The Sound of the Music

The Sound of Music (1965) Director: Robert Wise

“The hills are alive with the sound of music…”

★★★★★

While generally not a devotee of musicals The Sound of Music is the cinematic musical masterpiece par excellence. It is an undeniable, towering film; one of my favorites of all time. Sentimental, gripping, sunny, hopeful, visually stunning, and rife with catchy, beautiful music The Sound of Music is a wonderful picture. The story is based on the 1949 memoir by Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which was then turned into a stage production by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1959 (Richard Rodgers composed the music and Oscar Hammerstein II created the lyrics). In fact this was the last Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as Hammerstein died of stomach cancer in 1960 (the last song he wrote was “Edelweiss”). While initial reviews were mixed, it quickly became a massive success as The Sound of Music unseated Gone With The Wind in 1966 as the highest grossing film up to that point. It won five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best director (Wise’s second win after 1961’s West Side Story). The Sound of Music effectively saved 20th Century Fox after its near financial flop with Cleopatra in 1963.

The initial intent was for Audrey Hepburn to play the lead but thankfully we are the fortunate beneficiaries of Julie Andrews and her incredible vocals (back-up considerations for lead roles included Grace Kelly and Shirley Jones). Robert Wise visited Disney to view footage of the unreleased film Mary Poppins and immediately he knew he needed to sign Andrews to the part. Wise also had trouble casting the role of Captan von Trapp. Along with Christopher Plummer other lead Hollywood actors included Bing Crosby, Yul Brynner, Sean Connery, and Richard Burton. Many other famous Hollywood actors were considered for secondary roles as well, including Mia Farrow. Apparently Plummer and Andrews became lifelong friends after the movie but he despised the sappiness of the movie (he called it “the sound of mucus”). The two spent minimal time together on set because Andrews had a newborn and Plummer spent minimal time in Austria. During scenes of romance between the two they could not stop laughing -in particular Wise decided to simply to shoot Andrews and Plummer in silhouette due to their nonstop giggling.

The follow is a brief plot synopsis though it pales in comparison to the film: Maria (Julie Andrews) is a free-spirited Austrian nun in training but her carefree disposition earns her the ire of her fellow nuns. She is sent away to serve as the governess for the distinguished and recently widowed retired Naval Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and his seven children: Liesl, Friedrich, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta, and Gretl. When she arrives Maria is met with a severe and austere man, but when he goes away to Vienna Maria opens the children to her playful and fun-loving ways. She invites them to explore the world around them, and she teaches them how to play and sing music. When Capt. von Trapp returns he brings with him a suspicious and stern socialite named Baroness Elsa Schraeder (Eleanor Parker). When the Captain sees how undisciplined his children have become he orders Maria to return to the abbey, but at the last moment he overhears his children singing to Baroness Schraeder. Overwhelmed with emotion and nostalgia, he sings with them and begs Maria to stay. The Captain throws a large gala at his villa and he and Maria are caught dancing intimately with one another. Confused about her feelings, Maria runs back to the abbey (at the urging of the Baroness) but she is ordered to return to her duties rather than escape into a vow of silence. When she returns, Captain von Trapp calls off his engagement to the Baroness and instead is married to Maria.

After an intermission, the von Trapp family singers are enlisted to play at a festival by their Uncle Max (Richard Haydn) despite Captain von Trapp’s protestations. He and Maria return home from their honeymoon when they discover that the Nazis are taking over Austria. When they try to escape the von Trapps are forcibly escorted to the festival by a group of Nazi brown shirts. They narrowly escape from Rolfe to Maria’s old abbey and in the morning they flee across the Austrio-Swiss border to freedom in Switzerland.

There are a number of glaring historical inaccuracies in the film. Unlike in the film and musical Mr. von Trapp was actually a kind, warm-hearted man and it was Maria who was the disciplinarian (though the real Mr. von Trapp did summon his children with a whistle). The von Trapp family was disappointed in the portrayal of their father in the film. Another inaccuracy is that the family openly left Austria via train under the pretense of a vacation rather than fleeing in the dead of night. The real Maria von Trapp has a brief uncredited cameo as a passerby, alongside her children Rosemarie and Werner von Trapp during the “I Have Confidence” number. In her book, The Sound of Music: The Making of America’s Favorite Movie, Julia Antopol Hirsch says that Kostal used seven children and five adults to record the children’s voices; the only scene where the child-actors actually sing is when they sing “The Sound of Music” on their own after Maria leaves. Christopher Plummer also had a voice double. Indoor scenes for the film were shot in Los Angeles however outdoor scenes at the abbey were shot at Mondsee Abbey in Salzburg, Austria along with the surrounding region from chapels, to town squares, to the alps. The magnificent outdoor scenes of the waterfront von Trapp manor were shot at Schloss Leopoldskron, an early 18th century Austrian palace. After falling into disrepair, it was once owned by the great Austrian theatre director-turned Hollywood man, Max Reinhardt. He abandoned the palace when he fled the Nazi invasion, and the Nazis promptly confiscated it. Today it is a renovated luxury hotel. The front-facing scenes of the von Trapp manor were shot at the Mozarteum Salzburg, a music and dramatic arts university which was founded in 1841. The university is named after the city’s most renowned artist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Here are some bits of fascinating The Sound of Music behind the scenes trivia: In the scene where the children return home in a boat after playing around in Austria they fall into the water but there is a true look of terror on some of their faces -some did not know how to swim! During the fall the young actress Kym Karath swallowed so much water she grew ill. The actress who played Leisl (Charmian Carr) had a badly sprained ankle during her romantic scene in the gazebo. Years later, she admitted to having a crush on Christopher Plummer through the making of the film but she claims it was merely platonic and flirtatious. The youngest actress who played Gretl (Kym Karath) experienced a growth spurt and weight gain during production -so much so in fact that in the closing scenes of the von Trapp family hiking over the alps, Christopher Plummer requested for a lighter double to carry on his back. Plummer, himself, ate and drank copiously during production and had to have his costumes extended in the waste a bit. A nearby Austrian farmer apparently supplied the staff with Austrian Schnapps and both Plummer and Andrews happily accepted. Legend has it that Andrews used the Schnapps to help her play guitar and lip-sync at the same time (she was not a natural guitar player). Marni Nixon, better known as the woman who contributed the on-screen singing voice for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, made her on-screen debut in The Sound of Music. She played one of the singing nuns (Sister Sophia) at the Abby. Julie Andrews was apparently repeatedly knocked to the ground during the shooting of her famous “hills are alive” scene -a helicopter was flying overhead to capture the magnificent scenery but the high winds knocked poor Julie Andrews quite a bit! The scene was actually shot in Bavaria, Germany. During the later scenes in which the Nazis took over Austria, local government officials were uneasy with the film crew hanging Swastika flags along the streets, however the crew arose very early in the morning and quickly got their shots to avoid any crowds or attention. The Sound of Music was made a mere 20 years after World War II.

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