Tuesday, January 21

The Sound of Music: Favorite Movie #4

1965 Musical
From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Robert Wise

Julie Andrews
Christopher Plummer
Eleanor Parker
Richard Haydn
Peggy Wood
Charmian Carr
Nicholas Hammond
Heather Menzies
Duane Chase
Angela Cartwright
Debbie Turner
Kym Karath
Ben Wright
Daniel Truhitte

In the spring of 1965 I was a most unhappily married man because my wife and I were trying a separation.  For a short while I didn't think anything would drag me back into the sunshine.  One day I watched a few men lift a large marquee onto the front of a movie theater that had been closed for some time.  They told me the theater was being refurbished and would open in a couple of weeks to coincide with the opening of The Sound of Music.  The anticipation was palpable.

On the night it opened I was there early.  I had been to the theater only once before but on this night I was taken with how large the new screen was.  When that curtain opened and I saw the majesty of the Austrian countryside in scene after scene before the opening credits, I felt a transformation from the victim I had been feeling like.  My cares seemed to vanish and they didn't return for another three hours.  The film touched me in much the same way that seeing The Greatest Show on Earth had years earlier.  Before the long run at that theater concluded, I had seen The Sound of Music 16 times, including once or twice with my wife.  To this day, while I don't know the exact number, I am sure I have seen it more than 100 times. 

For years and years it was my favorite film.  As with The Greatest Show on Earth, I always took a little heat.  Liking it is fine, a friend would say, but your favorite?  Really?  I like many kinds of films but the really wholesome ones are in a decided minority.  My buddies knew that.  I was the film noir buff.  I favored gritty stuff.  But we also know I am a fan of musicals and I still regard this one as the granddaddy of them all... a big, glorious musical that became not only an American classic but a worldwide one.

Obviously when I compiled my 50 Favorite Films list, particularly these top 12 favorites, I was surprised to learn I put TSOM at number four.  Now I had to say to myself... really?  There are three movies I like more?  Having just watched it again to get in the mood for this posting, I again thought, ooops, maybe it should be two or three, but it's staying put.  But I will say this... I have some of the most tender and loving feelings for The Sound of Music and it remains as close to me as my bankie was when I was a wee lil one.

What to say to you about The Sound of Music was another matter.  It seemed perfectly silly to tell you what it's about as if you didn't know.  But if not that, then what?  So I am choosing to write about  some things that perhaps you don't know.  I say perhaps because any diehard fan likely knows everything that follows and more that I haven't said.  Nonetheless, ponder some of this:

When Julie Andrews was signed to play Maria, she had not been a certainty from the beginning because, while she had already made Mary Poppins and The Americanization of Emily, neither had been released.  She was a bright star of Broadway but no one had seen her on the silver screen.  Who can see Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Leslie Caron, Angie Dickinson, Carol Lawrence or Shirley Jones in the role?  All of them had been considered at one time or another. 

Angie Dickinson?  Imagine her singing along with Walter Matthau, because he was once considered for the Captain as were Peter Finch, Stephen Boyd, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, David Niven and Yul Brynner.

Director Robert Wise was also not a sure-fire guarantee.  Several others had been considered including the great William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Little Foxes, The Big Country, Ben-Hur) who actually went to Austria on some location scouting.  The truth is he was never enamored of the story and eventually begged off.  Wise, who had already won an Oscar for directing West Side Story, was actually considered a director of those gritty films I like(Executive Suite, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Odds Against Tomorrow, Somebody Up There Likes Me, I Want to Live)
but it was that very grit the producers were looking for to hopefully squeeze out some of the story's sugary elements.  An interesting side note to all that sugar is that nearly all of the events in the story actually did happen.

Decisions had been made about the songs.  A couple of them would be cut from the Broadway play.  Those sung by Elsa and Max in the play were gone so that when Eleanor Parker and Richard Haydn signed to play Elsa and Max, they were now non-singing parts.  Some others were moved around in the film.  My Favorite Things would be sung on Maria's bed with the children during a rainstorm whereas it was sung by Maria and the Mother Abbess in the play.  What was sung on the bed in the play was The Lonely Goatherd, which in the film, of course, was staged by the children and Maria as a puppet show.

Two new songs were added for the film.  The first, and the best, I Have Confidence, begins as Maria leaves the abbey and takes the bus into the country, winding up, out of breath, at the front door of the von Trapp villa.  The second, Something Good, was sung after Maria and the captain realize they are meant for one another.  Structurally there were quite valid reasons for including these two new songs, but certainly one point was to allow Andrews to sing more.

Speaking of songs makes me think of the people singing them.  I was shocked when I heard years ago that Peggy Wood did not do her own singing of Climb Ev'ry Mountain.  Christopher Plummer also warbled nary a note.  His singing voice was that of Bill Lee, who also subbed earlier for John Kerr as Lt. Cable in South Pacific.

