The golden age of popular, pious, genial Hollywood Catholicism is more or less bookended by two hugely successful Best Picture winners: one about a singing priest, the other about a singing postulant nun turned wife and stepmother.
Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby as a crooning cleric who embodied a new image of cool Catholicism, was the #1 film of 1944, confirming Catholicism’s mainstream acceptance in American popular culture. And in 1965 Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, for a time surpassing Gone With the Wind to become the #1 film in Hollywood history, came at end of an era, not just for Hollywood Catholicism but for classical Hollywood cinema. The next Hollywood blockbuster with a comparable Catholic presence would be The Exorcist in 1973.
Ironically, the coolness of Crosby’s Father O’Malley, so groundbreaking at the time, hasn’t aged as well as the nostalgic charm of The Sound of Music, which was already square and old-fashioned when it debuted. In fact, it may be partly precisely because Father O’Malley was hip and Julie Andrews’ Fraulein Maria wasn’t that Going My Way feels much more dated than The Sound of Music. Perhaps nostalgia ages better than coolness.
Half a century later, The Sound of Music is probably still the world’s favorite big-screen stage musical adaptation. Joyous, gorgeous, comforting, full of (almost) uniformly spectacular songs, the film’s emotional power is irresistible, even for the many critics, such as Pauline Kael, who hated its shallowness and emotional manipulation.
What makes it work, above all, is Andrews’ sweet sincerity and commitment. Any flicker of condescension or pretense on her part and the whole thing would collapse into treacle and camp. But cynics will search her face in vain: Her sincerity is absolute, and she sells the role and the film.
Adapted from the last of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s collaborations, and one of their best, the film loosely reflects the real-life story of the Trapp Family Singers as related in the memoirs of Maria Augusta von Trapp.
The real story is arguably more interesting, certainly more Catholic and in some ways less dramatic. The real Trapp Family Singers began singing publicly in the 1930s after the family was ruined in the Great Depression (an expedient the real Georg hated as much as the fictional version would have). A priest, Fr. Franz Wasner, served both as the family’s chaplain and also as their director and conductor.
Captain von Trapp did flee Austria with his family to escape a Nazi commission, but there was no impossible hike over the mountains into Switzerland; they simply took a train to Italy and went on to London and finally the United States.
The screen adaptation by Ernest Lehman (The King and I, West Side Story) improves on its musical source material in shrewd ways. Songs are shifted to apter settings (“The Lonely Goatherd” was originally set during the thunderstorm, and “My Favorite Things” in the abbey!).
The score is one delight after another, from the exaltation of the opening title song (punctured in the end by abbey bells, a mad dash and a forgotten wimple) and the playful nun-sense of “Maria” to the spontaneous patriotic defiance of the “Edelweiss” sing-along (not an actual Austrian song!) at the Salzburg Music Festival and the closing reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
Salzburg, with its dramatic Alpine setting and blend of Romanesque, Renaissance and baroque architecture, provides a splendid backdrop that Wise exploits with lingering takes (starting with that majestic three-minute opening montage) and frequent use of symmetrical or formal composition (as in “So Long, Farewell” and Maria and Georg silhouetted in the gazebo).
Maria’s opening song was actually filmed in the Bavarian Alps, but “Do-Re-Mi” is set near Salzburg. The nuns sing “Maria” at the real Nonnberg Abbey where Maria was a postulant, though the wedding was shot at the Church of Saint Michael in Mondsee, a gothic former monastery elevated to a papal basilica by Pope John Paul II shortly before his death in 2005.
Although the story centers on a postulant nun who turns from the convent to embrace marriage, the film is nothing but reverent toward religious life. One vocation isn’t pitted against another; the key question, as Maria says in an early scene, is simply “to find out the will of God and to do it wholeheartedly.”
Significantly, the scene in which the Mother Superior (Peggy Wood) sends Maria back to the von Trapps (“Climb Ev’ry Mountain”) begins with the reception of another postulant to the abbey. Religious life is a positive good, but “the love of a man and a woman is holy too,” and “our abbey is not to be used as an escape.” (Well, except from Nazis!)
The list of critical charges against The Sound of Music is endless: It’s simplistic, sentimental, saccharine and lacking in dramatic conflict. Kael complained that it was too insipid to offend anyone. Yet the film is essentially critic-proof, not in a cynical sense, but in the best sense: For half a century it has brought joy to viewers of all ages. That’s all the justification any movie needs.
Now available in a 40th anniversary edition with an improved transfer and loads of extras, including numerous documentaries and a pair of commentary tracks, one by director Wise and the other by stars Andrews, Plummer, and Charmian Carr (Liesl), as well as choreographer Dee Dee Wood Johannes von Trapp, youngest son of Maria.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.