1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

by Trey Hock on February 20, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

“The Sound of Music” is one of those films, which has the wonderful ability to draw untarnished praise, or highly combustible ire. Though some critics at the time of its 1965 release praised the film’s vistas and infectious songs, many others panned it as a formulaic and manipulative rehashing of a mediocre stage musical.

For me “The Sound of Music” comes along with a huge amount of nostalgic baggage. Along with “Mary Poppins,” which also starred Julie Andrews and was released one year before “Music,” this musical was a mainstay of my early childhood. It was one of a small handful of films, whose bright colors and catchy tunes, could distract and appease my 6 or 7 year-old self.

In spite of my own tendency to embrace this film, I can understand the inclination to catch it in your critical crosshairs. The doe-eyed stare of this film can enrage the more cynical of us, if only for the way “Music” so willingly embraces innocent pleasures.

I will share two small excerpts from reviews, which I find fascinating. The first is from Bosley Crowther, the critic for the New York Times in 1965.

Mr. Wise seems to run out of songs toward the end of the picture and repeat two or three of the more familiar ones. But the same must be said of “The Sound of Music.” It repeats, in style — and in theme.

However, its sentiments are abundant. Businesswise, Mr. Wise is no fool.

Crowther was already on the leeward side of his career, and was increasingly out of touch, but Pauline Kael, who wrote her review of “Music” for McCall in 1965, was an up-and-comer, and was often in sync with the changing film sensibilities of the 1960s and early 70s.

Whom could this operetta offend?

Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel.

Now there are aspects of both of these reviews that I agree with. For those of you who are familiar with the stage musical, you will know that Robert Wise’s film version of “The Sound of Music” is a largely faithful interpretation, and of course the producers behind the film expected to cash in on the popularity of the stage version that came before.

I also will readily agree that “The Sound of Music” is a highly manipulative film. It pushes us towards emotions and makes us feel for its characters in an often-forceful way. These two critics illustrate the difficulty with developing instructive and fruitful criticism, and I think both suffer from the same problem. Neither critiques “The Sound of Music” from the standpoint of what the film proposes to be.

One can’t argue for or against the value of a chophouse horror film, if you’re judging it by the standards used for a romantic comedy. Of course there should be some consistency of standards, but there are also aspects of tone and style that are specific to individual genres. “Music” is a big-ol’ Rogers and Hammerstein musical, and Robert Wise embraces this. He knowingly and overtly uses heavy manipulation with his use of shot composition and stunning locations.

And he’s not trying to hide any of this from the viewer. How could you with an opening scene like this?

Julie Andrews, as the postulant Maria, gives a fantastic performance. Her songs are huge and rangey affairs, but Andrews’ Maria always maintains a humility and approachability. Though big and rafter rising, there is no sense of diva in Andrews’ performance.

Though the songs often take center stage, there is more to “Music” than just singing. There is often compelling action between charming characters. Maria, who is having difficulty conforming to the ways of her convent, is assigned to be the governess of the Von Trapp children, the seven offspring of the widowed Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer).

We can already see the conflict between Maria’s brash honesty and Captain Von Trapp’s stiff military structure, and the banter between Andrews and Plummer is grin-inducing at the very least.

When Capt Von Trapp leaves to visit the Baroness Schräder (Eleanor Parker), the woman he is courting, Maria takes the opportunity to inject joy back into the Von Trapp children’s world. Upon his return, Capt Von Trapp expresses his disappointment, which leads to a series of razor-tounged retorts from Maria.

Andrews plays Maria brilliantly, shifting from playful to stern, from angry to hurt with ease and grace. Plummer’s performance is stiffer and less subtle than Andrews’, but his character of Capt Von Trapp allows for a certain amount of stiffness.

The opposition to Von Trapp’s stern rule slowly melts away his protective armor. Maria’s effervescent and joyful ability to love and guide changes the tone of the Von Trapp house, and wins the heart of Capt Von Trapp.

As Maria innocently winds her way into Capt Von Trapp’s heart, we find ourselves looking for moments of interaction, and cheering for a union between the two.

It’s amazing what a little dance number can do to bring two people, each promised to another, together and ramp up the sexual tension. This scene progresses the relationship between Von Trapp and Maria visually and with almost no dialogue. Sure, Wise employs his soft filter when Maria and Von Trapp pause to stare into each other’s eyes, but if ever there was a moment of misty emotions, this is it.

The Baroness Schräder sees what is coming and attempts to thwart it, but soon she and Von Trapp must accept the inevitable.

Now if this were a completely fictional musical comedy, then your ending would be just around the corner. We’ll have a wedding and all of the emotional conflict will be resolved.

But “Music” is based on the true story of the Von Trapp family, which allows the musical writer, and filmmaker to complicate the story. Now instead of just getting married, they must also escape from the Nazis and an Austria that has become complicit with the Third Reich.

