Thursday, March 3, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "The Sound of Music" (1965)

Scene from The Sound of Music
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Sound of Music
Release Date: March 2, 1965
Director: Robert Wise
Written By: Maria von Trapp (Story), George Hurdalek (Ideas), Howard Lindsay & Russell Crouse (Stage Musical), Ernest Lehman (Screenplay)
Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker
Genre: Biography, Drama, Family
Running Time: 174 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Adapted Score

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actress (Julie Andrews)
-Best Supporting Actress (Peggy Wood)
-Best Cinematography (Color)
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction (Color)
-Best Costume Design (Color) 

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Doctor Zhivago
-Ship of Fools
-A Thousand Clowns

And the winner is...

In the realm of movie musicals, there are few that are as renowned and memorable as director Robert Wise's The Sound of Music. While many could argue that there's been better ones out there, the value that the film has song to song and in the performance by Julie Andrews in incomparable. For over half a century, generations have been singing "Do Re Mi" and imagining running up the hills of Salzburg, Austria in gleeful bliss. It makes sense then that the film is both beloved and one of the more divisive musicals to ever win Best Picture with reviews ranging from overly positive to others accusing the film of being too twee. Where does it land? Depending on how much happiness is too much, it's probably somewhere in the middle.

The origins of The Sound of Music can be tied back to Maria von Trapp's "The Story of the von Trapp Singers," which was published in 1949. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical would surface 10 years later and the desire to make it into a movie wouldn't be too far off. Paramount initially had the rights to the very successful Broadway show - a move made more ingenious by buying it two years before the show's Broadway debut. They had approached Wise to direct, but he turned it down. William Wyler would eventually get hold of it and considered making it with Audrey Hepburn (who turned it down). Wyler resigned after seeing a stage version. What he wanted to make was something more violent and less happy. Paramount shortly sold the rights to 20th Century Fox for one million dollars. Considering that the studio was in debt after the financial failure of Cleopatra, it was considered a big risk. Wise eventually signed on when the film that he wanted to make, The Sand Pebbles, got delayed.

Considering that Julie Andrews' cinematic debut (Mary Poppins) had yet to turn her into a star, Wise hired her based solely on talent. The film featured a lot of parallels to Wise's previous Best Picture winner West Side Story. The protagonist was named Maria. The cast and crew also featured various holdovers, including Marni Nixon; who is best known as a singer who dubs over less flattering singers, including Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Hepburn in My Fair Lady. While there was dubbing in The Sound of Music, Nixon actually had a small role (rare for  her) in the film. While everyone was worried if Andrews would mind her presence, Andrews was quick to embrace Nixon. Likewise, there was various flirtations between cast members, including Nicholas Hammond's affection for Andrews - which can be seen in part during "The Lonely Goatherd" sequence as he stares at her. Meanwhile, Charmine Carr had an affection for Christopher Plummer that was accepted as mutual. However, that was the extent to their affair as they were separated in age by decades. Andrews sang "Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious" (from Mary Poppins) to the children, who thought she had made the song up.

The writer of the script influenced several song changes throughout the film. Rodgers wrote two new songs for the production called "I Have Confidence in Me" and "Something Good." This also included axing other songs that were considered to have slowed down the story. Among the more divisive original songs in the production, "Edelweiss" was met between Plummer and Andrews in differing respects. Plummer, who had learned guitar for the song, thought that it was too cutesy. Andrews liked it just fine. By some coincidence, Plummer's voice was overdubbed. Of course, Plummer notoriously hated working on the production and claimed to have been drunk at several points throughout production. He even gained enough weight to have tailors refit his suit. Plummer spoke to friends of his real life counterpart in order to understand  his role, which was summarized by them as being very dull. Plummer wanted to spice up the role, but would be told by Wise to play it cool. Plummer would later call this film "The Sound of Mucus."

The Sound of Music was filmed in Germany, but with a few hurdles. The first was that it was filmed in a city with the seventh highest annual rainfall - which expanded their production in the city to several additional weeks. As a result, their exteriors were filmed at various other locations. They considered having Nazi propaganda displayed during the production since it was suitable to the story. However, they were concerned about the townspeople. By the time that they decided to just use archival footage, this measure ironically backfired. The video used featured townspeople, as appropriate at that time, to salute and be patriotic towards Nazism in more deliberate ways. The famous opening number ("The Sound of Music") was filmed on a hillside  using a helicopter. However, it kept blowing Andrews over. As Wise viewed production from a tree and another assistant from a bush, Andrews eventually complained and was relieved when it was discovered that the one she critiqued was thankfully the last.

The film opened in a roadshow format on March 2, 1965. Unlike most films that went on to win Best Picture, it was met with mixed reviews. The real life Maria von Trapp, who had a small cameo in the film, claimed that the film toned down her reckless behavior. Due to its Nazi subject matter, Germany edited out the references initially to avoid problematic emotional responses from viewers. As of 2016, the film isn't as popular in Germany as other versions of the von Trapp story. Meanwhile, South Korea did the ingenious thing. When the film proved to do great business, some theaters edited out the musical numbers in order to get more showings and thus more money. Beyond all this, the film saved 20th Century Fox from debt due to its phenomenal intake, which would surpass Gone With the Wind as the highest grossing movie of all time - and is fifth overall if adjusted for inflation. It remains the highest grossing musical as well, with the closest competition coming a decade later with Grease.

The film won five Oscars that year. With Wise winning two for Best Director and Best Picture, it seemed strange to note his absence from the ceremony. He was finally on set filming The Sand Pebbles - a passion project that he had been wanting to make for years. This was the last film to win Best Picture without a screenplay nomination until Titanic 30 years later. Wyler lost to Wise in the Best Director category for the film that he ended up making instead: The Collector. Fellow Best Picture nominee Doctor Zhivago would also be among the highest grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation. Andrews, who had won Best Actress the year prior for Mary Poppins, lost to Julie Christie (Darling).

The legacy of The Sound of Music is large. For starters, the film never disappeared. Upon being released to home video, the film remained on the charts for five years. The soundtrack became one of the highest grossing soundtracks in history. There are tours that can be taken to Salzburg to view the various locations - with an estimated 50,000 attendants regularly. The film also inspired annual singalong screenings around the world since 1999, which would sell out and often feature arriving in costume. The film itself has also gone on to be considered one of the most iconic Thanksgiving movies, with it being shown on TV often in November. The film is so powerful that Rodgers' two original songs would later be adapted into the stage version, believing that they are just more effective to the story. To date, it remains one of the most acclaimed musicals of all time. 20th Century Fox would attempt to make more risky musicals (such as Andrews vehicle Star!), but none would be as financially successful.

Love it or hate it, The Sound of Music is a musical that continues to inspire and fill people with enthusiasm. With one of Andrews' career-defining performances, the film continues to be one of the most iconic pictures regarding World War II, even if the subject matter is understandably twisted to be more upbeat. As a whole, it's a musical that transcends its wrapping, with many of the songs simply existing as ear worms to those unfamiliar with the story, as they are often played in commercials and TV series. There's a good chance that The Sound of Music is so popular because of this. Even then, Wise's film leaves a strong impression on the viewer, and that's far more than what any other musical out there could hope for.

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