Monday, 29 December 2008

'The Sound of Music': 40 years of unstoppable success

Its director was the editor of "Citizen Kane." Its screenwriter was the author of "North by Northwest." Its composers were the most successful songwriting team in American theater history. And "The Sound of Music" was the movie that everybody hated but the people.

Christopher Plummer, Captain von Trapp himself, is said to have called it "The Sound of Mucus." Robert Wise, the director, worried with Julie Andrews, the eternal Mary Poppins, about what they could do to remove a spoonful (or two) of the schmaltz. Pauline Kael, who would become the reigning film critic of her era, denounced it as "the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat."

And yet 40 years ago, "The Sound of Music" was not just the summer movie of 1965. It was the spring, fall and winter one, too, and in inflation-adjusted dollars, it remains the third-biggest-grossing film of all time at the domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo.

It hit the Billboard Top 40 video sales chart shortly after it became one of the first movies ever released on home video in 1979 and still holds the chart's longevity record, of more than 300 weeks and counting.

Twentieth Century Fox has to released a special 40th-anniversary two-DVD edition in November, with new documentary material (including interviews with Andrews, other cast members and creators) prepared by Michael Kantor, who directed the PBS series "Broadway: The American Musical" in 1999.

What explains such colossal success? "It's mainly the script," said Wise, who is 96 and once estimated that he had been asked that question an average of twice a week since the film's premiere on March 2, 1965. "It's a family film; nothing more universal."

When Ernest Lehman, the highly regarded screenwriter of movies like "Somebody Up There Likes Me" and "Sweet Smell of Success," told his friend Burt Lancaster that he was working on "The Sound of Music," Lancaster responded that he must have needed the money.

But, in hindsight, a compelling case can be made for "The Sound of Music," as the last picture show of its kind, a triumph of craftsmanship and the apogee of the studio system that produced the kind of entertainment that dominated mid-20th-century mass culture.

When it opened, it displaced "Gone With the Wind" (by then already 26 years old), as the all-time box-office champion in nominal dollars, a position it held for seven years until "The Godfather" knocked it off in 1972.

It was at once the salvation (and very nearly the death knell) of its own studio, rescuing Fox from the financial disaster of "Cleopatra" but also sending the studio in quest of similar surefire successes that wound up as famous failures, like Rex Harrison's "Doctor Dolittle" and "Hello, Dolly!"

With its breathtaking Austrian locations and complex outdoor musical sequences, "The Sound of Music," building on Wise's film of "West Side Story" before it, had the bad luck to liberate the film musical forever from the soundstage-bound conventions that once forced pigeons to fly into painted backdrops in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," at the very moment that four nightingales from Liverpool were helping to change mass musical taste.

A film that was easy to mock as stale and conventional in the wake of the French Nouvelle Vague (and on the brink of "Bonnie and Clyde") is far easier to appreciate now for its old-fashioned gloss and arch performances from silken pros like Eleanor Parker, who played the Baroness with the poise of an early Avedon model; Peggy Wood, the Mother Abbess, who had made her Broadway debut in "Naughty Marietta" in 1910; and Anna Lee, the doughty veteran of the John Ford stock company who played Sister Margaretta.

From the moment on Broadway in 1959 that Mary Martin, the first Maria, sang that her day in the hills had come to an end, critics dismissed "The Sound of Music" as the least original work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the men who did more than any other to bring the Broadway musical - arguably America's most original art form, together with jazz - to full flower in works like "Oklahoma!" "Carousel" and their Pulitzer Prize-winning "South Pacific."

"Not only too sweet for words but almost too sweet for music," Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Herald Tribune.

But from the very beginning, the public lapped it up. Kael lost her job as movie critic for McCall's after her infamous panning, and the film has since survived innumerable television reruns, cast reunions and high-camp "Rocky Horror"-style sing-alongs that began in London in 1999.

The first major Austrian production of the stage version (quite different from the film) is now playing at Vienna's Volksoper, where it has received mixed reviews but immense popular acclaim.

One of the main achievements of Lehman's screenplay was to discard some of the lesser songs from the Broadway production, and re-order others, including "My Favorite Things" (which was sung onstage to Maria by the Mother Abbess, not by Maria to the von Trapp kids during a thunderstorm) and "Do-Re-Mi," which was sung the moment Maria met the children, not all over Salzburg in a still-thrilling sequence painstakingly worked out by Wise and Saul Chaplin, a veteran Hollywood music director and the movie's associate producer.

"Nobody has the magic wand, or there'd be movies like this done all the time," said Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, who estimates that anniversary-related activities surrounding "The Sound of Music" have occupied more than 90 percent of his time in the last two months. "In retrospect, it's a very good story, with very good tunes. The score doesn't really sound like a score written by 60-year-old men. There's a kind of youthfulness and honesty to the songs, about how to learn music, but also how to break down barriers. It doesn't sound like someone's trying to phony something up."

Forty years and a lot less innocence later, in the era of film as theme park thrill ride and prepackaged comic book sequel, a little artful manipulation seems a small enough price, and "The Sound of Music" a big enough blessing. Let it bloom and grow.

To buy this extraordinary 40th anniversary DVD, click the link below.

Sound of Music (40th Anniversary Edition)

Anyone who has seen "The Sound of Music" knows how Maria von Trapp's life began--but what happened after the final scene?

Discover what Maria's life was like after fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria for America. With intriguing facts about her life in the nunnery, her romance with Captain von Trapp, their ten children, and their singing careers, this inspiring story reaches beyond "The Sound of Music" --and reveals the courage and determination of a kind, energetic, and very real woman.
(Click the link below.)

Maria Von Trapp: Beyond the Sound of Music


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