The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music marked the culmination of creativity by the team that wrote Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I.
It also marked the end of an era. In a sense, it was released at the
pre-dawn of the Sixtiesnot the numeric decade we call the “1960s,” but
the cultural one, the Age of Aquarius, LSD, Woodstock and the Kent State
The musical was already a smash hit on Broadway and
London’s West End years before director Robert Wise agreed to helm the
big screen version. It was shot in 1964 on sound stages in Century City,
California, and on location in and around Salzburg, Austria. The
musical on which it is based was the last project by Oscar Hammerstein
II who, after a career of co-writing an astounding 850 songs, died of
cancer shortly after the show’s 1959 Broadway debut. His last creation
was the ballad “Edelweis”.
The first half of the (numeric) 1960s
was marked by relative stability and what might be called American
cultural gentility. The assassination in 1963 of President John Kennedy
was a world-rocking exception to the rule, providing as it did a kind of
dark prophecy of the social vicissitudes that would roil the country in
the decade to come.
Movie content provides a lens through which
to see the shift from communitarian concord to anti-authoritarian
animusnot that all traditions and authorities were respected before
1965 and not that the post-1965 world had no gentility. And by movie
content I don’t just mean what the movies “are about.” I mean what they
presuppose and how they were critically rewarded as artifacts of show
business. Here’s a snapshot of the movies that won Academy Awards for
Best Film in the 1960s, before and after The Sound of Music:
1960: The Apartment
1961: West Side Story
1962: Lawrence of Arabia
1963: Tom Jones
1964: My Fair Lady
1965: The Sound of Music
1966: Man For All Seasons
1967: The Heat of the Night
1969: Midnight Cowboy
out of ten musicals got the Best Picture Oscarunthinkable in any
decade since (with the exception of Chicago, in 2002). The year 1967 saw the first mainstream softcore porn film,
the made-in-Sweden-born-in-the-USA I Am Curious (Yellow) that features, incongruously enough, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. That same year, the first nude musical debuted on Broadway, Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.
next year, 1968, saw the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, galloping protests
on college campuses, the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr, and Robert
Kennedy, the student uprisings in France, and the wide rejection of the
ancient Christian sexual ethic (Humanae Vitae). No wonder historian Paul Johnson called it “the year of America’s suicide attempt.”
year after that, 1969, fully nudity made its debut in Playboy. By 1972,
a major Hollywood star (a certain Marlon Brando) acted out a sodomy
scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s tiresome Last Tango In Paris. The new modus operandi in Hollywood was to push hard on that envelope and to let the prudes worry about the consequences.
Looking back, The Sound of Music
was, to cite one of its lyrics, a last drop of a golden sun that was
about to set on an age of innocence. The year of its release marked the
end of the Second Vatican Council, during which time the Catholic world
(anticipated in a gauzy kind of way in the film itself) was roiled by
tectonic shifts within its walls. Old certainties faded, new
uncertainties brightened. The only available constant was change.
Just as the events of the film (based on the autobiography The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by
Maria von Trapp) occur during the pause prior to the Nazi Anschluss of
Austria, the film itself appeared immediately prior to a different but
no less ominous form of Anschluss: the cultural annexation by the
tie-dyed, peace-sign waving salesmen of the sexual revolution and all
its pomps and all its works, like “free” “love,” drug experimentation,
sticking it to The Manall the Dionysian excesses spawned in the second
half of the 1960s.
Blissfully unaware of the cultural explosions just around the corner, The Sound of Music was not a herald of things to come, but the double-bolting of a door against an Americana of yesteryear.
1966, a nominal Catholic named Jack Valenti became president of the
Motion Picture Association of America (M.P.A.A.) and promptly shuttered
the doors of the so-called Breen Office, formerly called the Hays
Production Code. The Code was essentially a list of Don’ts and Be
Carefuls that oversaw Hollywood movie content from the early 1930s,
devoutly backed by the Catholic Legion of Decencythe work of which, it
should be noted, was lauded by Pius XI in his 1936 encyclical Vigilanti Cura.
