History, Legacy & Showmanship

The Sound of Money: Celebrating “The Sound of Music” on its 50th Anniversary

March 11, 2015 - 9:45 am   |   by
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Kennedy: If, like me, you find Julie Andrews more adept at musical roles than dramatic ones, then I’d say it’s her best. Hands down. In her debut film Mary Poppins, she’s quite starchy and clipped, which may suit the character, but in The Sound of Music she seems to be having a better time, as though she’s loosening up and getting the hang of film acting. The gaiety of Thoroughly Modern Millie is forced, and she’s downright miscast in Star! and Darling Lili. That nearly sums up her musical career save for Victor/Victoria, which is fun. Le Jazz Hot is a terrific set piece for her, but the material doesn’t suit her quite like Music. Julie Andrews and Maria von Trapp is a perfect match. 

Matessino: It’s an iconic performance, no doubt about that. If you study it carefully you see that she knew just when to add total realism (watch her carefully when Richard Haydn takes her by the arm to get her to join the party) and when to not take things too seriously. She brings real bite to the role that is very much reflective of how the real Maria was. Julie is an amazing performer with a wide range, and while she totally understands the impact she had with this role and with Mary Poppins I think she has confidence (pun intended) that discerning viewers will be interested in the many other things she has done.

Monush: Andrews has always been one of the entertainment industry’s true treasures. She was not merely a great singer, but an outstanding actress as well. This is indeed her best performance, because she never once makes the character sanctimonious or self-conscious in her efforts to please, as other actresses might have. She’s the one who pulls viewers into the story from the start, and makes you believe it every step of the way.

A scene from The Sound of Music

Coate: Where does The Sound of Music rank among director Robert Wise’s body of work?

Holston: As it has been said of director Wise, he was a chameleon who couldn’t be pigeon-holed. He made successful, even seminal films in all genres: The Body SnatcherCurse of the Cat People; The Set-UpThe Day the Earth Stood Still; Executive SuiteRun Silent, Run Deep; Odds Against TomorrowI Want To Live!; The Haunting; The Sand Pebbles. In fact, Wise’s record for good to excellent films is outstanding. The Sound of Music was especially significant for him because it brought him his second directing Oscar (West Side Story being the first).

Kennedy: Robert Wise’s career was absolutely amazing. Early on he edits Citizen Kane and (controversially) The Magnificent Ambersons, then directs everything from horror (The Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher) to film noir (Born to Kill, The House on Telegraph Hill), science-fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain), glossy soap opera (Executive Suite), heavy drama (I Want to Live!), and a top drawer spookfest (The Haunting). It’s very hard, perhaps futile, to compare any of those with The Sound of Music. We can only shake our heads that they were all directed by the same man. His first Oscar came for directing West Side Story, which may be of the same genre as The Sound of Music, but most comparisons end there. I admire several of Wise’s credits, but nothing clicked like The Sound of Music. He somewhat admitted this, and like everyone else, couldn’t quite pinpoint why The Sound of Music became such a phenomenon. 

Matessino: For a movie that Bob did simply because there was a hole in his schedule while waiting for location problems to be worked out for The Sand Pebbles, I think it ranks as a masterful achievement. He, Solly and Ernie had already had a great success with West Side Story and here they were doing it all over again, winning Oscars and saving a studio in the process. Creatively I think it shows that Bob Wise could do anything and also that he knew how to find just the right people on both sides of the camera. There is a tremendous power to the filmmaking and Bob was always proud of his work on the picture.

Monush: In a career full of impressive credits, this film is indeed among his finest accomplishments. Wise was thoroughly deserving of the Academy Award he received for his efforts here, because of the incredible control he brought to potentially sticky material, telling the story with taste, humor, and great emotional understanding.

Coate: In what way was it beneficial for The Sound of Music to be initially exhibited as a roadshow?

Holston: It was the golden age of roadshows, and to be a roadshow was to be prestigious. Buying seats in advance made it an event.

