The dirty little secret of theater nerds is that the stage show version of The Sound of Music is not very good. The movie isn’t just an improvement, the movie is practically an entirely different beast. It doesn’t just restructure the narrative, it completely rethinks some musical numbers, modifies the plot, and, of course, has Julie Andrews leading the way. It all adds up into something warm and fuzzy, heavily sentimental, and a prime example of popular entertainment done right.
That’s not to say that the film version of The Sound of Music is without problems, because it has several, but it’s almost futile to swim against the tide. Yes, Christopher Plummer frequently looks like he’s counting down the minutes until he can go bar hopping, and the kids are devoid of much in the way of personality, emerging as a seven-person legion of sugary sweet cherubs. But it just doesn’t matter.
It’s impossible, foolhardy even, to fight against the score, the scenery, and Julie Andrews’ life-giving performance. Those three things are enough to guarantee any movie for greatness and memorability, but there’s still something hard to define that keeps us returning to The Sound of Music.
At the time of release, the New York Times dubbed it “romantic nonsense and sentiment,” they meant it as a criticism, but I bring it up as a strength. It’s irresistibly warm and sweet, like being wrapped up in your favorite childhood blanket. Even my cynical, twisted soul is enchanted by this, so it’s obviously doing something right. This is after all a story which bifurcates along its awkward two halves, the first sees a nanny fighting between the lord and her loins, and the second is a tension-filled escape from the Nazis.
How does it successfully employ from the first half to the second? Look at Ernest Lehman’s screenplay which introduces the Nazi element as a slowly growing threat throughout the first half, then has it taking over after the intermission. It also presents a Maria that is already battling with her decision to join the nunnery, so her eventual choice to stay or go has the idea planted with the romance being the push she needed. Lehman also wisely drops some of more unnecessary bits, like numbers from Georg, “Uncle” Max and the Baroness.
Then there’s Julie Andrews’ performance as Maria, another memorable nanny role just a year after winning an Oscar for Mary Poppins. She’s completely different than that role, as she believably places hints of mischief and internal conflict in her novitiate. There’s also that crystalline, incomparable voice of hers wrapping around the Rodgers and Hammerstein lyrics and melodies. Her opening spin through the hills is a memorable movie image, but she’s just as great leading the von Trapp children through the Austrian streets while teaching them “Do-Re-Mi” or consoling them with “My Favorite Things.” She’s radiant, and much of the film rests upon her delicate shoulders.
While the kids and Captain von Trapp aren’t the best, Andrews gets able support from a series of character actors, mainly Peggy Wood and Eleanor Parker. Wood’s Mother Superior is the kind of kind, supportive, understanding authority figure that only exists in fiction, especially nuns. While it’s obviously not her singing voice, she still sells the drama of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” of which there is much to sell. Parker is pure glamour as the Baroness, a slightly pitiable figure that’s supposed to be a villain I suppose, but Parker refuses to make her one-note. Richard Haydn gets to play the clown as Max Detweiler, a purely comic creation in a drama heavy piece.
And the natural beauty of Austria goes a long way towards selling The Sound of Music as an important event. Would moments like “I Have Confidence” or the reprise of “Edelweiss” be half as memorable without the location footage? We all want to spin around on the mountains while singing “The Sound of Music” thanks to that opening shot, which is bursting with nature’s loveliness.
If it feels a bit like a sugar-high, that’s because it is. Yes, it’s old-fashioned, it’s a crowd-pleaser from a time when those movies were actually built upon a strong foundation and not just empty calories. The Sound of Music is timeless, an escapist film about escaping has rarely been this watchable, entertaining, or nice. You’re more likely to hear my vibrato squealing along to “The Lonely Goatherd” than ever say anything too mean or critical about this film.