Monday, March 02, 2015

A Milestone for 'The Sound of Music'

"After all, the wool from the black sheep is just as warm."

Sister Margaretta (Anna Lee)

"The Sound of Music," which premiered on this day in 1965, is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.

Unless you are at least 40, you probably have no memory of a time when movies — even the blockbusters — spent more than a few weeks in theaters — and, for that matter, could not be seen at many locations in the same city. Those were the days when multiple–screen theaters were rare, and the so–called "big screen" really was a big screen. Theaters made exclusive — or almost exclusive — deals for movies. That was how you scooped the competition in those days.

Those were the days when it was a real coup for a theater to strike a deal to get the hottest movie, and, in those pre–home video days, that movie might stay at that theater for months as the theater owner tried to squeeze as much from that engagement as possible. If the movie was really hot, it could stay indefinitely.

And "The Sound of Music" was a moneymaker, that was for sure. It cost a little over $8 million to make, and, ultimately, it earned nearly $300 million. For awhile, it was the highest–grossing movie of all time.

It also won the Academy Award for Best Picture. That always helps at the box office.

Anyway, I tell you all this to set the stage. See, there was a theater a few blocks from my grandparents' home in Dallas, the place where my family stayed whenever we came to visit. And that theater had struck a deal for "The Sound of Music."

I don't know how old I was at the time — not very old, I'm sure — and I don't really know how long "The Sound of Music" was showing at that theater, but it was long enough that even I realized, whenever we were visiting my grandparents and my grandmother suggested that we all go see a movie, she was talking about "The Sound of Music." She really loved that movie, and, after all, it was just a few blocks away.

I must have seen that movie half a dozen times when I was little. And that was at a time when it wasn't nearly as easy to drive between Little Rock and Dallas as it is today.

And it was a good movie. But I remember that it was a nice — and unexpected — change when we all went to see something else. I don't remember what it was, only that it was a relief to be seeing something other than "The Sound of Music."

I recall that, while doing some research during my graduate school days, I read some of the reviews of "The Sound of Music" that I came across on microfilm. Many of the critics of the day seemed to dismiss it as corny and too saccharine, which it may have been, but the box office receipts indicate that the public didn't care. Maybe audiences of the mid–1960s craved something that was corny and saccharine. (I guess that describes my grandmother's taste in movies — she always was a sucker for musicals.)

My grandmother and my mother were fans of Julie Andrews, who made her big–screen debut the year before in "Mary Poppins." She won Best Actress for it, too, and got a nomination for Best Actress for "The Sound of Music" the year after that. In the mid–'60s, there were few actresses who were as popular as Andrews.

No doubt she was a big part of the popular appeal of the movie. But that doesn't account for all of it, nor does it account for the movie's enduring appeal. Half a century later, the anniversary has become something of a cottage industry. Books are being published about it. And USA Today reports that a special video package is being released as well as reissued recordings of the music; Turner Classic Movies will start its annual film festival later this month with a showing of a restored copy of the movie; presumably, the same restored version will be the one that will be shown at roughly 500 theaters across the country on two dates in April.

Part of the movie's appeal has to be the art direction, the cinematography, the costumes — all of which were recognized with Oscar nominations. And part of its appeal was the Rodgers and Hammerstein score.

But I think a lot of it has to do with a very simple formula that has served filmmakers for generations.

In "The Sound of Music," you knew who the good guys were, and you knew who the bad guys were. Instead of black hats, the bad guys were dressed in Nazi uniforms. Instead of white hats, the good guys wore matching outfits from their latest performance.

Most important, audiences really cared about the good guys. It's hard for an audience to become involved in a story if that audience doesn't care about the good guys.

But you couldn't help caring about Julie Andrews and the seven children who were her charges — even if there were parts of the story that really were ridiculous. I mean, the big problem that the nuns at the Austrian convent had with Andrews was that she missed morning prayers pretty regularly because she was dancing and singing about the hills being alive with the sound of music. So she was hired by Christopher Plummer to be the governess for his seven children, who had already run off several governesses. Winning them over was no small accomplishment.

The plot was so silly, though, that, as I understand, several prominent people in Hollywood were approached about either appearing in it or directing it and refused. Robert Wise directed it and won an Oscar for his work.

Not bad for a corny and saccharine project.