The Oscars Project: Week 8 — The Sound of Music

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to The Hurt Locker. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.
Sound of Music
The Sound of Music (Best Picture, Best Director and six others)

“Oh, Captain von Trapp. I was just looking for… I didn’t see, I mean, I didn’t know you were… Heil Hitler!”
— Messenger boy Rolf, delivering the greatest possible response to the question “What are you doing there?”

After taking home the Best Actress trophy the year before for her portrayal of Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews was ready to take over the world. That’s exactly what she did with The Sound of Music, the treacle-rich film that overtook the box-office records set by Gone With the Wind and became one of the best-known and most-loved musicals of all time. There are reports of people who saw the movie over 300 times while it was in theatres, seeing it daily for months on end. The movie hit like a force of nature.

Like Gone With the Wind, Sound of Music refuses to be anything less than giant. Its three-hour run-time kicks off with a helicopter shot of the Austrian Alps, zooming in on Andrews strolling around and singing the title song; it is the sort of shot to make an impression. Unlike Gone, though, Sound doesn’t aspire to provide an epic story. Despite a World War II backdrop rich with dramatic potential, Sound’s aim is to provide heaping helpings of wholesomeness and little else. There’s a nod to world events in the last 20 minutes, but that only comes after two-and-a-half hours of precocious children, impossibly sweet songs and oppressive cheerfulness.

Part of the goal of this blog project was to figure out what makes a movie successful. Most Best Picture winners are also financial successes (I haven’t covered a flop yet, and I’m not sure when the first one comes), so there’s obviously something about them that resonates with wider audiences. With Sound, I’m not sure I can suss it out — I’m an avowed fan of old musicals, but this one falls too much in line with the “waggle your arms a bit” school of choreography that bothered me in both Gigi and My Fair Lady. It’s directed by Robert Wise, who also directed the less dance-oriented (read: less interesting) parts of West Side Story, which might account for the flatness in that area. Incidentally, Wise originally passed on the story of the Von Trapp family because he thought the film would be “too saccharine” (at least according to Wikipedia). I kind of wish he’d stuck to his gut.

But enough cynicism for the moment. For whatever reason, Sound has become a cultural phenomenon, and has been referenced, parodied and re-screened enough to firmly entrench itself in modern pop-cultural context, even amongst those who have never and will never get around to actually watching it. That kind of cultural omnipresence often ends up glossing over certain aspects of a movie, which means that, for someone getting around to watching it for the first time, it still holds some surprises. Like, for example, the Nazism.

For much of its first half, the political situation in Sound’s setting is hardly discussed. The movie is set in Austria in the late 1930s, when fascist sentiment was swelling and Germany was preparing to essentially annex its neighbour, but Rogers and Hammerstein (on whose stage musical the film is based) are more interested in the relationship between a nun-cum-nanny and the children she’s been assigned to take care of. That septet (a nonet in the real Von Trapp family, but I’m fine with fewer kids) is under the care of an emotionally dead, fun-loathing naval captain (an unrecognizably young Christopher Plummer) — the kind of father who bans games and music outright, and makes his kids respond to whistle-calls. Apparently, the children’s sudden exposure to music (through the song “Do Re Mi”) and fun (through activities like hanging from trees by the side of the road and frolicking endlessly), along with the captain’s gradual transformation from stern taskmaster to all-around swell guy and a quick digression into goatherd-based puppetry is more interesting than the turbulent politics that led to possibly the single most important event of the entire 20th century.

I hate to criticize The Sound of Music for what it isn’t — that’s almost never valid. It’s just that, for me, the film is unforgivably lopsided. I’ll admit that songs like “Do Re Mi,” “My Favourite Things,” “A Problem Like Maria” and “So Long, Farewell” are good, catchy, fun songs, especially for children. “My Favourite Things” in particular has proven itself unusually versatile, moving from Andrews’s wholesome take to Coltrane’s boundless variations with remarkable ease (Andre 3000 even put a future-jazz version of the song on Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below). But two-and-a-half hours of pure sugar is nowhere near as powerful as the moment near the film’s end, after the family has become a singing group and is trying to flee the country lest the captain be forced to take a post in the Nazi navy, when Plummer leads an Austrian crowd in a singalong of “Edelweiss.” Even though it turns out “Edelweiss” isn’t, in fact, an Austrian standard and was in fact written specifically for Sound, the film has already established it as a symbol for patriotism, and in that context, sung as a protest in the face of rising waves of fascism, the song has a gravity that’s lacking in its fluffier majority. Ditto the sequence in which the family is chased by Nazis and is forced to hide in a church. Wise clearly understands that these sequences have punch, so why does the film have to wait so bloody long to get to them?

Other attempts at gravity don’t work quite so well. The inspirational “Climb Every Mountain” is dull to watch and painful to listen to. There’s absolutely no motion, just the head nun screeching about the importance of following rainbows and reaching dream while Andrews stands so still that her silhouette might as well be drawn on the wall. (The use of the song again as the family flees the country by actually climbing mountains just makes the lyrics depressingly literal). And “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” becomes unintentionally hilarious with its dated notions of proper gender roles; if the portion where messenger-boy Rolf parades object-of-his-affections Liesl around a gazebo like a prized poodle at a dog show isn’t already the subject of a few dozen feminist masters theses, well, it probably should be.

The Sound of Music has clearly struck a chord with massive audiences around the world, and I fully recognize that I’m in the minority here. Entertaining fluff is still entertaining, and feel-good movies certainly have their place. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the warmed-over sentimentality of a movie like Sound, popular as it was, is also the reason for the death of the Hollywood musical. Without the intelligence of My Fair Lady, the energy of West Side Story, the humour of Singin’ in the Rain or the grace of the old Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films, you’re just left with, well, syrup. It this was the first musical I’d seen, I’d probably say farewell to the genre right there.

Coming up:
1966: A Man for All Seasons
1967: In the Heat of the Night
1968: Oliver!

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