film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Sound Of Music (1965)

So, I’m not going to have very much to say about this one, I’m afraid. Not because it’s poor quality, or because I actively disliked it. Rather – I’m so familiar with it that I literally had no reaction to seeing it again this time. It got broadcast on television a lot when I was younger – once a year throughout the 1980s and 1990s – and more recently we’ve seen movie theaters screen it in a “sing-along” version. I was even in a production when I was eleven years old. (I think that’s my head dead-center in this picture, hovering in the back of this crowd of “nuns” on the stage in our school library.)

Actually, it was about the time I was in this production that I first started noticing the biggest nits I’m picking with this film. None of them are solely the film’s fault – in fact, the film is a bit of an improvement, cutting three of the songs I liked least from the original stage show and adding a couple extra bits in. The whole thing, however, is an over-romanticized take on the life of the actual Von Trapp family; a singing family who emigrated from Austria just before the Second World War and made a name for themselves in the US.

A quick word about the actual Von Trapps – Maria did intend to be a nun, and did get sent as a governess to the house of Georg Von Trapp, an Austrian widower with seven children. The family also did flee Austria just before World War II. However – Maria and Georg married more out of convenience, with Maria regretting giving up the church for a while afterward. And when the Nazis took over Austria, the Von Trapps took advantage of Georg’s dual citizenship in Italy and took a train to Rome.

However – the famous stage duo Rogers & Hammerstein were not inspired by Maria Von Trapp’s memoir. Rather, they were inspired by a 1956 West German film which had itself been rather freely and romantically adapted from it – making Georg a cold disciplinarian saved by Maria’s joie de vivre, dialing up the kids’ cuteness, introducing a star-crossed-lovers subplot between the eldest Von Trapp daughter and a budding Nazi Youth member, and setting up a daring escape, sneaking out of their debut concert at a folk music festival and hiking over the Alps.

Rogers & Hammerstein wrote the musical for stage star Mary Martin – but Julie Andrews won the role for the film, based on her work in Mary Poppins (reportedly, director Robert Wise visited the Disney studios to watch a rough cut of Mary Poppins before it had even been released, and within five minutes was telling screenwriter Ernest Lehman “let’s go sign this girl right now before someone else sees this and grabs her”). Andrews very nearly turned the role down, feeling the story was a bit sentimental – but Wise convinced her by sharing some changes he was planning to make to the musical, and to Maria’s character. Christopher Plummer also had a hand in fleshing out Georg von Trapp’s character a bit (although he still was no fan of the film, calling it “The Sound of Mucus” when he was amongst friends).

Still, the film is a lot like the musical. The basic plot is all there, as are many of the “cute” things the kids say are the same (like how the youngest girl, Gretl, refers to the Nazi flag as “that flag with the big black spider on it”). And most of the songs are still there. …And it’s the songs that are the high point here – because let’s face it, they’re excellent, especially when it’s Julie Andrews singing them. And the film’s staging is an improvement on the musical’s – opening up the “Do-Re-Mi” number by sending the Von Trapps cavorting throughout the streets of Salzburg, giving Julie Andrews a vast mountaintop as her stage for “The Sound of Music”, and giving “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” a sweeping orchestral backup.

Literally the only mis-step I saw was the bizarre use of “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?” as the processional march during Maria’s wedding to Georg – think about it, how is that a song a bride would want to hear as she marches down an aisle? But just before that is one of my favorite moments from the film – just after Maria has been dressed and prepped by her former convent sisters, they shepherd her through the convent gate and then close the door behind her, staying inside the convent themselves. And before Maria starts down the aisle, she pauses to look back, giving her old way of life one last look; but all of the nuns are there smiling at her through the gate encouragingly, so she turns away to move on into her new life. Even when I was a kid I found that moving.

One last bit of trivia to end on – in 2015, the Academy Awards had a special salute to this film, which was then celebrating a 50th Anniversary. Julie Andrews was sadly not able to sing herself – a botched operation on her vocal cords in 1997 permanently damaged her singing voice. So the Academy went with a new talent – inviting Lady Gaga to sing for the tribute. At the time, Gaga was known primarily for avant-garde stunts like wearing dresses made of meat, so there were several eyebrows raised when she was introduced – but she pulled it off.

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