It won’t be as simple as just leaving either. Capt Von Trapp is a decorated naval officer in Austria and has been commissioned to the Third Reich’s fleet. The Von Trapp family attempts to sneak away, but they are discovered. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)

And with that, the Von Trapps must sing their way out Austria and the grip of the Nazis.

With such lessons, it is easy to become cynical. “The Sound of Music” is a manipulative film musical, which finds the most complete and happy resolution possible.

Still I would offer that Wise’s ability to apply film techniques, in such a way as to get even the grumpiest, most film savvy viewers smiling or humming along, illustrates a mastery of the medium.

Ultimately the goal of “The Sound of Music” is to manipulate a viewer into a moment of happiness, and the film doesn’t hide its methods or intent. To hate this film, would be like hating an accomplished masseuse, who says that they are going to give you an exceptional, stress-relieving backrub, then delivers on that promise. Anyone who hates “Music” (or great backrubs) is just trying too hard to be cynical or stern.

Sometimes it’s okay to allow ourselves to be tricked into a little happiness.

Up next #39 “Dr Strangelove” (1964)

1 Year, 100 Movies #41 King Kong (1933)

1 Year, 100 Movies #42 Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

1 Year, 100 Movies #43 Midnight Cowboy (1969)

1 Year, 100 Movies #44 The Philadelphia Story (1940)

1 Year, 100 Movies #45 Shane (1953)

1 Year, 100 Movies #46 It Happened One Night (1934)

1 Year, 100 Movies #47 A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

1 Year, 100 Movies #48 Rear Window (1954)

1 Year, 100 Movies #49 Intolerance (1916)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier February 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm

I’m fine with looking at the film for what it is and not expecting too much of it. But when a film is this obvious and manipulative (also I’ve never liked the story myself and I’ve been in it), I don’t think it belongs on a list of all time greatest movies. It does deliver on what you expect it to be, which is part of the problem. Once you take it out of its context and compare it to other films to determine where it sits in an all time list like this, that’s when you have problems forgiving the purpose, lightness and manipulation.

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2 Trey Hock February 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Xavier, Don’t you think there is something pretty incredible though, when even hardened critics admit to feeling things about this movie, even when they are steeling themselves against those emotions? Both Crowther and Kael see the manipulation coming, but get caught up in the film. Now they may pan the film afterward for its contrivances, but it doesn’t change the fact that “TSoM” had a discernible emotional effect.

I think that’s impressive, especially for a film considered family friendly or light fare. I’d like to see the light fare of today emotional touch a hardened critic, or tackle the subject of Nazi controlled Austria. I’m sure it could be done, but it would be some indie or foreign film. “TSoM” was big Hollywood. I think it’s got its place on the list. Perhaps #40 is too high, but it doesn’t bother me.

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3 Eric Melin February 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Never seen it.

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4 Xavier February 20, 2011 at 9:26 pm

I do think there is something impressive about it managing to reach and affect the most jaded of movie audiences, but I still don’t think that alone should put it on a top 100 movie list and yes even if it was to make the list 40 is certainly way too high. Even with your love of it you can’t possibly tell me its better than, taxi driver, rear window, nashville, sullivan’s travels, network, etc

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5 Trey Hock February 20, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Xavier, as far as my personal preference, I would say that I prefer all of the films you listed to “TSoM.” That said, I would say that “TSoM” has affected a broader spectrum of people and therefore had a bigger cultural impact than the movies you named.

Is it a shame? Maybe, but at least “TSoM” something that’s well directed and satisfying for what it is.

Eric, I’ll watch it with you.

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6 Rosie February 21, 2011 at 1:23 pm

I think I’m pretty darn cynical and yet I freaking LOVE this movie. For all of its cheese and doe-eyed naivete, it is without a doubt the best movie to watch while sick at home. I love the colours in it, I love the voices, I love how I totally forget that this was made in 1965 and not 1938. It looks like a fairy-tale and I drink the punch with glee EVERY time. Every one of those clips provoked a thought for me, but I’ll restrict myself to sharing just one: When Maria and Captain Von Trapp are dissagreeing on the suitability of drapes for “play clothes,” if you listen, not even that carefully, you’ll hear the seamless rhythm with which they exchange lines. They could be singing if not for the lack of music.

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7 Trey Hock February 21, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Rosie, the rhythm of that moment is undeniable. It is one of the strongest moments in the film.

And you’re right about this being a great sick day film. It’s really good without being challenging.

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8 Kt February 24, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Love your comments, Rosie! In my family, TSoM has definitely become a sick day staple. I have seen this movie, undoubtedly, more than any other in my lifetime. I still have the double VHS box my parents gave me (coincidentally when we were living in Germany) when I was 6. (unrelated, my sis got the King and I, which is also awesome!) I just LOVE this movie! The opening scene is absolutely beautiful! I love the puppet show! And I can’t help but have extra bounce in my step after watching the film while humming along, I have confidence in confidence alone, besides which you see i have confidence in me!

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9 The One March 1, 2011 at 11:07 pm

How can people hate on singing Austrians fleeing the Nazis over the Alps? You people are a bunch of Fascists.

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