Kennedy: It made a huge difference; it was 20th Century Fox’s way of saying “Pay attention! This is a very important movie!” If marketed well, the anticipation of roadshow treats (elaborate theater, reserved seats, souvenir program, overture, intermission, exit music) was high indeed. The Sound of Music rolled out from its initial engagements on single screens in New York and Los Angeles to other major urban centers within a month, then spread to secondary markets after that. There was an alchemy at work here, too, as the timing and pacing drew huge crowds. But it was the film itself that accounted for the very high repeat business. Some patrons saw The Sound of Music over and over and over and over and over again and still couldn’t get enough. People were hooked on it like it was opium. 

Matessino: It was a different era, as the authors who are commenting on the subject will elaborate on. A roadshow musical based on a hit Broadway musical created the same kind of sense of importance and anticipation as going to live theater. When you have a “hard ticket” and reserved seating sold in advance for a movie playing at just one big theater, you create buzz and word-of-mouth, and that works if the movie is good. Bob’s publicist, Mike Kaplan, worked his magic for Fox on The Sound of Music and it paid off in spades.

Monush: Roadshow was a great idea for bringing special attention to select movies, allowing them to be seen in the grand manner they deserved, and to roll out slowly throughout the year (or even longer) rather than hit theaters in mass bookings all at once. This form of exhibition gave audiences greater opportunities to see movies in theaters, where they were intended, rather than have to catch them during very short runs, as is often the case today, or opt for them on inferior home viewing formats.

Coate: Would the roadshow concept work for today’s movies?

Holston: I doubt it. It is now possible to purchase tickets in advance for the initial showings of some films, but those tickets are not for specific seats and you don’t get deluxe programs and overtures and intermissions. Ever since Billy Jack and Jaws, people are used to seeing a new film immediately somewhere in their vicinity. Instant gratification. Today no one’s going to drive into a city to see a movie that won’t come to the suburbs for months or a year — if it’s successful. That’s what happened with the likes of West Side Story, Cleopatra and The Sound of Music. Plus, there are hardly any huge art deco movie theaters left in inner cities. As I researched my book I realized that roadshows and movie palaces existed symbiotically. The roadshow depended on palatial theaters — and big premieres. Not to mention concentration of people in cities. Suburbs, cars, and mall theaters helped kill the “experience.”

Kennedy: I don’t think so. Roadshows played hard to get, beginning in big cities on single screens.  Today we know most all movie will be available in many forms via the home markets, TV, streaming, etc.  Roadshows were based on limited opportunity to see them before they disappeared into the vaults.  Opening a huge movie on a handful of screens and withholding it from a larger audience for weeks or months has become too risky. When roadshows were not well received, word of mouth killed them.  Now with thousands of screens showing the same “blockbuster” in its opening weekend, audiences are lured in before negative word of mouth spreads. Maybe that’s changing, too. Nowadays audiences text and tweet “this movie sucks” far and wide before its first matinee is over. 

Matessino: The concept would only work today if you had a movie that was truly a phenomenon (and not a pre-packaged one), something people felt that the theater was the only place to see it. The word of mouth would have to be unanimously positive. And going a step further, the current model would have to be completely shattered by not announcing when the movie would be available on video or for streaming. Sadly, those dates are announced when a movie opens in theaters, so basically the model wouldn’t work unless you had the right movie.

Monush: Alas, the mind-set of today’s audiences is to receive movies as quickly and conveniently as possible, with very little consideration for how they see them, as long as they are not obliged to wait or make too much effort. Because of this sense of “entitlement,” I don’t know if people could even grasp the concept of paying special prices and reserving specific seats in advance to see a movie that would require you to make a special trip to see it.

A scene from The Sound of Music

Coate: Kim, what was the objective with your book, Movie Roadshows: A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings, 1911-1973?

Holston: I wanted to recapture an era of moviegoing when certain movies were given extra special attention and presented as an event akin to attending the ballet, opera or a concert. As I did the research and discovered that reserved-seat roadshows can be traced back to the silent era — and not just for Birth of a Nation and Intolerance — I aimed to describe the unique and sometimes impromptu distribution and exhibition methods used. Films such as Cleopatra and The Sound of Music are given longer entries because of pre-release media attention and hullabaloo, post-release popularity, or especially in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, artistic/cinematic significance.

