Captivates Audiences Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Despite hostile film critics, The Sound of Music, adapted from a stage musical and starring Julie Andrews, became the biggest box-office success to that point in film history.

Summary of Event

The phenomenal box-office success of The Sound of Music (1965), which replaced Gone with the Wind (1939) as the highest-grossing film of all time, resulted in large part from the casting of Julie Andrews as Maria, a postulant nun who leaves the convent to marry Baron Von Trapp. Andrews, who had won an Academy Award for her performance in the title role in Mary Poppins Mary Poppins (Stevenson) (1964), was again playing nanny to children who needed her love. In fact, Andrews was selected by William Wyler Wyler, William , who was originally slated to produce and direct the film and who was replaced by Robert Wise when Wyler asked for a release from his contract in order to direct The Collector (1965). Since Wyler had had reservations about the Richard Rodgers Rodgers, Richard and Oscar Hammerstein Hammerstein, Oscar, II II stage play’s upbeat portrait of the 1930’s as the “Golden Years” in Austria, Wise’s selection as producer and director also contributed to the film’s success. Fresh from his triumph in West Side Story West Side Story (Wise) (1961), for which he won an Oscar, Wise was an accomplished director with an excellent track record in film musicals. Sound of Music, The (Wise) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Sound of Music[Sound of Music] Hollywood studio system;musicals [kw]Sound of Music Captivates Audiences, The (Mar. 2, 1965) [kw]Audiences, The Sound of Music Captivates (Mar. 2, 1965) Sound of Music, The (Wise) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Sound of Music[Sound of Music] Hollywood studio system;musicals [g]North America;Mar. 2, 1965: The Sound of Music Captivates Audiences[08350] [g]United States;Mar. 2, 1965: The Sound of Music Captivates Audiences[08350] [c]Motion pictures and video;Mar. 2, 1965: The Sound of Music Captivates Audiences[08350] Wise, Robert Andrews, Julie Plummer, Christopher Parker, Eleanor Lehman, Ernest

The film, which premiered March 2, 1965, in New York City, was adapted from the last collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The composer-lyricist team had taken on the project at the urging of actor Mary Martin Martin, Mary , who had seen a German film about the Von Trapp family Von Trapp family[Vontrapp family] and who secured the necessary permission from the family members. Martin, who appeared as Maria, was rewarded for her vision when the musical succeeded not only financially but also critically, winning five Tony Awards. Twentieth Century-Fox Twentieth Century-Fox[Twentieth Century Fox] bought the film rights, named Wyler to produce and direct, and contracted Ernest Lehman to write the screenplay. Although some songs were omitted and some added, the score remained largely the same. Lehman’s major changes were in opening up the script to take advantage of the mountainous scenery around Salzburg and in eliminating the political conflict between Baron Von Trapp and Elsa Schraeder (the baroness in the film), Maria’s rival for Von Trapp’s affections.

As in West Side Story, Wise opened The Sound of Music with a helicopter shot, one of Maria singing and dancing in the Bavarian Alps. Because of her exuberance, she is not wholly compatible with life in the convent and leaves to become governess to the seven children of widower Baron Von Trapp, who whistles his children to attention, denies them music and beauty, and insists on discipline. The Von Trapp children do not play; they march. Under Maria’s tutelage, however, they play, sing, and enjoy nature (as in the song “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things”). The rigid baron sends Maria back to the convent when Maria tells him that the children’s uniforms are really straitjackets. In her absence, the baroness, who hopes to marry Von Trapp, attempts to win the children’s affections but is unsuccessful. They visit the convent, and Maria soon returns to the Von Trapp household at the baron’s urging, because he realizes how important it was that she brought music back to his house.

Like most musicals, The Sound of Music concerns a conflict: the forces of music, dance, and life versus those of silence, rigidity, and death (or at least emotional numbness and sterility). Maria’s mission is to encourage the baron to sing, dance, and enjoy life, things he had done before his wife died. When the baroness realizes that Maria has liberated Von Trapp, she retreats. Nazi Party influence continues to grow in Austria, however, and the earlier conflict is mirrored in one, again involving Von Trapp, concerning conformity and Nazi repression in opposition to freedom and Austrian patriotism. When Maria and Von Trapp return from their honeymoon, the conflict comes to a head as Von Trapp is ordered to assume command in the “new order.”

