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Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music

(SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

Perhaps most impressive is that The Sound of Music is a three-hour musical that barely drags, and the drama of the piece propels it even when the – mostly very good, and ludicrously ear-wormy – songs aren’t front and centre. Very loosely based on Maria von Trapp’s 1949 memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the tale made it to the screen after a German film and sequel and the diversion of a planned US version into a Rogers and Hammerstein stage musical; it then found its way to Fox – who paid the equivalent of $10m for it – and quality adaptors in the form of Ernest Lehman and Robert Wise (both of whom collaborated on West Side Story). The latter was Lehman’s first choice, replacing William Wyler after doubts about his commitment surfaced.

What makes the picture interesting in part is the marriage of the shamelessly sugary with the “stark” (in family-viewing terms) spectre of fascism forever changing an idyllic way of life; the Von Trapps, and the audience, will always have those wonderful songs, but they’re brought to life on the doorstep of the devastation of their (luxuriant) way of life. Geoff Andrews in Time Out noted the lure of the material, despite its “reactionary” nature (a woman’s place being in the home, mothering etc), and suggested “the threat of Nazism is better evoked than in Cabaret”. It’s notable that, once the Captain (Christopher Plummer) and Maria (Julia Andrews) declare their feelings for each other, the world comes crashing down around them. Subsequently, there are only reprises of songs, and Wise (expertly) adopts the pacing of a suspense thriller as they are force to flee the country by way of a folk festival.

Much was said about reducing the “sweetness and sentimentality” of the stage version, from Wise and Lehman, and from Andrews too. Which didn’t prevent the brickbats, even from Plummer, who loathed the entire experience (“The Sound of Mucus”), loathed Andrews’ Miss Disney-ness (like “being hit over the head with a big Valentine’s Day card every day”) and sought comfort in the local victuals (I doubt he particularly relished having been dubbed either). His character remains the only lead not entirely unfrozen by Maria’s presence (Andrews is said to have credited his cynicism with keeping the picture – relatively – from indulging too much sentiment).

The Captain ought, by rights, to get on with the Nazis like a house on fire; he’s a humourless authoritarian rigidly disciplining his children for the benefit of the family unit (“The children don’t play, they march”). But Lehman takes care from the outset to stress that, whatever his domestic demeanour, the Captain has no sympathy with such doctrines. He wants shot of Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte), not because he’s wooing Liesl (Charmian Carr) – although that doesn’t help – but because he’s a Brownshirt. He also makes no bones about expressing his feelings to Herr Zeller (Ben Wright), leading directly to his receiving special treatment. At the conclusion, Lehman doubles down on portraying the divide as the Captain pleads with Rolfe, telling him “You’ll never be one of them” – a brown rag to a bull – and the latter reveals he has become a super Nazi when he summons his fellow Brownshirts.

It may be down to Plummer in part, but for me, the melting of the Captain’s heart is very sudden and not entirely persuasive (“You’ve brought music back into the house. I’d forgotten”). Indeed, the only conflict really arises from the brief machinations of the Baroness (Eleanor Parker), who has the good grace to admit defeat when she sees the writing on the wall. Elsewhere, the child’s eye view of the fascist threat is somewhat cloying (“Everybody’s cross these days, darling”; “Maybe the flag with the black spider on it makes people nervous”), but still infinitely preferable to the Roberto Benigni effect. The underlying message then, is surely that, if only Julie Andrews could have personally serenaded Adolf, all this might have been avoided. Which is to ignore the essential diktats of Hegelian dialectic, but this is a family musical.

In terms of the cast then, I can see how someone else might have been a better choice than Plummer (the mooted Connery could have been interesting), but he creates an undeniable tension (Pauline Kael, who I’ll come to, suggested “Even the monstrously ingenious technicians who made this movie couldn’t put together a convincing mate for Super-Goody Two-Shoes”; Plummer’s performance is “sinister, unpleasant, archly decadent”). Andrews is sickly sweet and super mumsy, more so here than in the more heightened and slightly brusquer, kindly-authoritarian realm of Mary Poppins. The actress might be likeable, but she isn’t loveable; she’s just too wholesome, sincere and lacking in the remotest trace of guile or edge. Thus, the only fair retort is the realisation that she fits the material tonally.