Coate: Matthew, what was the objective with your book, Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s?

Kennedy: Roadshow! investigates film musicals after The Sound of Music that were for the most part critical and financial disappointments. I wanted to better understand why this beloved genre moved to the fringes of popular culture by the early ‘70s when it had been so vibrant ten years earlier. It made sense to me to begin Roadshow! with The Sound of Music (and additional lead-in with Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady) because it was the summit of the commercial success of film musicals. Roadshow musicals post-Sound of Music covertly and overtly sought to ride that wave of success. 

Coate: Mike, what was the objective with your Sound of Music documentary and LaserDisc supplements? Are you pleased with the manner in which those materials have been ported over to subsequent home-video releases?

Matessino: There was no initial objective for the documentary because one was not originally planned. It was 1993 and back then it was a big deal just to get a studio to agree to do a few local on-camera interviews. That was going to be the extent of it initially, plus a commentary, trailers and stills. I had just met Robert Wise and started working with him to supervise the video transfers of some of his pictures and got involved in contacting people who’d worked with him. At that time we were also working on interviewing people for Star!, his 1968 Gertrude Lawrence musical biography, which also starred Julie Andrews but had not been a success. The way we got to do interviews for that was by agreeing to do Sound of Music interviews in tandem, thus splitting the cost between the two projects. But on The Sound of Music it was just going to be some of the filmmakers at first and none of the actors. At that time, the artists who’d played the children in the picture were all feeling a little short-changed because they had done a lot over the years without being compensated. But then Charmian Carr agreed to be interviewed because she was good friends with Bob and she would sort of speak for the rest.

That was supposed to be the end of it but then, out of nowhere, came a call from Christopher Plummer’s agent in New York. At that time everyone assumed he had negative feelings about the movie, and I was expecting to be told that I could not use clips or photos of Chris, or something to that effect, but to my shock I was asked if Chris could record some audio recollections to include in the project. I immediately asked if he would agree to being interviewed on camera if I could come to New York and the answer was yes! I immediately called Fox to let them know and then got in touch with the Rodgers & Hammerstein office in New York. They, in turn, put me in touch with the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont and all of a sudden I was arranging to do about a dozen interviews on the east coast. Two days before I left for New York, I got a call from Bob. Nick Hammond, who plays Friedrich in the movie was in his office and Bob told him what was going on. He was leaving for Sydney the next day and asked if there any way to get an on-camera interview done. We quickly found a studio to do it and he went straight from there to the airport. The next day I was off to New York for interviews there and then spent four days at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont.

At that time there really was not that much synergy between the von Trapp family, the R&H people, and the filmmakers. There were separate “camps,” if you will, each with its own emphasis on what the property represented. But I recognized that there was one big story in there where everything and everyone was connected. In all humility I feel that I broke down a lot of walls with this documentary. When I got back to California I got a call from Mike Kaplan, the publicist on the picture originally, who was involved in everything that was going on. He said that Julie had reconsidered doing the interview. I supposed this happened because she had heard Chris had done it. The condition was that we do the interview at her office on the same day that we were having a 25th anniversary screening of Star! at the Director’s Guild because she’d already be in hair and make-up for that. That was fine with me, but because we had to put a camera crew together I was able to get another interview day out of it and so I was able to add Dee Dee Wood (also done at Julie’s office), editor William Reynolds, and Dick Zanuck, who was the head of production at Fox at the time the movie was made. When all was said and done I had 25 on-camera interviews and the opportunity to really tell the story from beginning to end… the real life story of the von Trapps that led to Maria writing her book, that led to the German-language film, that led to the Broadway show, that led to the movie being made at 20th Century Fox and saving the studio from bankruptcy.

