The Best Picture Winners: The Sound of Music (1965)

| November 22, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I bear an uneasy relationship with The Sound of Music that I assure you, is much easier and much friendlier than that one I had with My Fair Lady.  I’ve seen this film at least a dozen times and every time I am elated by what I like and let down by what I do not.  Don’t worry this review will be largely positive.  Stick around.

There is so much joy in The Sound of Music, so much life, so much energy that I find it difficult to resist even when it doesn’t work.  Who can’t feel something when Julie Andrews sings that “The hills are alive with the sound of music”?  Who couldn’t feel the joy when she sings about her “favorite things”?  I love all of it.  Even “The Lonely Goatherd” gives me a smile.

The Sound of
Music is a lot of things.  It’s schmaltzy, shameless, and manipulative and I think it’s some kind of wonderful.  Much of its greatness comes from Andrews whose personality is a bright and cheery as a spring day.  Her presence here is not only necessary, it’s essential, and it was the promise of great things to come.  She had been denied the lead in the film version of My Fair Lady the previous year, a near-fatal mistake by Warner Brothers’ head honcho Jack Warner  that paid off in her favor when Walt Disney snapped her up and cast her in the lead in Mary Poppins.  For that, she won the Oscar for Best Actress.  That status got her the role of Maria, a role that was oddly similar to Mary Poppins

In Mary Poppins she played a virginal nanny who is employed to look after two mischievous children being raised by a stern father that they hardly know.  In The Sound of Music, she played a virginal governess who is employed to look after seven mischievous children being raised by a stern father that they hardly know.  Yet, for me, I think I like her performance in The Sound of Music a little better.  Not that Mary Poppins was bad, but Andrews’ character wasn’t the center; that story dealt (as it should) with the children’s difficult reconciliation with their father.  Here she’s much more the center and we spend a lot more time with her.

Maria is also much more complex.  She sees the joy in life through song.  She’s a nun in training who has yet to take her vows but doesn’t seem to take her disciplines as seriously as she should.  The older nuns complain to The Mother Superior (played by supporting actress nominee Peggy Wood) that Maria is muddle-headed, that her attentions are swept away on mindless frivolity. They are right; Maria has such a lust for life, such a passion for music that she feels compelled by the beauty of a spring day to sing about it, which unfortunately takes her away from her studies.

Maria struggles.  She struggles with the heart, particularly as her leanings toward romance come in conflict with the possibility of returning to the order.  She also struggles with her passion for life and music that comes in conflict with her desire to be a nun.  “I can’t seem to stop singing wherever I am,” she tells Mother Abbess,” And what’s worse, I can’t seem to stop saying things – anything and everything I think and feel.” Mother Abbess understands but also sees that with such a passion, Maria will never find the discipline to be a nun and suggests that she might be better suited as a governess. The Mother Superior thinks she should experience more of the real world and sends her to the home of Captain Georg Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), a widower with seven children who have sent fourteen of their nannies packing.

Von Trapp is not a man of great humor. He is stern, disciplined man with a cold demeanor and a demand for absolute order. Since the death of his wife, he has forbidden music into his home and chooses to raise his children by means of strict military order. Maria doesn’t buy it, she’s stunned by the fact that the Captain gets the children in line by the use of a whistle. “Oh, no, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I could never answer to a whistle,” she tells him. “Whistles are for dogs and cats and other animals, but not for children and definitely not for me. It would be too . . . humiliating.” When he demonstrates the children’s individual whistle signals, she inquires, “Excuse me, sir. I don’t know your signal.”

She is also stunned by his refusal to allow his children playtime, a problem she quickly remedies by making play clothes out of the drapes. What she demonstrates is her stubbornness and her refusal to be locked down or allow the children to have their individuality pulled away. Her heart is too full of life and energy to allow this. She has a heart full of music and a grand desire to share it. She has a song for every occasion, a song for every mood. Lacking confidence that she can be a governess she lifts her spirits by singing “I Have Confidence”. When she realizes that the children don’t know any songs she starts them off by teaching them “Do-Re-Mi”. When the children are frightened by the storm, she teaches them to calm themselves by singing about “My Favorite Things.” And, of course, when she is swept along by the beauty of the day, she sings about the sound of music.

Yet, as confident as Maria is, she can’t overcome the reality that her passion for life is overwhelming her desire to become a nun. She also realizes that she is causing the Captain’s heart to melt but after he announces his engagement to a baroness, she quietly leaves his home to return to the convent. Confused, she talks with Mother Abbess about her decision, the good mother tells her “Maria, these walls were not meant to shut out problems. You have to face them. You have to live the life you were born to live.” She understands Maria, she understands what is in her heart and convinces her that she has more to give out in the real world than she would behind the walls of the convent. Later, when the Captain breaks off his engagement to The Baroness and he and Maria fall in love, even to the point that they are discussing marriage.

I don’t think The Sound of Music would work without Julie Andrews, it is her vibrant spirit and happy soul that brings the film to life. There is a light in her eyes that is unmistakable. What she brings to the film is the rare talent of being able to convincingly sell the song lyrics instead of just singing. Like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, she can act while singing, so that when she sings that “The hills fill my heart with the sound of music. My heart wants to sing every song it hears”, there is a lilt in her voice that lets us know that she believes what she is singing.

If I have one negative thing to say about The Sound of Music, it is probably that the second half of the movie doesn’t hold up as well as the first.  After Maria is encouraged by the Mother Superior to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” the movie loses some momentum as the Nazi plot begins to take hold.  Up to this point, the movie is about the characters, about the joy and life that Maria brings back to a home that has been closed off and dispassionate since the loss of one of the family’s own.  After that mid-point (actually after the intermission) I can’t feel the same passion for the film that I did during the first half and, truth be told, there’s no real reason that the movie is three hours long.  BUT that’s really my problem.  It’s an enjoyable film that brims with music and color and great joy.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.