CAN WE EVER FORGET "THE SOUND OF MUSIC?"
Last spring "The Sound of Music" made No. 55 on the American Film Instituteís list of alltime best movies, just below "All Quiet on the Western Front" and just above "M*A*S*H." In a way thatís a lefthanded compliment, putting it right in the middle of the top hundred instead of at one end or the other. It means that the panel was afraid either to love it or hate it, and chose the middle way. We can remember that Maya Linís design for the Vietnam Memorial -- one of the great public-art statements of the twentieth century -- which she made for an architecture class as a junior at Yale, got her a B in the course from a professor who was evidently too frightened to acknowledge genius when he saw it. So what grade does "The Sound of Music" deserve? Letís go back a minute.
Everybody agrees that the best musical of all time is "Singiní In The Rain." Certainly thereís competition from "The Wizard of Oz," (No. 6 on the AFI list), though wouldnít you rather put "The Wizard" in its own category as a fantasy with music and give it its own top ranking? Of course you would. But the fifteen hundred movie mavens of the AFI poll put "Singiní In The Rain" at only No.10, rating it below "The Graduate," "On the Waterfront," and "Schindlerís List." Oh, well.
But we were talking about "The Sound of Music." Where does it belong? How about the ninth circle of hell? That's not on the AFI list, of course, but there are many reasons why we can confidently place it there, along with "Shane" (number 59), "Forrest Gump" (number 71), and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (number 99, and still ranked above "Yankee Doodle Dandy"). Let's begin by calling it the very worst musical ever made, the one that combines the greatest quantity of smarmy, infantile sentiment with the ooziest treacle of simpleminded melodies and unspeakably trite lyrics. Is that heresy? After all, the show it's based on was the most popular musical ever produced up to that time. But this is not about bad taste in America; most American lives are exercises in bad taste. We're just talking movies here, but we have to begin with the show. Should we blame Rodgers and Hammerstein?
Well, why not? They wrote the songs, which to the adult ear sound like the first murmurings of late onset Alzheimer's. Take a minute and try reciting the lyrics to "Doe, A Deer" out loud and see what I mean. Of course, blame is easy. Rodgers and Hammerstein had written themselves out years before and were raiding the old songbook for anything they could steal and rewrite, but remember, they wrote the Broadway show, not the movie. It took other hands to make the film, notably the screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who had previously taken the powerful theme and breathtaking music and lyrics of "West Side Story" and turned them into a shallow little peek at underclass life, a kind of precursor to "Welcome Back Kotter," substituting cute jokes for valid emotion. His coworker on "The Sound of Music" was the director Robert Wise, and more than half a century later many film people have not yet forgiven him for accepting RKO's offer to reshoot and recut parts of Orson Welles's "The Magnificent Ambersons" while Welles was on location in South America.
What did these men do? In Lehman's case not very much, because a) the show was so popular that no one in Hollywood would dare to change a thing; and b) the show's book was already in terminal paralysis from an overload of clichés. All Lehman had to do was transpose it to film by indicating that the exteriors should be shot in Austria. For Wise the verdict is more serious. Since the director has to bear the responsibility for how a film looks on screen, let's start by blaming him for the clunky opening montage of the Alps, with strangely shaky aerial footage that alternates between shots of snowcapped peaks and low cultivated valleys, with anachronistic clearcuts visible on the hillsides, intercut with a strange shot of a broad plain, and then ending with a helicopter move across a high meadow to Julie Andrews as she spins and sings and fights to keep her balance in the wind from the rotors. If the intention was to usher us into a Heidi-like world of Alpenglow and fresh cheese, it's already missed the target.
Next, we can blame him for all the Von Trapp children, trying and failing to match Julie Andrews' British accent, and ending up with lots of jaw movement and no spontaneity. If you're going to make a film with children, you have to remember that they're not simply small adults. But Wise's inability to give us believable children is only a small part of what's wrong here. Wise was never known, in any of his films, for good visual sense, and it shows here in many ways. His scenes are always overlit. Characters supposedly shot in bright sun will generate three or four shadows on the ground around them, from the great arc lights that he insisted on using. (He wasn't alone here. Arcs were the hallmark of Hollywood productions in the fifties and sixties, but nobody held a gun to his head and forced him to do it either.) He tried, and failed badly, to mix and match live exteriors with studio shots against painted backdrops, and there is even one ghastly moment when the camera looks past the characters on the path down to the lake, then across the lake to the far shore, and sees three enormous geese, each the relative size of a cabin cruiser, supposedly flying along that shore but actually being pulled across the painted backdrop in some dreadfully misguided attempt at verisimilitude.
And then there is the matter of Julie Andrews. Supposedly a young novice at the abbey, she was actually 30 when the film was made and looks every day of it, particularly with a sophisticated chop to her hair and a quite inordinate amount of makeup, certainly more than most nuns were wearing at the time. She is a good actress and a fine singer, but all the lip-syncing finally does her in, as she rarely exerts herself enough to match the energy of her voice on the sound track. Christopher Plummer does his best as Captain Von Trapp, keeping a stiff upper lip throughout, as befits a character so thinly written as to disappear when not actually speaking. And let's not forget that priceless scene in the courtyard of the abbey when Peggy Wood as the abbess suddenly bursts into song ("Climb Ev'ry Mountain") as a way of encouraging poor Maria to go back to Von Trapp and try once more, only this time to let her feelings show. You could root against her -- "Don't go back!" -- but of course you wouldn't win.
There's at least one other treasure. For those who've seen the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker film "Top Secret" (not on the AFI's list, but one of the very best comedies of the sound era), you will find out where the ballroom dance parody came from. All of which is to say that a good worst film should have something for everyone to make fun of, and "The Sound of Music" has it in spades.
A confirming note: In 1998 a group of crack-addicted monkeys in an experimental lab at the University of Minnesota were allowed to watch television. Their favorite tape? "The Sound of Music."