real captain of his genuine affection toward his children. Thanks to the combined intervention of Wise, Lehman and Plummer, the character’s appeal is softened and warmed up. But it is Plummer’s dashing good looks, coupled with his uncanny ability to exude authority and sex appeal that make Georg more acceptable to audiences as the desirable of a young girl. In reality, there was a discrepancy of some years between Von Trapp and Maria. The movie, as well as the stage play, tends to level off this disparity.
While Maria (still very much alive when the movie was made, and actually appearing in cameo during Andrew’s ‘I Have Confidence’ travelogue) and the rest of the Von Trapp’s have always been exceedingly grateful for the film’s perennial popularity, the real Von Trapp family saga is a story 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 throughout Europe and helped keep the family’s dwindling finances afloat. The real Von Trapps were hardly as wealthy as their filmic counterparts. In fact, they had taken in tenants to maintain their home. Twice were they scheduled to appear and perform at the personal request of Adolf Hitler; and twice did they refuse. The captain’s first refusal was polite and viewed in good faith. His second, however, came under political scrutiny after the Anschluss or ‘peaceful’ annexation of Austria by the Nazi government.
Knowing what the future might hold for his family, the captain elected to abandon his ancestral home. The family escaped, not on foot across the Alps as depicted in the movie, 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 their beloved Austria they left behind. Throughout the war years, they toured the United States, making friends wherever they performed. But it wasn’t until after the Captain’s death, when Maria began telling stories of what their lives had been like in Austria to entertain audiences during a concert after the arrival of their instruments and songbooks had been delayed, that an eager publisher took notice and approached, suggested she write her biography. Upon publication, the book had modest sales. Nevertheless, it caught Mary Martin’s eye.
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 away for the summer to the sprawling country estate of Captain Georg Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) as a governess to 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; his children prone to mischievous practical jokes. These backfire when Maria makes the brood feel guilty for their undue unkindness. Gradually, Maria strives to gain their confidences, particularly Liesl, who is having an unrequited love fantasy with telegram delivery boy, Rolf. Before long, Maria has the children well in hand, filling their minds with love, their hearts with music. It helps the Captain has since departed for Vienna to woo Baroness Elsa Schraeder (Eleanor Parker); an elegant creature, alas lacking the essential ingredient – maternal warmth – to be a second wife and their stepmother.
Upon the Captain’s return with Elsa and her chaperone, Max Detweiler (Richard Hayden) in tow, Georg discovers his children have been transformed into a formidable singing group – one 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 has stitched together from the drapes that used to hang in her bedroom, the Georg’s heart is stirred to fond recollections of his late wife after the children serenade Elsa. Rethinking what Maria’s presence has meant to the family, the Captain softens, indulging the children’s whim to own their own elaborate marionette theater. He also agrees to stage a lavish house party to introduce Elsa to his friends. However, at this party Georg comes to the sudden realization he has fallen in love with Maria, much to Elsa’s jealous chagrin.
Elsa goads Maria into running away from her true feelings, forcing her into seclusion at the abbey. After a period of convalescence, the Mother Abbess declares Maria must face her destiny, explaining to her, simply because she loves a man does not mean she loves God less. Moreover, everyone must discover the satisfaction of their own dreams as they metaphorically ‘climb every mountain’. On this advice, Maria returns to the captain’s home where she learns Elsa and Georg have since become engaged. Although this reunion is bittersweet, the captain quickly deduces he loves Maria. Anticipating the end of their affair, Elsa ends their relationship with her pride intact. Georg pursues Maria and she confides her love for him in return. The two are married with the blessing of the Captain’s children and the nuns, before embarking on 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 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 the Nazi’s Herr Zeller (Ben Wright) assigned to escort the Captain to his new naval post at Breymar Harbor. Georg lies to Zeller, his family is on their way to the festival to perform. Very reluctantly, Zeller provides them all with an escort to ensure they will not ‘get lost in the crowd’.
Predictably, and most deliberately, the Von Trapps do just that, taking refuge in the abbey, but discovered by Liesl’s Rolfe, now a Hitler SS officer. The family’s penultimate escape is ably abetted by some last minute intervention from Sister Berthe (Portia Nelson) and Sister Margaretta (Anna Lee); confiding to Mother Abbess they ‘have sinned’ by removing the spark plugs and distributor caps from the Nazis vehicles parked out front, thereby foiling their pursuit of the Von Trapps. This joyous defeat dissolves to a breathtaking aerial view 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 for the strength derived from spiritual faith and blind optimism. 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 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 the heart and soul with "something good", encouraging the human spirit to "climb every mountain" until it finds its’ dreams. In the final analysis, The Sound of Music has endured for fifty years because the fantasy of it seems utterly genuine; the reality gleaned from it, far more fantastical, yet satisfying than any truth from history itself.
Five years ago, Fox Home Video gave us a simply gorgeous box set to mark the film’s 45th Anniversary. Now we have a scaled down offering for its 50th. I’m not sure I comprehend the logic in this other than a studio money grab. We lose all the bling of the former but keep the same video extras and transfer in stunning 1080p Blu-ray. Scanned in from archival 70mm Todd-AO elements at 8K, down-scaled to 4K and finally restored and remastered for 1080p, The Sound of Music on Blu-ray is everything it was before and all that one could ask for from a gorgeous image harvest. If you already own the 45th Anniversary edition there’s really no need to upgrade. Color fluctuations have been corrected and thousands of instances of dirt and debris removed. Fine grain has been lovingly preserved. Overall visual clarity is tremendous, while color reproduction is warm and vivid. Contrast too is superior. Prepare to be impressed by the 7.1 DTS audio, featuring Irwin Kostal’s lush orchestrations as never before appreciated.
Disc One, of course, features the movie, plus an all new trivia track entitled, ‘Your Favorite Things: An Interactive Celebration’. Directly ported over from the previous release is the ‘music machine’ sing-a-long option, plus vintage audio commentaries from Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and Robert Wise. The second disc features identical extras to those included on the aforementioned 45th Anniversary Blu-ray, covering, in great detail, the making of the movie, its restoration and also the real Von Trapp family saga; plus a virtual map of locations in Salzburg, Austria and all of the vintage R&H programs featured as before, screen tests, interviews, photo galleries, etc. et al. Disc Three provides us with the only NEW extra of substance: an hour-long documentary as Julie Andrews returns to Salzburg to remember the movie and happier times. It’s a poignant tribute, but ringing slightly tinny; much too light on details, despite the reminiscences provided. It should be pointed out The Sound of Music is available also as a 3 Disc edition that includes all of the aforementioned content. The added bonuses in this 5-disc offering are a DVD copy of the movie (Disc 4) and an exclusive CD – alas, not of the movie’s soundtrack (no, Fox wants you to pay for that as they have already reissued the OST in stores to coincide with this Blu-ray release), but of some ‘international performances’ of the score and songs. Personally, I don’t really want my beloved memories of the movie tainted by other artists’ reinterpretations, although I will confess to having found Lady Gaga at this year’s Oscar Ceremonies one of the finest things she has ever done; a show-stopper indeed. Bottom line: this is Fox’s double dip down a very deep well. The Sound of Music just keeps on giving. It is perennially satisfying. You can’t go wrong by owning it in hi-def. But if you already own the 45th, think twice on this one. There’s very little here that’s actually new to recommend it.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)