Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Sound of Music (1965)

Director: Robert Wise                                 Writer: Ernest Lehman
Film Score: Irwin Kostal                              Cinematography: Ted D. McCord
Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker and Richard Hayden

The musical is definitely not one of my favorite cinematic forms, which probably accounts for the fact that this is the first time I’ve ever seen this film, on anniversary of it’s fiftieth year since production. The Sound of Music went on to win not only best picture that year at the Oscars, but also awards for its director, Robert Wise, as well as the uncredited film score by Irwin Kostal utilizing the music of Rogers and Hammerstein. There’s no denying its appeal to audiences at the time and over the last half century. The story was first written as an autobiography of Maria von Trapp, a former nun who married a retired naval officer in Austria just prior to the outbreak of World War Two. The officer, Georg von Trapp, was a widower with seven children and they, under the tutelage of Maria, formed a singing group that would go on to worldwide acclaim. The story was made into a documentary in Germany and seen by producers who commissioned at first a straight dramatic play, which would feature songs from the group’s repertoire, but quickly realized the value of converting the story to a full musical. After it became a hit on Broadway Richard Zanuck then purchased the rights from Paramount and the film became a 20th Century Fox production.

The film begins with a lengthy sequence filmed in the Bavarian Alps near Saltzburg, Austria. Julie Andrews is then seen running up a hill singing the title song. From there the story moves to a convent where Andrews is being discussed as a problem novitiate. The reverend mother, Peggy Wood, then decides that Andrews should get out of the convent for a while and assigns her to be the governess for Christopher Plummer’s seven children. Apprehensive at first, she immediately takes to the children and butts heads with Plummer over his desire to instill strict discipline. While he is away in Vienna romancing a rich baroness, Eleanor Parker, Andrews teaches the children to sing and upon Plummer’s return he is enchanted that the house is filled with music again, something that he had stopped after the death of his wife. With him, however, is the scheming Parker and her friend, entertainment entrepreneur Richard Hayden. At the same time, officials loyal to the Nazis are looking forward to the Anschluss when Germany will take control over Austria. But Plummer’s allegiance to Austria is obvious and it presages a coming conflict with the Nazi leadership. But that’s nothing compared to the conflict that Parker stirs up. Seeing how Plummer feels about Andrews she engineers her return to the convent so that nothing will stand in the way of their marriage.

The film is actually very well done. Though the story is simplistic, and the acting very stylized, it looks terrific on the big screen. I was able to see the film through the Turner Classic Movies presentation at my local theater. The restored print was beautiful and the sound was terrific. Robert Wise was the natural choice for the project as he had already won the Oscar for directing the screen version of West Side Story. Julie Andrews was nominated for an Oscar as well, but she had already won the year before for Disney’s Mary Poppins, which it must be admitted was a much better role dramatically. Andrews had always been the first choice for Wise, and even more so when he saw her in rushes of the Disney film which was still in production at the time. Christopher Plummer was a more difficult acquisition as he didn’t like the character in the stage play, but when Wise guaranteed they could work together to improve the character he signed on. Since Andrews and Plummer were relative newcomers to film, Wise went with an established star in Eleanor Parker for the role of the baroness. The casting of the children, on the other hand, involved hundreds of auditions to make the right selections. Other Oscar nominations went to Peggy Wood as the reverend mother, and cinematographer Ted McCord, while awards were also earned for sound and film editing. The Sound of Music is one of the last of the big-budget musicals to be produced in the sixties and remains a classic of the genre.

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