The Sound of Music Directed by Robert Wise

The Sound of Music Directed by Robert Wise
By Ron Falzone

Some movies exist in a magical land beyond useful criticism.  This does not mean that they cannot be examined or that they are even all that good.  It simply means that all the criticism in the world has no impact on the way that we feel about them.  Our reactions are strictly personal, based on some weird alchemical reaction that occurs when we blend the first time we saw the movie with where we were at that moment in our lives and the nostalgia it somehow inspires.

For me – and I posit for a great many other people – this movie will always be The Sound of Music (Amazon Link to Movie and Trailer). 

I was raised in a Catholic household and have twelve years of Catholic education to serve as a witness to that upbringing.  The grade school I attended, St Thomas Apostle, viewed movies as either the devil’s playground or lessons to be knocked into us.  Every other year, the boys were dragged down to the basement church to watch Spencer Tracy in Boys Town.  The message seemed to be that there is no such thing as a bad boy as long as there is a priest around who can whip you in a fight.  In the other years, the girls saw Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette where the clear message was that dying a virgin is the one true avenue to sainthood.

Growing up, the movie theater tended to be a place where my brother and I were dropped off.  In our household, movies were not generally considered a family event so much as a chance for our parents to get some errands done without interruption.  This usually meant that the movies were reserved for weekend matinees.  At church one particular Sunday morning, Monsignor Burns preached lessons he drew from The Sound of Music.  He managed to fuse it together with Boys Town and The Song of Bernadette by pointing out that it was about a chaste romance between a strict disciplinarian – Christopher Plummer as Spencer Tracy – and a “pure” and respectful Catholic girl – Julie Andrews as Jennifer Jones.

Apparently inspired, my parents decided that this would be the perfect day for a family outing.  They bundled my brother and I into the car and took us to see The Sound of Music.

The experience was catalytic, and not only because of the lobby cut-out for The Blue Max that featured the bare back of Ursula Andress.  From the moment the camera started to sweep over the Bavarian Alps, I was transfixed.  Now I imagine that I was transfixed many times before at the movies, but this was the first time that I was actually aware of being mesmerized.  On the drive home I kept imagining how different my life would be if it were filmed from a helicopter.

Over the years, I have come to understand why Monsignor Burns chose to conflate The Sound of Music with Boys Town and The Song of Bernadette.  At the core of his sermon was, of course, the message that we should all be good people and persevere (“Climb Every Mountain!”).  On a deeper level, though, I think he was promoting a very Catholic school idea of porn.  The Sound of Music is, after all, the story of a virgin who gets to have seven children without having sex. Besides, the fact that Maria was torn between raising children and returning to the convent presented the girls with the only real alternative for a good Catholic future.

Blessedly, Catholic education has come a long way since then.  I also believe that my taste has advanced as well, and yet The Sound of Music remains beyond any critical perspective for me.  To this day, attending the annual Christmas Sing-A-Long Sound of Music is a sainted event in our household.

To uphold some sort of critical view, I will point out that over the years I have come to see much good in this movie.  Released in 1965, it is one of the last of the perfectly constructed studio entertainment machines.  The spunky female heroine, the seemingly cruel but ultimately good hero, the evil baroness, the gay (though they would never say it) best friend and the cute moppets are classic archetypes more than they are carefully layered characters.  These are combined with a hummable score, a story with a little bit of suspense, and peerless production values to create a solidly carpentered music box of entertainment.  Is it trying to be art?  Heavens, no.  Does it need to be?  Hell no!

Despite the lack of artistic pretensions, The Sound of Music contains numerous well thought-out cinematic grace notes.  The opening sweep over the Alps is more than just a rip-off of director Robert Wise’s earlier West Side Story.  Wise began his career as an editor (among others, he edited Citizen Kane).  One film that he admitted to having studied was Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s scurrilous yet brilliantly constructed hymn to Nazism.  That film opens with a series of aerial shots skimming over the Alps to find the one that this story will be about: Adolf Hitler.  He is presented as a god descending from the heavens.  Wise brilliantly turns this on its ear by using a similar aerial introduction to find Julie Andrews.  Postulant Maria has been chosen by God to be the center of this tale.

The movie is filled with other references to earlier works as a way of easing us into the unreality of the world in which this particular story needs to take place.  It is, after all, The Sound of Music, not Cabaret.  The movie’s only full-out dance number, “You are 16 Going on 17,” is staged in a gazebo during a rain storm.  This directly links it to the classic Astaire/Rogers number “Isn’t It a Lovely Day?” from Top Hat.  Similarly, Maria’s sudden inspiration to use drapes to make play clothes harkens back to Scarlett’s comparable idea before going to “impress” Rhett Butler.  In this sense, The Sound of Music can be seen as a sort of pre-meta meta-movie.

Even those who detest The Sound of Music are forced to admit that its cultural impact has been formidable.  55 years after its first release, revivals still pack them in and it is an annual ratings booster at Christmas.  Although it is impossible to actually know, many film historians believe that only The Wizard of Oz has been seen by more people.  Apparently its feelgood optimism and positive values still carry a lot of weight with many. 

Monsignor Burns would be thrilled to know this, although I think it’s probably a good thing that he died before Julie Andrews went topless in S.O.B..