The Best Picture Project — The Sound of Music (1965)

Sound of music.jpgDirected by Robert Wise

Screenplay by Ernest Lehman, adapted from the stage show and book

Starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, a bunch of children and the blondest Nazi you ever saw

The Sound of Music was the second-to-last of the old-style Hollywood musicals to win Best Picture – the last being a lesser Carol Reed film, Oliver!  In fact, since the 1960s, only a single musical has won Best Picture – Chicago in 2002.  Which is strange because, in the 1960s alone you had four – West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965) and Oliver! (1968).   I suppose when you think about it, the fact that the 1960s were the decade of the Best Picture musical, whereas the 1970s were the decade of the grittier Best Picture drama, is ample evidence of just what can happen when there is a changing of the guard in any establishment.

Still, as staid at the taste of the AMPAS circa 1960-1968 tends to be, there are some fairly daring choices.  In The Heat of the Night (1967) included a scene of a black man slapping a white man, which to this day might still be enough to get you lynched in some parts of the country; The Apartment (1960) dealt pretty frankly with suicide and adultery; Tom Jones (1963) was a bawdy sex comedy; Oliver! was not exactly the feel-good romp you’d expect in a musical; and The Sound of Music was another in the long line of slobs v. snobs movie the Academy loved to heap awards on, e.g. Ben-Hur (1959), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Marty (1955), From Here to Eternity (1953), et al.

To be fair, The Sound of Music and others like it, wasn’t a slobs v. snobs movie in the classical way, that being the way Caddyshack or Animal House did it – that fact is probably obvious enough without me having to say it.  I mean, one set of films has a much coarser, crude sensibility underlying it’s conflict, while the others dress up the conflict and try to prettify it.  That being said, deep down, under all that refinement and propriety beats the same heart – they’re all the story of an outsider, rebelling against the tight reins of authority and desperate to triumph over the establishment.

In general, they are the story of people who just need to kick up their heels and loosen up a bit.

Okay, to be fair, I’m laboring a bit here to make the connection between the apples and oranges – as an aside, was in Costco a few weeks ago and had the same sample-person hand me a sample of an apple and an orange, thereby allowing me to correctly compare an apple to an orange.  But when you dial back on it a bit, it’s not that difficult to see very little difference between the themes of The Sound of Music and later Best Picture winner One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.  Maria is McMurphy and the church hierarchy and Nazi’s are Nurse Ratched.  Naturally, this leads to the digressive thought of, what would those two movies be like if their stars swapped roles?  Julie Andrews as R.P. McMurphy, saying the classic line:

“They was giving me ten thousand watts a day, you know, and I’m hot to trot! The next woman takes me one’s gonna light up like a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars!”

Oh, the things we’ll never know.

Because The Sound of Music was a Best Picture winner in the 1960s, it is naturally infected with a certain grandness of scale and polished refinement, starting right from the opening shots of the Austrian mountainside at the beginning, with Maria dancing and singing through the hills.  From the start, we are made to believe this film is epic and at least in appearance, it is epic.  Every scene is shot as if we are looking at that mountainside, even those taking place in the stuffiest of studios, or even those shot in modest close-ups, and one can only imagine that if the blueness of everyone’s eyes seemed to pop off my TV screen like they were attacking me, what must the effect have been on the big screen? (Seriously, the cinematographer did not skimp on whatever filter he used that brought out those blue eyes.)

Seriously, those are some blue eyes.

Sadly, because the movie has an epic scale, it means it’s also epically boring.  Sure, the children are a delight – I’m particularly enamored by Charmian Carr, who played Liesl – and the songs are fine, and Julie Andrews is wonderfully earnest, but my interest in the characters is dragged down by the fact that the film is just too long.  Epically long.

In a word – bloated.

Yet, despite the bloat – or, perhaps, because of it – the story doesn’t move gracefully from point-to-point, building the drama organically.  Rather, it lumbers from beat-to-beat, as if everything on the movie had to run on a schedule.   Part of me wants to blame Robert Wise for this, given he was the director and a former editor and should have known better.  But part of me also wants to blame the tenor of the times – after all, are the shortcomings of The Sound of Music really so horrifically different other musicals of it’s time that it must be condemned for adhering to the convention?  Certainly not.

But just because it avoids condemnation does not mean it wins my praise.

Jerome Robbins ca. 1968 cropped.jpg

Jerome Robbins

And because I won’t praise it, I feel a bit of sadness for Robert Wise.  After all, his first Oscar win, for West Side Story, was sullied by the inclusion of Jerome Robbins as a co-director, a man who’s choreographic contributions to the film must have seemed to be so important that the Academy saw fit to single him out with an Honorary Award at the same ceremony.  It almost seems like the Academy was embarrassed they couldn’t just give Robbins, the one-and-done director, the directing award as his own and merely patted the industry veteran Robert Wise, and editor of no less a film than Citizen Kane, on the head and said, “Good job, try again.”