Max Detweiler (Richard Haydn Haydn, Richard ), the family’s friend and an enterprising impresario charged with assembling a festival performance for the Nazis, provides the means by which the political and musical conflicts are resolved. Detweiler enables the aristocratic Von Trapp, who initially adamantly opposed his family’s performing in public, to use the concert as a cover for their escape from Salzburg over the mountains to neutral Switzerland and safety. The only obstacle to their safe flight is Kurt (Duane Chase Chase, Duane ), the telegraph boy turned Nazi who is the admirer of young Liesl Von Trapp (Charmain Carr Carr, Charmain ). He discovers the family’s plan and informs on them despite his interest in Liesl. The family escapes nevertheless, and the film closes with a shot of the Von Trapps hiking through the Alps.

Despite the efforts of Wise and Andrews to “desweeten” the story, it has been the target of critics, both film and social, who have perceived a saccharine quality. The muted political message (especially in the light of the Holocaust), the spectacular scenery, and the domestic and religious themes drew fire from critics but delighted filmgoers looking for the storybook world the film projects. Although the 1930’s may not have been the “Golden Years” of Austria, it was a period before the horrors of the Third Reich were known to the world. The film does, especially in the character of Detweiler, present the dangers of accommodation and compromise. Although he sarcastically smells his hand after a “Heil, Hitler” salute, he does believe in survival. The treatment of the patriotic Austrian audience’s response to the Von Trapp nationalism is more problematic, for the cheering audience is paradoxically also the audience that embraced the Nazi movement.


Although The Sound of Music confirmed Julie Andrews as a major star following her Oscar-winning performance in Mary Poppins, it also resulted in her being typecast as a wholesome, pure heroine, exactly the antithesis of what film audiences wanted as societal disillusionment grew in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Despite the popularity of The Sound of Music and its success at the Oscar Academy Awards;Best Picture ceremonies (it won five awards, including Best Picture), the Best Actress award for the year went to the more sophisticated Julie Christie Christie, Julie , who starred in Darling (1965). Andrews starred in several more musicals (notably Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1967; Star!, 1968; and Darling Lili, 1970), but she never repeated her success in The Sound of Music.

The impact of The Sound of Music on the careers of Robert Wise and Ernest Lehman was also negligible, except that the financial success of the film gave Wise considerable influence in Hollywood, especially since it so closely followed the popularity of West Side Story. Wise’s next musical, Star!, Star! (Wise)[Star (Wise)] also starring Andrews, was not as fortunate, and he turned his talents to science fiction and adventure films, such as The Sand Pebbles (1966), The Andromeda Strain (1971), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Like Andrews, Wise was raised to the pinnacle of success by The Sound of Music, but he too could not sustain either his popularity or his performance.

For Lehman, The Sound of Music was one in a string of hits dating back to Executive Suite (1954), which Wise also directed. Although he achieved success with the film musicals The King and I (1956) and West Side Story, Lehman had also written the novelette that was the source for the acclaimed Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and had scripted the Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest (1959). Following The Sound of Music were Hello, Dolly! (1969), another popular musical, and the dramatic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

The impact of The Sound of Music on Hollywood was also limited. Rather than pointing the film musical in a new direction, it marked the end of the era of traditional film musicals, though a few more were made (Hello, Dolly!, for example). The sentimental optimism they embodied quickly became anachronistic as the Vietnam War continued. In many ways, The Sound of Music is an archetypal film musical. It is a backstage musical in which the singer/dancer brings life to the initiate and affirms the power of mainstream music. Andrews’s role is itself almost a cliché in the film musical; governesses in The King and I and Mary Poppins also bring music and life to the families they serve. The King of Siam in the former also resembles the baron in that both are rigid taskmasters who require only liberating nannies to be their real selves: spontaneous, emotional, and generous.

