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Celebrating The Sound Of Music:

Part One

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The Hollywood Version Of The Tale Of The Von Trapp Family’s Escape From Austria Continues To Resonate, Cementing Its Status As A National Love Affair 50 Years After Its Release

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

March 2, 2015 — As a nation, we can’t agree on much these days. But what does seem to unify people is our enduring affection for the movie The Sound of Music. Released 50 years ago on March 2, 1965, we’re blowing out the candles on what can best be described as one of the last, great “old-school” musicals.

The celebration spilled over into the Academy Awards recently. In what otherwise was generally considered just another lackluster Oscar telecast, people are still talking about Lady Gaga’s transformation into “Maria,” her powerful medley of tunes from the film and then the on-stage appearance of “Maria” herself, the wonderful Julie Andrews.

And the festivities continue in Hollywood on March 26 when a fully-restored version of the film will kick off the sixth annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival with appearances by Andrews and her co-star Christopher Plummer. The film is being presented in collaboration with Twentieth Century Fox, in celebration of their Golden 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release of the movie on March 10.

In a 1995 interview with Music’s director, Robert Wise, we noted that his office was decorated with mementos from the film, including a Russian language poster from the movie and the disembodied head of one of the marionette puppets featured in the “Lonely Goatherd” song, which acted as a bookend in his office.

“Julie Andrews and I were awarded a state medal from Austria because of the movie,” Wise said. “I’ve even had people say to me, in all earnestness, that The Sound of Music has done more for Salzburg and Austria than Mozart.”

From a historical perspective, The Sound of Music pretty much closed the curtain on the traditional girl meets Hitler Youth/Governess meets widowed Austrian Navy Captain after which all, after considerable adversity (and with the exception of  the erstwhile Hitlerite, Rolf), climb the mountain and live happily ever after.

Blame it on Maria’s irrepressible joie de vivre, Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s soaring score, or the nostalgic ache for family values in a complicated world, but the winning ingredients that assured  The Sound of Music a spectacular box-office success in 1965 also dealt a death blow to the Hollywood musical genre that would unofficially reach its nadir with the Fox release of Hello Dolly! four years later.

Ironically, Hello Dolly! was directed by a man (Gene Kelly) who was the heart and soul of the “Golden Age” Hollywood musicals made more than a decade earlier when the genre had attained a creative peak. However, even Kelly’s deft direction of the overblown Hello Dolly! couldn’t forestall the genre’s inevitable decline.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, under the visionary leadership of producer Arthur Freed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film musical was re-invented; notably in such efforts as Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon and Gigi. It didn’t hurt that the pipeline of available talent in those days included the likes of Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, not to mention artisans behind the cameras such as director Vincente Minnelli, choreographer Michael Kidd and the great “American Songbook” tunesmiths.

The "original" Hollywood musical virtually vanished after Gigi. in 1958 with the studios pretty much exclusively churning out Broadway adaptations.

After the early '60s hits of West Side Story, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, The Music Man, and My Fair Lady, the studios became drunk with the belief that just transferring a Broadway hit to the screen meant sure-fire box-office returns. That was not the case. After the The Sound of Music, because of rapid changes in our culture (music), Vietnam, Civil Rights movement, assassinations, etc., these tastes rapidly changed. Audiences could no longer suspend disbelief when a boy and girl spontaneously broke into song and dance on screen. To add insult to the injury, many of the box-office musical flops that that followed, were victims of these societal changes. Many of them were also just bad adaptations -- bloated productions miscast with actors that were not musical stars.

None of the big-budget musicals after The Sound of Music came close to duplicating its worldwide success; most proved to be big money-losers for the studios. That list of underachievers included Camelot, Paint Your Wagon, Star!, Doctor Dolittle, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Finian’s Rainbow, Sweet Charity and Hello Dolly! A rare exception was the 1969 Fanny Brice biopic, Funny Girl starring Barbra Streisand in her Oscar-winning turn.

The popularity previously enjoyed by the great American songwriters such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein was also being supplanted by rock ‘n’ roll and the British invasion of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who.

According to Leslie Caron, the star of two lavish MGM musicals in the ‘50s (An American in Paris and Gigi), the big studio musical fell victim to economics. They became too expensive to make – a sentiment that was also shared by Gene Kelly.

The Sound of Music was an exception, a movie that singularly turned around the fortunes of the venerable Twentieth Century-Fox studio, still reeling from its 1963 debacle Cleopatra. In fact, Fox’s $39.8 million loss in 1962 rebounded to a $20.2 million pre-tax profit in 1965.

“The execs at Fox and elsewhere assumed the world wanted big musicals, and pretty much any big musical would do,” said Matthew Kennedy, author of the book, Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s. “The evidence was persuasive, not only because of The Sound of Music’s unprecedented success, but because My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins had premiered only a few months earlier. Producing an expensive musical was perceived as a safe bet.”

The box-office success of Music goes beyond cherubic children besting loathsome Nazis. The film was given the full “roadshow” treatment by Twentieth Century-Fox. The roadshow, according to Kennedy, was the full-court marketing press studios afforded their big-budget blockbusters. It was an “exclusive marketing and booking format begun in the Silent Era, but in the 1960s supported widescreen productions, typically musicals or historical epics.

Hardly unique to Music, the roadshow treatment was used in the release of dozens of high-profile titles throughout film history, including The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, The Music Man, and many more “event” pictures. The technique died a quiet death in the 1970s as movie tastes and marketing changed.

“To generate something akin to the crackling energy of a Broadway opening, roadshow musicals often came with an overture, intermission, entr’acte, and exit music, in addition to a souvenir program and bookings in the most lavish single-screen theaters in large cities,” Kennedy said.

Film critic and blogger Mike Thomas further described the roadshow experience: “There were no coming attractions or previews as in regular theaters; the audience was there to savor that one movie alone. The overall experience was one of sublime showmanship. The thrilling air of anticipation when the lights went down and when the overture began is still indelibly etched upon the memories of anyone fortunate enough to have attended a roadshow screening.”

While the roadshow concept faded into memory by the 1970s, Thomas said more current movies such as Titanic and The Lord of the Rings were marketed in the tradition of a roadshow release.

NEXT WEEK’S COLUMN: How the success of The Sound of Music shocked even the people behind making the film.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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