On November 1, 1968, Mr. Valenti inaugurated the MPAA Ratings system.
Originally, this meant G (family fare), M, R, all the way to X, which
was changed in 1990 to NC-17 (typically pornography dolled up as art).
Adjusted for inflation, The Sound of Music
is the third highest box office earner in history. In adapting the
stage play, director Wise exploited the fact that a camera can go places
a proscenium stage can’t by framing the entire saga between two open
air bookends: the sweeping mountain vistas that frame our first look at
Maria (Julie Andrews) and, at the end, the family’s flight from the
It’s tempting to describe Maria as the
story’s main character since we meet her first and see an awful lot of
her in the movie’s 174 minutes. All the posters for play and movie show a
larger-than-life Maria smiling maternally before a glorious Alps
backdrop. Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) seems, if
anything, to be the antagonist. From the first, they clash on every
level, especially the musical. While the hills may be alive with the
sound of her vivacious voice, at home in the valley the Captain has
imposed a strict No Music zone.
The Captain, however, the one who
undergoes the greatest “character arc,” and learns the most along the
way, is the true hero. Maria is what mythologist Joseph Campbell would
call a Catalyst Hero, one who changes the hero while remaining more or
less the same. What is Maria at the end but a more mature version of
herself as a postulant? Captain von Trapp, by contrast, is brought to a
personal crisis and is inwardly transformed through persistent exposure
to her persistent and patient service to his seven young children.
This is a film made for BluRay. Filmed in a new process of cinematography called Todd-AO
70 mm by director of photography Ted McCord, audiences can still enjoy
an unusually lush, vivid movie experience. The studios weren’t nervous
to make movies long enough to require an intermissionperfect, in the
case of The Sound of Music, for kids’ restroom breaks.
interesting. Most viewers don’t think twice about why the film
(following the play) was given the title The Sound of Music. As titles
go, it strikes one as a handy enough tag with which to label a story
where so many characters suddenly break out into song, and that’s about
I argue for something deeper. What is Captain Von Trapp’s
greatest external problem? What to do about the advancing Nazis. As a
naval officer, and hence a warrior, he is well equipped to face the war.
what is his greatest internal problem, and is he equally equipped to
face it? It is the fact that the loss of his first wife brought it with
an inability to give and receive love. The Captain is emotionally
constipated, a shell of his formerly warm, evidently musical, self. He
shuns real intimacy, and everyone knows it: the hausfrau, the
children, Maria, and even his would-be fiancée, the Baroness Elsa
Schrader (Eleanor Parker, in an under-appreciated performance).
von Trapp doesn’t seem to know he doesn’t know. The sound of music, as
it were, in his world has been replaced by the piercing seaman’s
whistle; rhythm, by military marches.
The magic moment comes
seconds after a furious von Trapp fires Maria after she arrives with the
children donned in clothing made from the house drapes and dripping wet
from falling in the lake. His fury is stopped short by a sweet a cappella
chorus wafting down from the estate window. Against the Captain’s
wishes, Maria has been do-ray-mee-ing with the children who soundhe
must admit, despite himselfangelic to his ears.
By the time he
reaches the parlour in which the children sing for the Baroness and
Uncle Max (Richard Haydn), von Trapp is caught in the trap
setinadvertently?by Maria. Finally joining his children in song,
haltingly at firstand then volunteering to sing “Edelweiss” with eldest
daughter Liesl (Charmian Carr)something in the wounded heart of Georg
von Trapp is mended.
At long last it, it is through the sound of music that he finds his footing enough to experience joy, to love, and to be loved by his family.
struggle to trust happiness and to recover from the loss of a loved one
are themes that are deftly treated in two other classic films: Tender Mercies (1984, directed by Bruce Beresford) starring Best Actor Academy Award winner Robert Duvall; and the sleeper In America (2001, co-written and directed by Jim Sheridan). Both of these films will be the subjects of future Cinephiles. Until next month, keep the popcorn hot.