One of the most moving moments at last week’s ceremony for the 87th Annual Academy Awards, was the performance of “Glory“, the song written by Common and John Legend for the movie Selma. The movie, of course, portrays the historical 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery that protested for black people’s right to vote. Fifty years later, the people in the Dolby Theater, the people watching at home, and especially Chris Pine, were moved to tears remembering the long fight for equality that took a crucial step in Alabama, and is still being fought today. Moments later, the Academy payed tribute to a landmark movie in Hollywood history. This is not to say that the movie being honored is a bad movie, but that the juxtaposition of what was being honored last Sunday wasn’t ideal. Judging from last night, fifty years ago, while black people were fighting for the rights, white people were most interested in the snow-white story of a singing nun who falls in love with a widowed captain. Talk about white people being uncool…
Anyway, it is a historical fact that The Sound of Music was released in theaters exactly fifty years ago. It is also a fact that it was a hugely important movie in the history of Hollywood. For starters, it was a gigantic hit. At the time of its release, it surpassed Gone with the Wind to become the highest grossing movie in U.S. history. Not only was it a financial success, but it was a huge success that came at the exact right time. Back in the mid-sixties, as Hollywood tried to compete with the growing popularity of television and the avant-garde alternatives of world cinema, studios dropped exorbitant amounts of money on Biblical epics and luscious musicals hoping the spectacle would bring people to the theater. One such movie was 20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra, which thanks to a series of events that I won’t go into detail here, ended up costing so much money that it ended up losing money despite being the highest grossing movie of 1963. Actually, it didn’t only lose money, but it brought 20th Century Fox on the brink of bankruptcy. The reason I’m telling you all of this is because the success of The Sound of Music was so enormous that it practically single-handedly saved 20th Century Fox from going the way of the dinosaurs.
The Sound of Music wasn’t one of those movies that made millions of dollars and were then forgotten either. It is, by all means, a classic of children’s entertainment and a staple product of the Hollywood machine. It is, in my mind, the third entry in the golden triumvirate of children’s musicals after The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins. It has hold on to its place in culture remarkably well for a colorful movie full of cheesy songs and singing children. So much so that even Seth McFarlane jokingly referenced it in what ended up being the funniest moment of his gig as Oscar host. And like most cultural objects its size, it has as many fans as it has detractors. Film critic Pauline Kael was a notably disenchanted by the movie, while Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has argued that despite its subject matter, the depiction of Austrian life in The Sound of Music actually have anti-semitic undertones.
According to Zizek, despite the movie’s text telling us that this is the story of democratic Austrian standing up to devilish Nazi Germany, the images in the movie tell a different story, where the depiction of our heroes, lovers of mountains and Volksmusik, is awfully close to Hitler’s vision of the ideal German family, while the industrial and beaurocratic fascists look awfully close to how the Nazis depicted the “cosmopolitan, corrupted Jew”. I personally think that The Sound of Music doesn’t spend enough time with its Nazi characters to support Zizek’s argument, but I do think that he is onto something when he talks about the Von Trapp family as an idealized version of the arian family. What we must keep in mind is that The Sound of Music, despite being based on the story of an Austrian family, is an American movie based on an American stage musical that has very little interest in European history. If anything, it is depicting the fifties’ ideal of the perfect white, middle-class, suburban American family. Consider again the social unrest and progressive changes at the center of the year 1965, and this argument doesn’t seem all that crazy now, does it?
But is this really what made people connect with The Sound of Music? Did Americans come out in droves to see this musical spectacle because they were afraid of the rise of black power? Did white America feel like outside political forces were threatening to disrupt their quiet provincial lives just like the Nazi occupation threatened to destroy the Von Trapp family? If so, why has the movie been so popular outside the U.S. and outside the political climate of the mid-sixties? Why were three girls growing in Lima, Peru also obsessed with the story of Maria and the Von Trapp family singers? If The Sound of Music has endured all these years, there has to be something to it, doesn’t it?
