Sound Of Music Stories

Copyright 2004 
By Stephen Schochet

Twentieth Century Fox, the once proud company that produced The Mark Of Zorro (1940) and The Grapes Of Wrath (1940) was in desperate financial straits after the release of Cleopatra in 1963. The Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor debacle had lead to massive firings. 

The studio had been forced to sell their huge back lot to developers who created Century City. Director Billy Wilder sent Fox head Daryl Zanuck a letter suggesting,"that the sooner your studio is bulldozed to the ground the better." But Daryl and his son Richard decided to go ahead with a property they had purchased three years earlier, a popular Broadway Musical that had been panned by the critics, Richard Rodgers And Oscar Hammerstein's The Sound Of Music.

The two famous song writers source material came from the stories that Maria von Trapp (1905-1987) would tell audiences while performing with her nine singing stepchildren. How her late husband Georg had been a former Captain in the Austro-Hungarian Navy as distinguished in his country as General Eisenhower. How when the Empire broke up it left Austria without a coast and Georg without a job. How he had recognized that his children's singing ability were enhanced by their new Governess, Maria Kutschera and financial desperation had allowed him to overcome his distaste for a show business career. And how after Hitler had invaded Austria they had fled to America leaving all their belongings behind. The von Trapps later learned that Henreich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo himself, had moved into the family home.

The Zanucks and Director Robert Wise, after failing to land Doris Day were interested in Julie Andrews playing Maria. She was popular on stage but untested in the movies. Jack Warner had chose Audrey Hepburn over her for the film version of My Fair Lady (1964) claiming she was not photogenic. But she was making Mary Poppins for Walt Disney and getting good buzz. 

In Hollywood a strict tradition was you never show an incomplete film to your competitors but Walt was so high on Andrews he delighted in letting the Fox brass see rough cuts of Mary Poppins. Richard Zanuck and Wise were convinced that Andrews was perfect for the part. But Julie wasn't certain. She and Carol Burnett had made fun of The Sound Of Music during a television special in 1962. It sounded so saccharine. A singing nun and seven children running through the Austrian Alps.

Then Robert Wise pointed out that the Sound Of Music would be in direct box office competition with My Fair Lady. "Lets do it," Andrews said immediately.

Most of the interiors were filmed in Los Angeles and the exteriors were shot in Austria. The nuns were confused by having to run through abbeys at Fox and coming out the door in Salzburg. Kym Karath who played the youngest of the seven Von Trapp children gained a lot of weight eating cream cakes during the six month stint in Europe. For the final scene when Christopher Plummer as the Captain lead the family to their escape through the Alps, the Canadian actor had to carry the heavy child for several hours. After several takes he screamed at Robert Wise to get it right, his back was breaking. Although Plummer would come to appreciate the film in later years, during the shoot he became dispirited and complained constantly. He referred to the picture as The Sound Of Mucus.

Robert Wise said it was good that Plummer was distant toward the children, it helped them to be scared of him on screen. Conversely, Andrews was as warm as she needed to be. She helped the child actors  get over their nerves by making funny faces. The production was held up constantly by rain. Andrews would entertain the bored crew by bursting into song or doing Buster Keaton like pratfalls. It was her idea that Maria should sometimes be cross or exhausted having to take care of so many children, that she be more spirited than sweet.

But she couldn't always keep her humor. For the opening sequence with Maria running through the hills Wise used a helicopter to the get the shot. The force from the blades kept blowing Julie over. In between takes she would spit out dirt and grass, cursing like a sailor.

The first reviews of the film were extremely negative. The premiere party was like a wake. But the initial slow business turned into a phenomenon as The Sound Of Music became the most successful film of all time in 1965, surpassing even Gone With The Wind (1939). The Hollywood Studios including Fox saw salvation in Musicals. Many such as Doctor Dolittle (1967) and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) lost millions of dollars. Bitter film executives who failed to cash in or who were fired because of being copycats blamed The Sound Of Music for ruining the movie business.

One person who had a great time was Maria von Trapp who made a brief cameo in the film. She loved how Hollywood changed things. So what if in real life the Von Trapps had no problem getting out of Austria, that their real problem had been getting past American immigration. 

Who cared if she had lashed out at her stepchildren when they wanted to quit their music careers and had felt uncomfortable all living together out of a bus for eighteen years. And the best part was the handsome young actor they got to play the Captain. When she married Georg he was old. It had been more for security than love. When introduced to Christopher Plummer, the former nun shocked him by greeting him with a big kiss on the lips. "My God, darling I wished my husband looked as good as you!"

Stephen Schochet is the author and narrator of the audiobooks 
Fascinating Walt Disney and Tales Of Hollywood. The Saint Louis Post 
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