The Happiest Sound in the World

The golden age of popular, pious, genial Hollywood Catholicism is more or less bookended by two hugely successful Best Picture winners: one about a singing priest, the other about a singing postulant nun turned wife and stepmother.

Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby as a crooning cleric who embodied a new image of cool Catholicism, was the #1 film of 1944, confirming Catholicism’s mainstream acceptance in American popular culture. And in 1965 Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, for a time surpassing Gone With the Wind to become the #1 film in Hollywood history, came at the end of an era, not just for Hollywood Catholicism but for classical Hollywood cinema. The next Hollywood blockbuster with a comparable Catholic presence would be The Exorcist in 1973.


Ironically, the coolness of Crosby’s Father O’Malley, so groundbreaking at the time, hasn’t aged as well as the nostalgic charm of The Sound of Music, which was already square and old-fashioned when it debuted. In fact, it may be partly precisely because Father O’Malley was hip and Julie Andrews’ Fraulein Maria wasn’t that Going My Way feels much more dated than The Sound of Music. Perhaps nostalgia ages better than coolness.


Half a century later, The Sound of Music is probably still the world’s favorite big-screen stage musical adaptation. Joyous, gorgeous, comforting, full of (almost) uniformly spectacular songs, the film’s emotional power is irresistible, even for its many critics, such as Pauline Kael, who hated its shallowness and emotional manipulation.


What makes it work, above all, is Andrews’ sweet sincerity and commitment. Any flicker of condescension or pretense on her part and the whole thing would collapse into treacle and camp. But cynics will search her face in vain: Her sincerity is absolute, and she sells the role and the film.


Adapted from the last of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s collaborations, and one of their best, the film loosely reflects the real-life story of the Trapp Family Singers as related in the memoirs of Maria Augusta von Trapp. The three-hour story is divided into two acts, each comprising two movements or parts.


In part one, ordered to take a leave of absence from her postulancy at the abbey, headstrong Maria tames the unruly von Trapp children and their grieving, aloof disciplinarian father, Christopher Plummer’s Captain Georg von Trapp, bringing music and laughter back to the von Trapp household. In part two Maria unwittingly competes for Georg’s affections with Baroness Elsa von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker), who manipulates her rival to flee back to the convent.


After the entr’acte or intermezzo, in part three Maria returns from the convent, claims Georg’s love, and marries him. Finally, in part four the von Trapps’ happiness is threatened by the rising Nazi shadow.

The real story

The real story is arguably more interesting, certainly more Catholic, and in some ways less dramatic. The real Trapp Family Singers began singing publicly in the 1930s after the family was ruined in the Great Depression (an expedient the real Georg hated as much as the fictional version would have).


During this time the von Trapps rented rooms in their house to students at a nearby Catholic university. A priest, Fr. Franz Wasner, served both as the family’s chaplain and also as their director and conductor. (Richard Haydn’s fictional, cheerfully degenerate Max Detweiler, though an invaluable source of wry amusement and great lines, displaces what could have been a great clerical character.)


Captain von Trapp did flee Austria with his family to escape a Nazi commission, but there was no impossible hike over the mountains into Switzerland; they simply took a train to Italy, went on to London, and finally came to the United States.

Musical score

The screen adaptation by Ernest Lehman (The King and IWest Side Story) improves on its musical source material in shrewd ways. Songs are shifted to more apt settings (“The Lonely Goatherd” was originally set during the thunderstorm, and “My Favorite Things” in the abbey!). ”Edelweiss” is introduced early to give added heft to its reprise at the climax.


Lehman wisely cut Elsa’s duets with Georg and Max, reflecting her non-musical nature, which becomes an obstacle between her and Georg as he recovers his musical heritage. (“I should have brought my harmonica,” Elsa acidly murmurs to Max, revealing how out of place she feels in the musically renewed von Trapp household. It’s a key indication that Maria, not Elsa, is the right woman for Georg, whose first wife was a music lover and who is one himself, though he forgot it in his grief.)


Two new songs by Rodgers were added. One, “Confidence,” was Andrews’ least favorite, but her gonzo physical performance (watch the way she swings her guitar and suitcase) and mercurial emotions make it a standout. The other, “Something Good,” is, for me, the adaptation’s lone misstep, an emotional epiphany accompanied by sweet music and wretched lyrics.