If we side-step from cultural and political relevance, I will point out the simple fact that The Sound of Music is an exquisitely made movie. Director Robert Wise is not exactly what you would call an auteur, but he is the man who edited Citizen Kane, the crown jewel of Hollywood history. Wise is a remarkable journeyman with a deep understanding of where and how classic cinema derives its power from. To understand how good The Sound of Music is, one only needs to compare to the bloated musicals Hollywood was producing at the time. Whereas George Cukor’s once celebrated My Fair Lady -released the year before- feels claustrophobic and archaically slow, The Sound of Music moves lightly on its feet, jumping from one song into the next like a young girl skipping through the Austrian countryside. Considering the conventions imposed on the “big” movies of the time -running times of 2-hours-plus, stage-bound blocking, and complex sets and costumes to be displayed in widescreen technicolor- it’s almost miraculous that The Sound of Music feels as light and breezy as it does.
To economically keep beating on the same punching bag, let us go back to My Fair Lady, and point out how it feels almost trapped in Henry Higgins’s house, where most of the movie takes place. For example, the movie version of “I Could Have Danced All Night” is visually impoverished, as it basically consists of Audrey Hepburn making her way from the living room into the hallway. In comparison, the people behind The Sound of Music had the right impulse to go film on location in Salzburg, giving Wise the opportunity to go open up the play and take us outside into the real world despite most of the original taking place inside the Von Trapp residence. The best example of this is the “Do, Re, Mi” sequence, which is a static and rather forgettable number in the stage show, but turns into a delicious montage in the movie, as we see the Von Trapp children parade all around Salzburg as they start to bond with Fräulein Maria.
I’m not saying that every movie musical needs to be taken to the outside world (Mary Poppins does wonders being filmed entirely in sound stages), but in the case of The Sound of Music, it was absolutely the right choice. The best analogy is also the most obvious one, as the location work in The Sound of Music becomes very much like stepping outside to take in some fresh air. There is something special, and humane, about looking at a gigantically wide shot of the Austrian alps and you are able to see the wind blowing on the leaves of grass. It gives life to what could have been a stiff Hollywood production. And even the scenes that take place inside are aided by Ted D. McCort’s photography. He often uses shadows and silhouettes, understanding that sometimes not being able to perfectly see the characters is more effective than shining all the lights on them. He also makes a particularly effective job of using the widescreen format when situating Maria in large rooms, be it in the abbey, or when she first comes into the Von Trapp ballroom.
But not every triumph in The Sound of Music is a technical achievement. Sometimes, to many auteurists’ disdain, the most important thing in a movie is the acting. In this case, there is no denying that both Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer are more than at the top of their game. Plummer is supposedly not a huge fan of the movie, finding it to be too corny, but he makes for a fantastic Captain Von Trapp, giving a goofball heart to the Captain’s stone-hard exterior. Meanwhile, there are probably not enough words to describe how Julie Andrews is one of the best musical performers to have ever graced the screen. Proof of her talent is how both of her most memorable roles are governesses, and how Maria and Mary are almost diametrically opposed to each other. There is none of Mary’s stiff bite to in Maria’s sloppy disposition. She is also the type of screen presence that allows her to remain respectable and graceful while singing “The Lonely Goatherd”.
Now that I’ve pointed out all the elements that make The Sound of Music an endurable classic, let us return to the question: is it a movie worth remembering? Is it more than a fine piece of entertainment? If there is any depth to The Sound of Music, it will surely be found in “Edelweiss”, the song that represents Captain Von Trapp’s undisputed love for his country. Could this song be the final stroke in the argument that this is a retrograde movie? That this is a man lamenting how foreign forces are about to ruin his country? I think it isn’t. The last time the Captain sings “Edelweiss”, is in front of a bunch of Nazi officers. It’s a bittersweet farewell to the country that he loves, but is about to leave behind. The Captain is following his “good core” when he gets out of Austria in time for his family and his future t be safe. Just like Maria follows hers when he falls in love with him.
Is The Sound of Music, then, yet another story about following your dreams? Maybe not, since the dream, in the case of Maria, and in the case of the Captain, is different from the dream they had when they started the movie. It always seemed weird to me that the movie ended with a reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, since this is clearly not a movie about fortitude while trying to achieve your dreams. If anything, it is a story about taking a detour from your dreams, and realizing that your path might be different from what you thought it was going to be. It’s not particularly deep, but does it have to be? Sometimes, an effective movie is an effective movie, and there is no doubt in my mind that The Sound of Music is one of those. People can object to Hollywood’s superfluous dream factory all they want, but it is that factory that inspired some of the most brilliant filmmakers the world has seen. The Sound of Music is an example of what that factory could do after fifty years of experience, and right before it was time for it to reinvent itself.