Last Sunday I toddled off like an excited youngster to see the film version of the iconic Broadway Musical The Sound of Music.This year being the 50th anniversary of the movie’s release, the Galaxy Theatre in Nanaimo as part of their Classic Film Series scheduled two showings. The previous week I’d stumbled upon an article in the Art’s section of the Victoria Colonist that mentioned a new book by Tom Santopietro about the making of The Sound of Music. Downloading the book from Amazon to my iPad, I couldn’t stop reading.
It was June 4th, 1964 and Julie Andrews was freezing. “If this is spring weather in the Austrian Alps, what is it like in February?” she thought. The location was a meadow high above Mehlweg in Southern Bavaria and the schedule called for the filming of The Sound of Music’s title song – the scene that opens the story that has Maria cresting a hill at a flat run, throwing herself into a full-bodied twirl with arms outstretched as if to embrace the entire world launching into The hills are alive with …
The logistics involved a rental helicopter that would swoop down from above to film the scene. Helicopter rentals were enormously expensive and the 20th Century-Fox front office back in Hollywood was pleading with director Robert Wise to rein in the escalating costs affecting a studio that was just emerging from bankruptcy. There was no money for even one more day’s helicopter rental. Seeing the scene replayed on the big screen last Sunday, I’d forgotten how spectacular the sequence was.
The Sound of Music soundtrack has proved to be the most successful soundtrack ever released, but aside from Julie Andrews, no one who sang on the soundtrack ever received any money from it.
Reading Santopietro’s book before attending the film added so much more enjoyment to the multiple times I’ve seen the film, mostly on video when preparing for one of the live productions I’ve played piano on and conducted over the years. Santopietro’s tome is loaded with so much detail about the filming that the data was continuously spooling through my brain as every scene played out. Apparently the helicopter’s downdraft proved so strong that Andrews found herself constantly knocked over and trying to avoid the meadow’s muddy sections during multiple morning takes. The regular Hollywood cameraman had refused to dangle himself from the aircraft’s doorway so a fearless German operator had to be hired for this part of the shoot.
The overriding question for 20th Century-Fox during three months of filming was would the movie-going public buy into a story about a nun bursting with song. Audiences were starting to expect more reality from their films in the early 60’s. Marked relaxation of production code taboos had changed the very nature of moviegoing. Religious epics were no longer in vogue and musicals had fallen out of favor. I recall seeing the Academy Award winning film version of West Side Story by the same director Robert Wise in 1961 at a movie theatre in Port Alberni. Most of the audience had left the theatre before the end, unable to accept the premise of street gang hoodlums who sang and danced their way across the screen.
However, as we all know, The Sound of Musicturned out to be a worldwide film phenomenon that continues to resonate with audiences some five decades after the film’s initial release. This, was in spite of the critical scorn heaped upon the film when it opened. Santopietro’s book devotes a number of pages regarding movie critics in this pre-Internet age. He states critics in the mid-sixties simply grew mean, as if the more vicious the attacks, the more firmly they established their importance.
Some examples - the New Yorker’s Brendan Gill wrote “the film’s handful of authentic location shots have a hokey studio sheen. The acting of Andrews, Plummer, and Parker are well under ordinary high school level.” Wow! As author Santopietro points out, “It’s safe to say that there was not a high schooler alive in 1965 or 2015 who possessed anywhere near the acting skills of these three award-winning actors.” McCall’s magazine critic Pauline Kael found the movie phony. She struck the pose of a world-weary upholder of artistic standards writing The Sound of Music makes it “even more difficult for anyone to try to do anything worth doing, anything relevant to the modern world, anything inventive or expressive.” Pressing her attack further she declared that a film of such “luxuriant falseness” was “probably going to be the single most repressive influence on artistic freedom in movies for the next few years.” She blamed the American public for foolishly buying into a film that promoted the “big lie, the sugarcoated lies that people seem to want to eat.” Incidentally, the review cost her her job as the magazine’s film critic. I assume too many McCall’s magazine readers cancelled or threatened to cancel their subscriptions.
Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and the children. Plummer thought the film beneath him and worried how the movie could affect his career as a classical actor. In one interview he called the film “The Sound of Mucus.” However, over time he finally came to understand and appreciate how much the film meant to people.
The hills are alive with ...
What seemed to particularly confound the critics was the fact that The Sound of Music represented a return to old-fashioned “saccharine” fare they thought had finally disappeared. Films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, others that depicted nuclear destruction like Fail-Safeand Dr. Strangelove were the fare of the day. Yet here was The Sound of Music, old-fashioned to the core, rising to be the most popular film on the planet. The most severe critics continued to assert the question: “had audiences all around the world lost their collective minds?”
When the Oscar nominations were announced early in 1966, The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago had each garnered a total of ten nominations. When the dust settled on Oscar night, The Sound of Music triumphed, marking two years in a row that a musical had won the Academy Award as Best Film. The previous year was My Fair Lady. Critics once more rolled their eyes. Although nominated, Julie Andrews didn’t win best actress. The Hollywood scuttle-buck was Andrews had already been well rewarded for winning the Oscar in 1964 for her role in Mary Poppins.
Country by country, continent by continent, The Sound of Music juggernaut rolled on setting box office records, except in Germany and Austria. The cold hard fact in these two countries was the film flopped outright – big time. Santopietro poses the reason for this was that the Nazi-era setting of the movie seemed to remind the population of an era that they would rather totally forget. The movie’s depiction of Captain von Trapp’s principled refusal to serve in the Reich’s Navy only served to remind Austrians that masses of their fellow citizens had eagerly welcomed Hitler. The first run of the film in Salzburg lasted only three days. Only those who had acted as extras showed up.
However the passage of time does heal. Today Austrians are grateful for the decades’ long boon to tourism fostered by the film’s worldwide appeal. As Austrian minister of arts and culture once stated, “Salzburg may be the home of Mozart, but The Sound of Music locations appear to have surpassed Wolfgang Amadeus’s birthplace as the ‘go to’ Salzburg destinations.” Today at the height of the summer season one tour company claims their Sound of Music location tours still attract over two hundred paying customers per day. Tourists also attend the Salzburg Marionettes production of The Sound of Music. It appears the company turned down an offer by 20thCentury-Fox to stage the famous marionette scene that appears in the film. They judged being in a Hollywood movie undignified - beneath their legendary performance standards.
The famous Marionette scene from the film.
Today the Sixteen Going on Seventeen gazebo sits in a city park. Across from the Salzburg Sheraton Hotel, the manager claims that guests don’t ask for their room number when checking in – they only want to make a beeline for the iconic steps of the Mirabell Gardens across the street where the finale of Do-Re-Miwas filmed. Here tourists flock to re-create the stair-hopping climax of the tune that featured Maria and the children on a summertime outing.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the quantity of information packed into this new book by Tom Santopietro. If you’re at all interested in film musicals, The Sound of Music Story is a must read.