In my opinion, the bar had been set a few years earlier with Jeffrey Selznick’s documentary for Turner, The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind, which, coincidentally was narrated by Christopher Plummer. I still feel that it’s possibly the best behind-the-scenes documentary ever done and essential viewing for anyone interested in any aspect of the moviemaking business. If there is any other classic movie that could withstand that kind of approach, it is The Sound of Music. The history behind the movie and the magnitude of its success is simply a great story and I had the opportunity to tell it… but not necessarily the budget. So a lot of things were done very quick-and-dirty, but I tried to make sure the story and the interviews were put together in a compelling way. Some wonderful things happened, such as getting Claire Bloom (who’d worked with Bob on The Haunting) to be narrator. I felt that I really wanted a female narrator — which was rarely done at the time, even on cable specials — and her voice was authoritative yet had the softness that I was going for. We also had use of the music thanks to the simultaneous work on the soundtrack CD that accompanied the LaserDisc set.

The documentary was on its own VHS tape in the UK release of the movie and then it was carried over to the first DVD release. On the second one they wanted to promote all-new material but on the third one, in 2010, they put together everything and even included things I’d wanted in 1995 but didn’t get, such as the appearance of Maria von Trapp on The Julie Andrews Hour and the great clip of Julie and Carol Burnett doing The Pratt Family Singers sketch in 1962 on their first special together, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. I’ve always wanted to go back and polish up the documentary technically, and perhaps see if it could be expanded a bit (the running time was dictated by the restrictions of LaserDisc), but I’m glad it’s still included on releases of the film. It was the very first time Julie and Chris both participated in the same project and right after that they began appearing together, first on talk shows, then on a live TV production of On Golden Pond, and then in a touring Christmas show. I also think that Plummer’s gradual change of heart with regard to The Sound of Music began with my interview. I remember screening the documentary for Bob, Ernie and Solly at the Director’s Guild and they were amazed at what I’d gotten out of Chris. The other shocking thing was that before the documentary was finished we’d lost two of the interviewees, illustrator Maurice Zuberano and arranger/conductor Irwin Kostal. And now, all of the filmmakers are gone and we just have the cast, and in the intervening years they have all bonded together. There is a synergy now between them and R&H and with the von Trapps and with the tourism board in Salzburg, and I can’t help but feel that my project was what cleared the weeds from the pathway so that all of that could happen. It’s all part of one big story again.

Coate: Barry, what was the objective with your book, The Sound of Music FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Maria, the von Trapps, and Our Favorite Things?

Monush: I wanted to go beyond a simple “making of” book and explore all aspects of this work, including the Trapp Family’s true story in relation to how the musical dramatized it; the musical’s many incarnations on stage; the score and its place in recording history; the staggering impact The Sound of Music made on motion picture box offices in the 1960s and its enduring popularity on various home viewing formats and television; and its unique place in pop culture history.

A scene from The Sound of Music

Coate: What is the legacy of The Sound of Music?

Holston: It seamlessly merged the natural world with the artificiality of impromptu singing and dancing, which was the real art of the Hollywood musical, as distinct from the “stage door” musicals and biopics. Interestingly, most of the Fox musicals from the ‘30s through the ‘50s were “backstage” films where the entertainment took place in the theater. One might also opine that the filmmakers caught lightning in a bottle: Julie Andrews.

Kennedy: The short term legacy was the green lighting of so many musicals, with hits (Oliver!, Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret) sprinkled among the misses. Tastes changed radically by the 1970s, and safe money was on low-budget films appealing to young audiences. Musicals went into retreat, and lost their central place in our film-going culture. For a long time it was very un-hip to love The Sound of Music. Now it’s seen as a cherished relic that will never be duplicated. It’s one of those rare films that became a widely shared experience, each of us carrying specific memories of when and where we saw it and how we feel about it. It’s in our collective bloodstream. 

Matessino: I think I’ve touched on all my answers to this… it’s the themes that the movie addresses, the fact that it saved a studio, that it’s the crowning achievement of its songwriters, and that it will forever stand as a reason to explore the entire body of work of the great Robert Wise.

Monush: It is the rare movie of the past that continues to be instantly recognized by a majority of the world’s citizens. It represents the very best of what its era had to offer, entertainment produced on a lavish scale but without pretentions; presentations that appealed to both adult and young audiences without being alienating to either.

Coate: Thank you, Kim, Matthew, Mike, and Barry, for participating and for sharing your thoughts about The Sound of Music on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

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