It has long been imagined that Edelweiss was not written by Rodgers and Hammerstein at all and that they actually slipped in an Austrian anthem or folk song of some sort.  But the truth is that not only did R&H write it themselves but it was the last song they ever wrote together.  It seems like the world knows the words to Edelweiss

The title tune, my personal favorite, was not at the beginning of the play but wasn't it smart to open this film with that number?  It was a song about music and nature and put an audience in a state of wide-eyed wonderment for all that was to follow. 

To film what has become one of the most famous openings in movie history was a challenge for everyone.  Filmed atop Mellweg Mountain, just outside Bavaria, it was actually the last scene filmed on location, and it was a bear, starting mainly with the weather that caused many starts and stops.  As Andrews reaches the crest of the mountain and begins to mouth the title song, a helicopter comes racing toward her with a cameraman hanging out.  The first flyby was successful but once the helicopter circled around and came back for another shot, the downdrafts were so strong that the actress would be knocked over.  The hills were indeed alive and after being knocked to the ground about 10 times, she had had enough.  The babbling brook and the white birch trees are actually a separate sequence.

Of course, it's not technically true that this is the opening scene as stated earlier.  As the screen brightens, we hear birds chirping and then fabulous shots of Salzburg's eye-popping Lake District, Salzkammergut, castles at Fuchsi, Fuchslee Lake and more.  I think it's safe to say we knew we were watching something quite special.

Other locations included Nonnberg Abbey (where the real Maria actually was a novitiate), beautiful St. Peter's Cemetery (where the Von Trapps hid until discovered by Rolf), the stunning mountaintop of Werfen where Do Re Mi began, Church of Mondsee Cathedral (the wedding sequence) Felsenreitschule (Summer Riding School), the arena where the family sings in public, and Mirabell Palace and Gardens, used more than once but including part of Do Re Mi

It's a lark to note the villa itself is actually four locations: the front of the mansion is one, the terrace in the back is another, third is the walkway near the lake (Plummer has walks there with both Andrews and Parker), and the entire interior of the villa was on sound stages at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles.

The gazebo for the Sixteen Going on Seventeen number is actually two locations.  It was constructed in Austria and used for the exterior scenes.  But it was too small for cameras and the dance number with Liesl and Rolf, so interior scenes were filmed at Fox.  A bit of trivia is that Charmian Carr, who played Liesl, broke her ankle while jumping from bench to bench in that number.  Savvy viewers can quickly spot her bandaged leg in one clip.

It came out recently when Eleanor Parker (Elsa, the baroness) died that she never cared for making The Sound of Music.  She had spent years dreading the thought that she would be most remembered for this role, a costarring one, no less, after years of being quite a remarkable leading lady.  But her son said that about 10 years ago she became  proud of her involvement in such an acclaimed film.  The truth is that she was actually hired for her name value.   Andrews and Plummer were not household names at the time.

Certainly part of the kick of this film were those kids.  As one can tell from the tributes to the film over the years, these kids really did and do get along.  How might the film have looked had some of the children been played by Mia Farrow, Sharon Tate, Richard Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell, Patty Duke, Ann Jillian and a couple of the Osmond brothers?  All were considered at one point and some even tested.  While their characters names were Liesl, Friedrich, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta and Gretl, the real names of the von Trapp children were Rupert, Agathe, Maria, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna and Martina.  And after Maria and the captain were married, they had Rosemarie, Eleonore and Johannes.  The real fact about Maria's becoming a part of the von Trapp household is that she went to teach one child who was bedridden, not as a governess to seven.

It was hoped that The Sound of Music would pull 20th Century Fox out of the financial hole created a couple of years earlier by Cleopatra.  It did that... and more.  It would be accurate to say that no one expected it to soar to the heights that it did, making it the most beloved film of its time.  It might have succeeded at the level it did because there was a need for something wholesome.  We had lived through the wholesome fifties but by the time this film was released, we endured headlines of a war in Vietnam and a cultural revolution was beginning, drugs were rampant, folks were dropping out and tuning in to a different set of values.  It's almost a wonder this film succeeded at all, but perhaps it was a final farewell to a former time.

The Sound of Music would be accorded awards the world over.  It would be nominated for 10 Academy Awards and win five... editing, sound mixing, musical score, director and of course best picture.  In 2001 the United States Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it culturally, aesthetically and historically significant.  For some time it was the most financially successful American film of all time.  It has made somewhere in the neighborhood of $286 million.  Its soundtrack, which has never been out of print, has made $11 million.

Here's your final fun fact.  I've heard that in 2005 and for every year since, Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl has held an annual Sound of Music sing-a-long where the film is shown with lyrics beneath the screen.  Some of the real-life von Trapp children attend, as do some of those from the film.  The event has apparently sold out every year and is fondly referred to as The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Prozac.

The Directors

No comments:

Post a Comment