The rest of the score, though, is one delight after another, from the exaltation of the opening title song (punctured in the end by abbey bells, a mad dash, and a forgotten wimple) and the playful nun-sense of “Maria” to the spontaneous patriotic defiance of the “Edelweiss” sing-along (not an actual Austrian song!) at the Salzburg Music Festival and the closing reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Andrews adds extra charm to all her numbers: the dizzy, slightly overwhelmed stage exuberance in “The Lonely Goatherd,” with its vocal acrobatics; the maternal tenderness in the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” reprise.


Even the original “Sixteen,” which I recall from childhood being a slog, gets more interesting once you notice that callow Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte) is intimidated by amorous Leisl and trying to hide it with a pretense of worldliness and sophistication, while Leisl intuitively flatters his ego by feigning naiveté and dependence. (“Silly, only grown-up men are scared of women,” Kurt tells Louisa at the ball.) Of course, the movie’s gender roles are dated; if you want a period picture with sexual revolution attitudes, watch Titanic.


Splendid backdrop

Salzburg, with its dramatic Alpine setting and blend of Romanesque, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture, provides a splendid backdrop that Wise exploits with lingering takes (starting with that majestic three-minute opening montage) and frequent use of symmetrical or formal composition (as in “So Long, Farewell” and Maria and Georg silhouetted in the gazebo).


Maria’s opening song was actually filmed in the Bavarian Alps, but “Do-Re-Mi” is set near Salzburg. The nuns sing “Maria” at the real Nonnberg Abbey where Maria was a postulant, although the wedding was shot at the Church of Saint Michael in Mondsee, a gothic former monastery elevated to a papal basilica by St. John Paul II shortly before his death in 2005. The Salzburg Music Festival was shot at the real Felsenreitschule theater, a 17th-century amphitheater built into the Mönchsberg, one of the five mountains around Salzburg.


One of the movie’s amusing curiosities is that the von Trapps, despite their billing as holy terrors, turn out to be pussycats. Granted, the introductory scene, with the Captain blowing that “silly whistle” and the kids all smartly marching and belting out their introductions, is intimidating.


But it’s hard to imagine these kids having driven off eleven prior governesses with horrid tricks involving jars full of spiders and snakes and so forth. After nothing worse than a frog and a pinecone, Maria disarms them with unexpected kindness, and soon everyone is crying at the dinner table.


As for the Captain, his dissatisfaction with Maria is largely confined to drily ironic remarks, at least until the climax of the first act. That’s the fateful day the children, clad in play clothes made of drapes, topple into the Salzach River in front of Georg and Elsa—and then, instead of being abashed, Maria lashes into the Captain’s paternal failings. At last he loses his temper and shouts at her, yet he’s so discombobulated that he calls her ”Captain”!


Plummer cordially detested the material (“The Sound of Mucous,” he called it), an attitude that ironically serves his performance for the most part. The image of Plummer tearing the Nazi flag off his house and ripping the swastika in half is one of my earliest memories of the actor; it’s always a little odd to see him with a swastika on his arm in the excellent 1983 TV movie The Scarlet and the Black, where he plays SS officer Herbert Kappler—and has a daughter named Leisel!

Reverent representation

Although the story centers on a postulant nun who turns from the convent to embrace marriage, the film is nothing but reverent toward religious life. One vocation isn’t pitted against another; the key question, as Maria says in an early scene, is simply “to find out the will of God and to do it wholeheartedly.”


Significantly, the scene in which the Mother Superior (Peggy Wood) sends Maria back to the von Trapps (“Climb Ev’ry Mountain”) begins with the reception of another postulant to the abbey. Religious life is a positive good, but “the love of a man and a woman is holy too,” and “our abbey is not to be used as an escape.” (Well, except from Nazis!)


The list of critical charges against The Sound of Music is endless: It’s simplistic, sentimental, saccharine, and lacking in dramatic conflict. Kael complained that it was too insipid to offend anyone. Yet the film is essentially critic-proof, not in a cynical sense, but in the best sense: For half a century it has brought joy to viewers of all ages. That’s all the justification any movie needs. 

Film & Television
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