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How The Sound Of Music

Surprised Everyone

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Part Two of A Two-Part Series: The Hollywood Version Of The Tale Of The Von Trapp Family’s Escape From Austria Was Not Anticipated To Be Such A Smash, And Was Lambasted By Some Critics As Syrupy

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

March 9, 2015 — Fifty years ago the film version of the long-running Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein had its unheralded sneak preview during a snowstorm at the Mann Theater in Minn.. The movie, The Sound of Music, generated favorable response from the audience, but director Robert Wise had no idea then that it would be the biggest blockbuster since Gone With the Wind.

In 1995, sitting in his modest office tucked away on a commercial street in the flatlands of Beverly Hills, Wise was still slightly confounded about the root cause for the movie’s monolithic success.

The Sound of Music had a universality about it that my other films don’t have, even West Side Story,” he said. “I think it’s because it is a family picture from beginning to end. To this day, the film is like an international passport. People in every corner of the world recognize me through the movie.”

The success of The Sound of Music in 1965 befuddled many in the film industry. “We’ve played the ‘let’s-analyze-The Sound of Music game many times,” lyricist Leslie Bricusse told The New York Times shortly after its release. “The first act was good, but the second act might have been written by different people – say, Irving Hammerstein and Fred Rodgers.”

While opining on the success of the film, Bricusse was working on Fox’s encore to Music, Doctor Dolittle, which was a big-budget flop and contributed to the demise of the musical film genre.

Thanks to the success of Music, Fox studio chief, Richard Zanuck, son of the legendary mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, immediately initiated a slate of big budget musicals. It proved to be a near fatal mistake for the studio.

“If (Music) had been a catastrophe, I doubt we would have three musicals on our schedule,” he told The New York Times. “Doctor Dolittle, will be the most expensive musical we’ve ever made. We think it can stand on its own, but naturally, when it’s proved that millions of people love certain ingredients, that gives us reassurance. And Dolittle has some of those ingredients: charming music, adventure and it appeals to a broad-based audience.

“There have been attempts to copy us,” Zanuck continued. “I think the clearest was The Singing Nun – but I think people are still making musicals with caution, unless you have a big, blockbuster kind of thing, like we’re going to have in Hello Dolly! Which (producer) Ernest Lehman is doing for us, and Star! with Julie Andrews, which Bobby (director Robert Wise) is doing – so all the major elements are here.”

Director George Cukor, who in 1964 helmed the successful film adaptation of My Fair Lady, told The New York Times, “I don’t know whether we can expect to see copies of it. That’s the kind of question I don’t speculate about, darling. May I say it’s a question that doesn’t interest me.”

In addition to The Singing Nun, Hollywood tried to capitalize on this divine theme via such pallid, copycat movies as The Trouble with Angels and its sequel Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows; an Elvis Presley stinker called Change of Habit; and the television series “The Flying Nun,” starring Sally Field.

Mike Kaplan, a veteran Hollywood publicist, came up with the tagline for The Sound of Music – “… the happiest sound in all the world.” He also oversaw the poster design with the iconic image of Julie Andrews skipping up the grassy mountainside holding her guitar and suitcase with the Von Trapp children in joyful pursuit. According to film critic Mike Thomas, Kaplan’s publicity and marketing acumen was as important to Music’s success as the creative talents that produced the movie. Part of the build-up for the hype included sending 120 American film critics to the Salzburg, Austria set of the film to interview cast and crew, resulting months later in almost overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Said Thomas: “Handling the press releases, TV spots and ‘making of’ specials, Kaplan was a whirling dervish of activity, even going so far as wearing a tie clasp with a gold treble clef and the film’s title emblazoned on it. His efforts were ceaseless even though he admitted after the preview in Tulsa, OK, that ‘you could get rid of me tomorrow and you’d still have a smash.’ But Kaplan never stopped selling the picture, not even after it had broken every box-office record imaginable.”

Not long after Music’s release, the “Sunday Magazine” section of The New York Times ran a major feature story trying to ascertain the enormity of the film’s success by interviewing many involved in its making and others in the industry. No consensus was reached. It was all conjecture in 1965 and remains a head-scratcher to many 50 years after the movie’s release.

Despite a recent, critically-panned live TV performance of The Sound of Music that starred Carrie Underwood, the film endures and has been embraced by new generations of fans just as it continues to be cherished by moviegoers that remember seeing the film in theaters during its initial release. Although Music has its fair share of detractors who deride the film as saccharine (“The Sound of Mucus”), it is no matter; as the nuns in the abbey, full of wisdom and equanimity sang: “we’ll never be able to solve a problem like Maria.”

After the success of The Sound of Music, Twentieth Century-Fox thought box-office gold could be struck again by re-teaming director Robert Wise with star Julie Andrews for a biopic of British entertainer Gertrude Lawrence in the 1968 release, Star! Lightning did not strike twice and the film languished. So why did The Sound of Music work where so many other big-budget musicals at that time failed to catch on with the movie-going public?

“Most of the other musicals lacked that special alchemy that makes a massive hit,” said author and film historian Matthew Kennedy. Doctor Dolittle had some appeal to kids, but it’s quite a slog for grown-ups. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang tried to repeat Mary Poppins magic, but its special effects fall far short. Finian’s Rainbow has a beautiful score, but a very strange plot. Camelot moves like an ox cart with a wheel missing.

Music had it all – kids, Julie Andrews, nuns, Nazis’, a cold father who thaws out, a familiar and beloved score, family unity, moral certainty, Salzburg and those gorgeous Austrian Alps. No other musical before or since has found that perfect combination for box-office gold. The genres may have changed, but Hollywood is still looking for the next The Sound of Music.”

Like the Western, the Hollywood musical is not entirely extinct and periodically rears its head. Since the genre’s demise after the ‘60s, films with originality and quality such as Cabaret, Grease and Chicago have found critical and commercial success. However, none have come close to attaining the iconic status of The Sound of Music.

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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