When The Sound of Music appeared, the American public was optimistic about the American incursion into Vietnam, though some observers were more apprehensive about American involvement. The storybook atmosphere of The Sound of Music, in which escape from Nazis is relatively easy and young Nazis such as Kurt are basically decent, appealed to a nation unwilling to confront harsh realities. Just seven years later, Bob Fosse’s Fosse, Bob Cabaret Cabaret (Fosse) (1972) had provided an effective contrast to the optimism of The Sound of Music. Both film musicals depict life in Germany just prior to the outbreak of World War II, but their images and their musical numbers attest changing musical and political tastes and perceptions. Rather than being the means of escape from Nazi Germany, music becomes the entrance to the cabaret world, which is controlled by money and which is characterized by perversity, deception, and degeneration. The young Nazis in Cabaret may be attractive when they sing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” but Fosse shows his audience the violence they perpetrate on their opposition.

Many film historians identify the early 1960’s as a transition period in American film, Hollywood studio system;end of though there is understandable disagreement about which particular film heralded the arrival of a new kind of American film. The films often mentioned include Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Pawnbroker (1965), Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), The Hustler (1961), and Psycho (1960). All reflect changes in society’s values. Offbeat protagonists who are alienated from their societies and plagued with explicit psychological and sexual problems respond violently in a morally complex world. Regardless of the exact film that marks the advent of the new film and the new society, The Sound of Music clearly was not the harbinger of a new American cinema. An indicator of the changing taste in film was Wyler’s decision to direct the somber The Collector rather than The Sound of Music.

Other genres were changing as well. The traditional Western film was being replaced by the violent, experimental films that concerned the clash of country and city values and the end of the frontier. Rather than surrender to the new impersonal, industrial societies that make them anachronisms, the protagonists of The Wild Bunch (1969) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) go out fighting, even though it is futile. The excessive, almost ritualized violence in these films and in the other, more urban films of the late 1960’s certainly reflects a growing American awareness of the Vietnam War violence and of the fundamental changes occurring in American society. The Sound of Music celebrated patriotism and the Austrian flag; within only a few years, American flags were being burned by Americans who were unwilling to follow orders.

In the musical, escape from the enemy was relatively easy, but as the war in Vietnam continued, many people realized how difficult it was to extricate a country from a chosen course of action. Although The Sound of Music still has appeal for viewers who yearn for a better past, both the form and the content of the film seem out of touch with contemporary American life. For many who viewed it in the troubled 1960’s, however, it has remained a sentimental favorite, reminding them of the virtues of family life, romantic love and marriage, and the stability for which most people yearn in their lives, especially in times of turmoil. The huge crowds that flocked to see it and who still enjoy watching it in regular reairings on television indicate that the film satisfied the common man even as it put off the critics. Sound of Music, The (Wise) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Sound of Music[Sound of Music] Hollywood studio system;musicals

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brode, Douglas. The Films of the Sixties. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1980. Brode’s chapter on the film contains the film credits, a synopsis of the film, some production details, a summary of the adverse critical reaction to the film, his own appreciative evaluation, and several still photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crist, Judith. The Private Eye, the Cowboy, and the Very Naked Girl. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. Contains a lengthy review of the film, which is criticized for its “sweetness and light.” Crist regards the stage original as the least inspired but most financially rewarding of the Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denkert, Darcie. “A Show Becomes a Movie That Saves a Studio: The Sound of Music.” In A Fine Romance: Hollywood and Broadway. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2005. Focuses on the financial and business-related aspects of the film. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Druxman, Michael B. The Musical: From Broadway to Hollywood. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1980. Druxman devotes a brief chapter to the adaptation of the theatrical musical to film. Critical responses to both media are included, as well as description of the major changes from the dramatic original.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Madsen, Axel. William Wyler. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973. Madsen’s biography recounts the events preceding Wyler’s decision to drop out as director of The Sound of Music shortly before production began. Anecdotes concern the Baroness Von Trapp’s reactions to Adolf Hitler and the Austrians’ support of the Nazi dictator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tynan, Kenneth. Tynan Right and Left. New York: Atheneum, 1968. Contains an unsympathetic film review characteristic of the critical response to The Sound of Music. Tynan, however, points out several interesting parallels between the film and The King and I, another film about a liberating governess and a rigid ruler.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Windeler, Robert. Julie Andrews. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. Windeler’s biography, which features extensive quotations from Andrews and her associates, also contains production information about her films. Also includes helpful appendixes regarding the credits for her films as well as a discography of albums featuring Andrews.

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