The Sound of Music – 1965 – dir. Robert Wise
Only The Sound of Music and the great Julie Andrews can make me break my vow to never write about a film in the first person.
I remember as if it was yesterday, walking the happy mile from my house to the Strand Theater in downtown Lowell to see The Sound of Music. I was to walk that happy mile at least 8 or 9 times more to see it again and have seen it dozens of times since. I never get tired of it, watched it recently, as if for the very first time. It is as fresh as the day it was made, a steady friend to anyone who loves its company.
Seeing Julie Andrews transformed my life. It sounds foolish but I like being foolish about Julie Andrews. She so captivated my sense of what a movie star should be that I plastered the walls of my bedroom with her photos, cut from news- papers and fan magazines encircling them with big, bright, red stenciled letters pro-claiming ALLELUIA JULIE!! Julie Andrews was my road to God, or WAS God. My mother got nervous and called aunt Marie to the house to show her. Marie took one look at my shrine, shook her head and said, “There’s something wrong with that boy.” So be it. I was in love. The whole world was in love with the multi-talented actress, her pageboy haircut, her milk-bright smile and box of chocolates English accent. I can never say enough good things about Andrews. In the 1960s, no star sang and danced more brightly across the movie sky. Born Julia Elizabeth Wells to a stage family of British vaudevillians, she grew up performing with her mother, Barbara, and her stepfather, Ted who added her to the act when it was discovered Julie possessed a freak voice capable of soaring four octaves above what is considered to be the normal range for anyone, much less a child. Following stunning theater roles on Broadway in The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady (a star-making turn) and “Camelot” with Richard Burton, she became a musical movie superstar after scoring back-to-back hits with Mary Poppins (for which she won the Best Actress Academy Award) and The Sound of Music. Over the years, she maybe has made a couple of movies that don’t quite work but she has never given a bad performance. The consummate professional, she has been known to wear out everyone else on set with her bold energy and determination to do the best work she can. She has the femininity of a princess and the constitution of a stevedore and is proof, along with so many other real movie stars, that those who are most popular possess androgynous qualities, exude both male and female ethers. For there is, you will agree, something a little bit this side of butch about Andrews. This quality about her generates an appeal that crosses the gender board ensuring that everyone — straights and grandmothers and children and gays — absolutely adore her, and making it easy for her, in another of her amazing screen performances, to play a woman playing a man playing a woman in the gender-bending Victor/Victoria. And there is something regal about her without being arch which has made her ideal for playing queens from Guinevere in Camelot to Clarissa of Genovia in The Princess Diaries. For more than half-a-century, her everlasting exuberance and enthusiasm and wildly undeniable talents have lit up movie and television screens and the Broadway and concert stage. Great is the only word I can think of for Julie Andrews. She is quite simply an angel of bliss.
American director Robert Wise, whose critical successes include West Side Story, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sand Pebbles, and The Andromeda Strain uses Andrews and crew deftly in his 1965 Academy Award winning film about how the famous von Trapp family singers came to be. The cast is perfect! Christopher Plummer plays Captain von Trapp, a man whose emotions are frozen due to the sudden death of his wife. Rather than embrace his seven orphaned children, he shuts them out of his life. Reverting back to his sea captain days, he treats them like dogs answering to a whistle or hardly notices them at all. Plummer has made no secret of the fact that he was not at all pleased with the movie or with his role (which he found to be “one dimensional”). He admits he was unsure of Andrews’ ability (she was, in truth, an unknown commodity at the time) and he did not care for the story which he dubbed “The Sound of Mucus”. In his recent autobiography, “In Spite of Myself”, he says he worried the film would become a treacly mess. The primary players realized that if they were not careful, their performances could sink easily into sugar bowl sweetness. Director Wise made sure this did not happen via his tight direction and his casting coups: all seven of the von Trapp children were played by professional actors and they ably avoid being cloying. They are cute without being cutesy, soft without being syrupy. Their comedic skills see them through.
There are other good, good performances: Richard Haydn plays the avuncular Max Detweiler, music impresario and self-proclaimed moocher who both delights and annoys the family with his insistence on making them world famous. Primarily a British stage actor, Haydn did not do too many movies and his part in Sound of Music became his signature role. Eleanor Parker plays the delicious and deliciously scheming Baroness von Schrader, love interest of the Captain. And look joyfully for Hollywood veteran, Norma Varden, in a brief but sure and accomplished turn as Frau Schmidt. And of course, who can forget “I Remember Mama’s” Peggy Wood as Mother Superior whose “Climb Every Mountain” has been wowing audiences for over four decades.
The movie is filled with all sorts of lovely moments to remember. Some critics panned it on its initial release, one stating that you could “hear the gears of manipulation creaking loudly in the background”. But joy of the kind that infuses The Sound of Music cannot be forced or faked; everyone seems to be having such a good time, and certainly Andrews’ voice, the magnificent natural beauty of the Alpine countryside and the trusty theme of good vs. evil are all as timeless as the Bible.
The movie is as pretty as ice cream and cake at a birthday party, all creams and pinks and greens. It is heavenly to look at and to listen to and hope and romance, yes, light its every moment. When pretty Charmian Carr, as Liesl, declares her love for a boy in the now famous gazebo scene number, “Sixteen Going On Seventeen”, she is as charming as her name implies. And boyishly handsome Dan Truhitte as Rolfe matches her note-for-note and step-for-step in their beautiful pas de deux. (And that form-fitting postal carrier uniform. Yowza!)
Andrews and Plummer perform an equally splendid dance of love and watch Andrews’ face blush like a rose when she realizes she is in love with a man who is committed to another.
I dare you not to have chills run up your spine when, singing the song, “Do Re Mi”, Andrews reaches for the superhuman high C above A. When she hits the top of the stairs and nails that note, well — you just know there is a God.
Filled with serenity and hope, with Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s beautiful, beautiful music, with the glories of Salzburg and the importance of having faith in God and country when evil appears, The Sound of Music remains one of the command premier movies of all time. After all these years, it carries its magnificence well, and we are the lucky ones for it.