I was most taken with Charmian Carr as a lad (21 playing 16), and it bears noting Plummer was too. I hadn’t realised until now that’s TV’s Spider-Man as Friedrich. Richard Haydn is likeable as the capitalist-yet-stalwart-where-it-counts Max, while Parker brings some poise to the thankless role of the third wheel (“My dear, is there anything you can’t do?”) The kids are largely anonymous, though, aside from the oldest and youngest (Kym Karath: I want to show her my finger). Their motivation is also largely a wash. “How else can we get father’s attention?” they comment of treating previous governesses terribly; no need for probing psychoanalysis there.

I mentioned the change in tone and pace of the last forty minutes, and it’s marked how the Rogers & Hammerstein numbers fizzle at this stage. Something Good (the serenade) and Climb Ev’ry Mountain (Mother abbess, Peggy Wood’s song) are nothing special, and about the only point you might find yourself looking at your watch. And yes, I could do without the “Cuckoo” start of So Long, Farewell. Both times. But there’s a reason this soundtrack outsold every Beatles album except Sergeant Pepper during the 60s (and was the bestselling UK album in 1965, 1966 and 1968).

I should also mention that the last time I sat through The Sound of Music, it would have been a pan-and-scan, and I was consequently hugely impressed by the work of Wise and cinematographer Ted D McCord (his penultimate film) on this occasion. This is surely one of the most beautifully shot musicals ever shot, the more impressive for the seamless marriage of location and sets (a rarity during this era).

Kael, as I mentioned, was decidedly not seduced. Or rather, she clearly was but resisted it with every fibre of her pen tip (or clatter of her keys). Her diatribe is very familiar in essence, one those yearning for a past period (just the way the 1960s are now similarly summoned). She opined that its success and that of the “wholesome” it epitomises “makes it even more difficult for anyone to try to do anything worth doing, anything relevant to the modern world, anything inventive or expressive”.

Now, one might apply this weary resignation to superhero movies sucking the oxygen out of the auditorium (or plandemics, other than in China, natch) but fast forward a few short years and the invasion of the New Hollywood proved her argument nonsense (“The more money these ‘wholesome’ movies make, the less wholesome will the state of American movies be”). What was actually being seen, as others have documented, was the musical’s – along with that of the period epic, although by about his point that had spluttered and collapsed, largely thanks to Cleopatra – veneration as an answer to the might of television. By 1970, that was largely over, due to several costly flops, and it would be darker-tinged versions (Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof) that kept what tattered flag there was left flying.

Kael questioned if The Sound of Music was “a tribute to ‘freshness’ that is mechanically engineered, so shrewdly calculated that the background music rises, the already soft focus blurs and melts, and, upon the instant, you can hear all the noses blowing in the theatre?” Further still, “The worst despots in history, the most cynical purveyors of mass culture respond at this level and may feel pleased at how tender-hearted they reallyare because they do”. Kael suggested the movie could only offend those who “loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel”, those who object to being turned into “emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming those sickly, goody-goody songs”. She’s saying she hates herself for being carried along by its good vibrations, basically.

The question that follows, then, is why The Sound of Music merits such an excoriation. It’s a musical. Of course its mechanical and engineered. A few years later, Kael could be found singing the praises of Oliver! about as saccharine and wholesome a retelling of Dickens you could imagine (it even lets off Fagin). But The Sound of Music, “the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat” and its “luxurious falseness” is really to blame. Worse still (bizarrely, and bafflingly, particularly from a movie critic) it makes “honest work almost impossible” such that “people who accept this kind of movie tend to resent work”. Okay…

Still, her take on Andrews is devastatingly on point (“The perfect, perky schoolgirl, the adorable tomboy, the gawky colt. Sexless, inhumanly happy, the sparkling maid, a mind as clean and well brushed as her teeth”). If one wishes to drill down to the truth in her statements, its merely that the movie industry is always going to plough wholesale into selling whatever makes them money at whatever time. But that will be sugar-coated one moment and riddled with Bonnie and Clyde bullets the next. Yes, it will try to sell agendas (wokeness right now, for example), but unless you make that pill tasty (a spoonful of sugar) it’s going to be rejected for its unvarnished, Oscar-laden absence of public interest.

So I come away giving thumbs up to The Sound of Music. Yes, both of them. It’s an absurd fantasy, for sure, but it’s a great musical. Plausibility wise, I was more perplexed by the logistics of making and producing the Lonely Goatherd puppet show than how impossibly nice Maria is. Perhaps, like Max, the movie makes of each of us “a very charming sponge”, but it’s hardly alone in movies across all eras in that regard.

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