Robert wise 1990.jpg

Robert Wise

Then, after having his first Oscar tainted by a co-director, his second has to sting because deep down, there is no denying that within the Robert Wise canon to that point, The Sound of Music was and is a lesser-film.  This was the man who’d made The Day The Earth Stood Still, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Run Silent, Run Deep, I Want To Live! and…AND The Haunting in just the decade or so prior, all after having edited Citizen Kane, and to barely get a sniff over those but wind up with an Oscar for a decidedly mediocre film like The Sound of Music must’ve come across like a kick in the teeth.

Still, if being given an Oscar for the wrong film has to feel like an insult, you can go ahead and insult me any time.

(BTW, I am aware Robert Wise actually won four Oscars, for producing and directing both films, but even if he won four, my point is still valid, so save your snark, smart-ass.)

The film poster shows a man and a woman hugging over a picture of the Titanic's bow. In the background is a partly cloudy sky and at the top are the names of the two lead actors. The middle has the film's name and tagline, and the bottom contains a list of the director's previous works, as well as the film's credits, rating, and release date.Trivia 

What do the films The Sound of Music, Hamlet and Titanic have in common?  If you answered “All three won Best Picture, you doofus,” you’d only be half-right.  But, if you answer, “All three won Best Picture without the benefit of having it’s screenplay nominated for an Oscar, you doofus, ” you’d only be two-thirds right.

That’s because, my mama only raised one doofus, and that’s not me.

Anyway, it seems fair, when you think about it, that The Sound of Music was not nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay – after all, it’s not the screenplay that is so vividly remembered about the movie.  Or, for that matter, the plot or the dialog.  Go ahead, quote me a line of dialog from the film.

Go on, I dare you.

Wait…you can’t?  Well, of course you can’t.  That’s because if the film is remembered at all, it’s for the songs – and those should be remembered.  They are memorable.   Especially ‘My Favorite Things’ and ‘The Lonely Goatherd.’

But the screenplay?  The thing that ties all the songs together?  Or the non-musical and overly obvious words within it?  Meh.

And when you really get down to it, this couldn’t be any more fair.  After all, aside from my shoddy attempts at reconceptualizing the film as an epic slobs v. snobs musical extravaganza for some laughs and the like, the film truly makes no sense.  That’s probably why I can reconceptualize the movie that way, because it makes no sense.

Anyway, follow the story:

  • Day 1 – Maria shows up at the Von Trapps, is introduced to the kids, and takes umbrage at the Captain’s whistling scheme.
  • Day 2 – First thing in the morning, the Captain leaves to go see the Baroness.
  • Day 30(?) – Captain returns from the month with the Baroness, fires Maria, hears his children sing, then eats crow and tells Maria not to leave.
  • Day 32/33 – The party and such where Maria and the Captain have a little dance.
  • Day 34 – Baroness basically pimps Captain to Maria, so Maria bolts when she realizes she might be ‘in love’ with him.
  • Day 35/36/37 – Maria returns to find Captain and Baroness engaged but, uh oh, Captain really loves Maria and throws over the other broad, uh, I mean, Baroness, for Maria.

All right, look at that timeline – Maria and the Captain basically fall in love over the course of about six days.  Six days!  And during those six days, he’s basically either hooking up with another woman or engaged to her, so he’s got divided attentions.  Now, I’ll accept he’s in lust with Maria, because she looks mighty fine in form-fitting peasant dresses, and I’ll accept Maria is in lust with the Captain, because he’s a pretty handsome gent, but I will not accept in the real world that these two are in love on that time-table.

If we’re honest, these two complaints – shitty plot and terrible, on-the-nose dialog – would’ve gotten this film ridiculed within an inch of its life if it were anything other than a musical.  But because it’s a musical, which is unbelievable already, so really, what’s one more thing?

Or, in this case, two more things?

(As an aside, in real life, when people burst into song and suddenly start dancing and hanging from the trees, we don’t let them care for our children and fall in love.  No, we call them what they are – lunatics.)

Forafewdollarsmore.jpgMy Pick

I drilled down pretty far in the nominated films of 1965 in search of an alternate Best Picture.  Some might say I should have stopped Dr. Zhivago, and maybe that’d be right – the maybe being that I can never get into it and have never seen more than maybe a half hour of it.  For me, David Lean hit a high point with Bridge on the River Kwai, which I love; was wildly over-praised for Lawrence of Arabia, which I can barely tolerate for being so boring; and then made a truly dull film in Dr. Zhivago.  At least, I think it’s dull, but since I can never get into it, I guess I just don’t know.

I know some will say that of the Dollars Trilogy The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is best, and I can see why.  It is amazing and so full of rich characters and…and it might be near a perfect, epic movie.  But, while I’d agree it’s the best of the trilogy, it did not come out in 1965, as The Sound of Music did, it came out in 1966, and therefore is ineligible for my completely legit assessments of alternate Best Pictures.  That being the case, I’m free to pick the more economically enjoyable of the Dollars films – it’s not as epic, but because it’s shorter, the storytelling and through-line have a bit more drive – For A Few Dollars More.

((UPDATE:  Sadly, the moment after I hit publish on this I discovered it wasn’t released until 1967 in the United States — it was A Fistful of Dollars that came out in 1966.  Because I’m not partial at all to A Fistful of Dollars, this year I leave the award blank.))

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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