Friday, October 10, 2014

The Sound of Music (1965)

USA, 174 minutes
Director: Robert Wise
Writers: George Hurdalek, Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse, Ernest Lehman, Maria von Trapp
Photography: Ted D. McCord
Music: Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Irwin Kostal
Editor: William Reynolds
Cast: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Richard Haydn, Eleanor Parker, Peggy Wood, Anna Lee, Marni Nixon, Angela Cartwright

At some point I realized that 1965 was going to be a critical juncture in this ongoing Movie of the Year project. It was the year I personally became aware of "going out to the movies" as an activity that meant something specific, and special, although parental accompaniment—or at least permission and transport—were still necessarily involved. I'm thus aware that my choice is something of a sentimental one, as seeing The Sound of Music was precisely a mandatory family activity, in the same year that I discovered top 40 radio and that the Beatles' Help! was released. I resented The Sound of Music then, rejected it as corny, and never looked back until a few years ago, when it somehow got in front of me again (also probably for sentimental reasons, with the death of my father looming). Programming note: It is also the last one I will be offering in the series for a little while, as I increasingly feel the need to research what's ahead for the early '60s, '50s, and back—March or April next year is my target for resuming, with 1964. From here on, all picks will come from retrospect, so I'm indulging one last opportunity for a movie I saw in its time, though my feelings about it are somewhat complicated.

Actually, in that later viewing, there was a particular moment that decisively turned me around on The Sound of Music, which for something like two hours I watched alternating between groaning and wincing and, surprisingly often, thinking, "Hey, this isn't so bad." When I realized the song "Something Good" was not only in the movie, but came from it, I fell in line. I had come to love the homely mystical approach of that song (both musical and lyrical) by way of a Caetano Veloso cover version of it in 2004. Coming at a swooning romantic high point of the picture, I was done. That was it. Even Julie Andrews capering about as dim bulb nun and mountain meadow maid (it has to bear some responsibility for The Flying Nun, yes?), with those magnificent snow-capped Alps peaks in the backdrop, convinced me now. I made my peace. The hills are alive, see.

In so doing, in giving in not just to a blatant musical, but to that most blatant of all musicals, the '60s musical, I realize I have gone through a looking-glass. Probably for reasons of technology and economics, '60s musicals metastasized the whole interpenetrated song and dance thing with the visuals and narrative to absurd degrees rarely seen so routinely before or since. The music churns and washes up in multiple ways, getting into everything. It is diegetic and not, sometimes within the same scenes and songs. At a casual meeting in a magnificent stone vestibule, for example, the nuns work up six-part harmony with full invisible orchestral accompaniment on "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" When Maria comes rushing in because she's always late for everything, of course, they quickly stop and have a comic exchange with the echoes of the vestibule heard. When Maria leaves again the full invisible orchestra is back and so are the singing nuns. Or there are moments, as in cars, when a single line is sung, and sounds like a studio production, and then back to the natural sound interior of the car.

I love how much some of the principals hated this movie, even as they worked on it—notably Christopher Plummer, the co-star, and director Robert Wise, who wrings the saccharine from this with abandon, rapaciously robbing the vault of totemic cinema with explicit references to Casablanca and Grand Illusion among many other great sins. But it works, it works! Plummer's venom for the property takes the form in his performance of a perfectly modulated loathing of Nazis, and who doesn't hate Nazis! Wise's larcenies have the paradoxical effect of bringing great dignity to the foofaraw, right when it needs it most, and can get away with it best, in its last third.

Because another point where The Sound of Music is undeniably strong is its rampaging narrative, which goes where it will. Mostly it plays as an insipid romantic comedy musical that is busy with charming incident for two hours or so, which works well enough for me because I'm partial to romantic comedies. Then it disposes of the romantic comedy with the happy ending of a spectacular fairy tale wedding (the invisible orchestra sawing away variations on "Maria")—remember that among its many weaker points The Sound of Music is a story of vastly privileged white people. And then it pivots seamlessly into a musical thriller about Nazis, with a very good tale of escape and/or hiding from Nazis, which of course is a basic staple of Nazi movies and stories, starting with Anne Frank.

For as good as the ending of The Sound of Music is, it does take some time getting there. It must be said clearly that you are in for a baggy, loose narrative overflowing with schmaltz in The Sound of Music. I hope this does not come as too much of a surprise. There's no end of wince-worthy mugging and pratfalls and adorable children in the long story of recalcitrant nincompoop Maria leaving the convent to become a governess of seven children, where she is a spectacular and beautiful success, not least because she knows how to put on a song and dance show. Their father (Plummer) is a widower and a mighty fine military sea captain (that's why the Nazis insist he stay), a proud not to say jingoistic Austrian not happy to see the developments in his homeland and, oh yeah, he's pretty handy with a guitar too. There's a lot of mangling of history here, so probably best to look away from the details. As always, rely on the appearance of the swastika to quickly distinguish the players. As for the length, think of it as a long hot soapy bath. Sing along, as inclined.

Top 10 of 1965
1. Repulsion
2. The Sound of Music
3. Fists in the Pocket
4. For a Few Dollars More
5. The Collector
6. Bunny Lake Is Missing
7. King Rat
8. Red Beard
9. Pierrot le fou
10. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines


  1. I just finished watching this for the very first time, having purposely avoided it for almost 50 years. And then I came directly here, to remind myself what you had said. I'll write about it soon, but for now, I'll quote a fragment from your review: "There's no end of wince-worthy mugging and pratfalls and adorable children". It took 39 minutes, give or take, for me to turn against it (I even looked at the clock to see how far along the film was, although I already can't remember what scene was going on). By the hour mark, I looked at my wife (who apparently has seen it many times) and said, "these kids are gonna be all over this movie, aren't they?" (Duh.) At the intermission, I asked if it was possible that when they returned from intermission, the kids had all moved to another country. Finally, the littlest boy did something and I pointed my hand at the screen, making a pretend gun with thumb and pointer finger while making the sound of a gun going off.

    My wife thinks I protesteth too much.

  2. Ha, I'm not saying this movie is easy to like!