1965's "The Sound of Music" is everything a bad musical should be. Providing more sap than a forest full of Vermont maples, it has coy, silly songs, an inane, innocuous script, and unbelievably sugary characters. So why is it one of my favorite musicals? OK, go ahead. Shoot me at twenty paces. But after all this time, it still remains a guilty pleasure. I find myself going for a tub of rocky road ice cream and Rodgers & Hammerstein's immortal classic whenever the real world gets to be too much. I seem to play it a lot around tax time.
And I'm not alone. Why is it still considered the most popular musical of all time? Well, first of all they spared no expense. The extremely well-produced blockbuster has gorgeous, eye-popping scenery. From the first moment Julie Andrews flails her arms and circles around on that beautiful sunny hillside singing the rousing title song, I know I'm being swept away to another world. I'm not in Kansas anymore...or L.A., anyway. The panoramic Salzburg background complements and never intimidates or takes away from the characters or their story (like the other R & H extravaganza "South Pacific.") That in itself is an incredible feat.
Now about those songs. Almost every one of them is absolute drivel. So what makes them work? Easy. The utter joy and sincerity of the cast who sings the infectious, hummable tunes, which are backed by extremely moving orchestrations and an exceptionally beautiful score. It's hard to resist Maria prancing about, pillow-fighting with a bunch of knee-highs and gushing about her most favorite things. Or the austere Captain Von Trapp (the meticulous Christopher Plummer) turning to butter after hearing his brood sing in perfect harmony for the first time (with no prior lessons even) and joining right in. Or the Mother Superior's soaring number that unknowingly forewarns Maria to head for the hills (I mean, mountains) before the Nazis escort them elsewhere. Or the 16-year-old going on 17 squealing with delight after receiving her first kiss. Or the kids working up a clever little ditty to leave their formal party guests when its time for bed. Or two people declaring their love in a moonlit gazebo. The songs work because they come straight from and aim for the heart, not the head, which is exactly the place the viewer should be coming from when watching this movie. If the songs don't transcend the script (which they didn't prior to the 70s), they certainly transcend the mood.
The script is undeniably trite and probably the film's weakest link. But again, the characters play it straight all the way. Not one actor looks embarrassed. Every scene is done with total enthusiasm and total commitment, and the performers who are telling the story are pitch-perfect and picture perfect.
And as for the characters. Try and think of anybody better than jubilant, crop-haired Julie Andrews as a postulant nun who has gorgeous pipes, can make play clothes out of curtains, can set up and operate marionette shows at the drop of a hat, and is confident enough to convince a man that a failed nun is ideal marriage material. I certainly can't. Thank heavens for her Oscar-winning "Mary Poppins" the year before or we might have gotten Julie LONDON instead! After all, Andrews did lose out on "My Fair Lady" the year before. But now certifiably bankable, she proved she could handle this dream role. Andrews is cutely silly, cutely stubborn, cutely astute, cutely shattered and cutely...well, cute. She gives the most wholesomely appealing musical perf since Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz." To actually make you forget Mary Martin in the Broadway role takes some doing and she does it effortlessly. Christopher Plummer is all seriousness, handsomely patrician, and quite a catch for anybody...much less a nun. I can't think of anyone more suitable for this role either. As for the Seven Little Foys, I mean the Von Trapp children, they are adorable and perfect in their own ways too, whether they are marching or singing, creating their own individual personalities by film's end.
Richard Haydn as Max and Eleanor Parker as the flamboyant, haughty Baroness provide wonderful catty relief. Despite having their musical numbers snatched away from them, they make up for it with droll, sophisticated humor. The elegant, perfectly coiffed Parker is particularly delicious as Maria's chief romantic rival, getting some of the film's best zingers and delivering them with biting understatement. Parker developed a devout cult following after this role. Peggy Wood's Mother Superior is suitably reverent and inspiring.
For those who tear "The Sound of Music" apart for its shameless, sugar-coated manipulations, well, I can respect that. But to attack it for its political and historical inaccuracies is like attacking "Peter Pan" for being a subversive plot that encourages young children to run away from home. It's ludicrous. Despite the fact that it's based on a true story, we're not watching "The Sound of Music" for stark realism. Like a sparkling and lavish Ernst Lubitsch operetta, we want a feel-good movie, with feel-good songs, with a feel-good story, and a feel-good ending. Nothing more. If you want a movie that presents a potent depiction of pre-war Austria or anti-Nazi sentiment, rent "Holocaust" or "Schindler's List." Here, we want to believe that a group of nuns can tear out an automobile carburetor and save the world! Period.
I suppose the reality-based MTV generation cannot truly respect or relate to the relative innocence and pure escapism like "The Sound of Music." If this movie was made today I'm afraid the Von Trapp children would not be dangling out of trees for fear of drive-by shooters. It's a tough new world today, sad to say. The 50s and 60s are looking better all the time.
Anyway, for what it's worth, "The Sound of Music" is indeed schmaltz, but its QUALITY schmaltz at its very, very best.
The Sound of Music
Biography / Drama
The Sound of Music
Biography / Drama
In 1930's Austria, a young woman named Maria is failing miserably in her attempts to become a nun. When the Navy captain Georg Von Trapp writes to the convent asking for a governess that can handle his seven mischievous children, Maria is given the job. The Captain's wife is dead, and he is often away, and runs the household as strictly as he does the ships he sails on. The children are unhappy and resentful of the governesses that their father keeps hiring, and have managed to run each of them off one by one. When Maria arrives, she is initially met with the same hostility, but her kindness, understanding, and sense of fun soon draws them to her and brings some much-needed joy into all their lives -- including the Captain's. Eventually he and Maria find themselves falling in love, even though Georg is already engaged to a Baroness and Maria is still a postulant. The romance makes them both start questioning the decisions they have made. Their personal conflicts soon become overshadowed, however, by world events. Austria is about to come under the control of Germany, and the Captain may soon find himself drafted into the German navy and forced to fight against his own country.
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December 1, 2012 at 6:12 am