When my sister and I were still in elementary school, our mother forced us to watch The Sound of Music (1965). We rented it from the video store and we were told that we had to sit down in front of the television for its entire three hours, or else. To this day, I am not sure what our mom was trying to accomplish. We did not enjoy the experience, and perhaps this is partially why I am not a fan of musicals to this day. As an adult watching it now, I cannot say it is any more enjoyable, though it certainly satisfies me as a Catholic. Thus I sat down to watch it last night, as requested by you, my loyal readers, and played Mahjong on my phone whenever a song started.
I had forgotten the opening shots of The Sound of Music, which I had, of course, believed started off with Maria (Julie Andrews) wandering around the hills singing the famous song “The Hills Are Alive.” Instead, there is shot after shot of Maria-less Austrian Alps before we get to that, so many so that when they finally got to her the old man I live with commented, “Oh, they finally found Julie Andrews.” Anyway, Maria is a young postulant (basically nun in training), though her sisters have their doubts as to her qualifications for the religious life. In order to test her mettle, so to speak, they send her to the family of Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) to be the governess for his seven children. He is in need of somebody to look after them, particularly after the death of his wife. He runs his house as he would a ship in his former naval days, even using a bosun’s whistle to summon his children into his presence in an orderly fashion. Being children, they naturally rebel at the strict discipline whenever he is not around, and they have taken out their unruliness on a series of governesses before Maria’s arrival. Immediately she grasps the problem, and instead of allowing herself to be discouraged by the silly pranks played on her, she determines to win the young ones over with patience and gentleness. And music, too, I guess. Thus when Captain Von Trapp leaves and returns with the Baroness (Eleanor Parker), and sees Maria undermining his absolute authority by allowing the children to be children, he resolves to dismiss Maria. Yet when he hears his offspring singing for the Baroness and his other guest, Max Detweiler (Richard Haydn), it awakens in Captain Von Trapp a gentler side of himself that he had forgotten. Another problem occurs, though, when Maria begins to realize that she has feelings for Captain Von Trapp, which she sees as contradictory to the vows she had taken to become a nun. She decides to leave at once, but is encouraged to go back after talking to the Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) about her emotional turmoil. The idea here is that by facing Captain Von Trapp, she will know whether or not her feelings for him are genuine. They are cemented when he sees her again, and realizes that he has fallen in love with her as well. Thus they decide to marry. Everything would have been “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” too had it not been for the fact that this is 1938 and the Anschluss (basically a German term for annexation) of Austria by Germany was about to take place. Captain Von Trapp is patriotically Austrian and opposes this move. Nonetheless, when the Germans arrive they order him to report to their own navy to take up a commission in the German fleet. He refuses, and instead manages to slip out with his family to Switzerland, using a folk music festival as cover. Thank God for neutral countries.
I wrote about The Sound of Music for my doctoral dissertation, but somewhere along the line I had forgotten much of what was in the film. I could not forget the songs, though. Even if you have never seen it, I am sure many of you would recognize at least “The Hills Are Alive,” and probably a few other songs. Such familiarity made me comfortable with tuning out with Mahjong while they were being sung. In my dissertation, I focused on the presentation of Catholicism in this film as being acceptable because it took place in Europe and not the United States. It also works when you think about how silly nuns were portrayed as in the 1960s while the United States underwent a sexual revolution. This film is not the only example of musical female religious floating around Hollywood at this time. The idea was that making vows of chastity for a woman at a time like that was somehow a gimmick, and indeed you see in The Sound of Music and other examples the allure of the worldly desires being too much for many. Still, there is an important aspect of this movie that I did not realize while I was in graduate school. One of the common misconceptions of Catholicism, and female religious orders in particular, is that they are severe in their strictness and that they do not countenance anything that might upset their way of life. To be sure, there is some of this in the other nuns who see Maria as being undisciplined. Yet Maria earnestly thought she wanted to be a nun, and when asked by the Mother Abbess why she is at the monastery, Maria says, “To find out what is the will of God and do it wholeheartedly.” If that is not a testament to Faith, I do not know what is. The Mother Abbess is appreciative of this sentiment, but also realistic. When Maria returns briefly when she thinks that she might be falling for Captain Von Trapp, the Mother Abbess reminds the postulant that the love of a man is holy too. The 1960s did a great deal of damage to the ranks of female religious (and male ones too), and one might look at this film and hope that Maria stays on her path of becoming a nun. But such a life should not be entered into unless you are absolutely sure that is what God is calling you to, just like one should not get married and start a family unless it is God’s will for you to do so. It is refreshing to hear the Mother Abbess reinforce such a sentiment.
The Sound of Music is quite long, to say the least, and it definitely feels that way, with or without the music. Actually, one of the benefits of the songs is that you can get up when they start, make a sandwich, do your taxes, maybe run around the block a few times, and come back and not miss anything. This is a criticism I have of all musicals, but the songs just do not seem (and perhaps this is just me) to advance the plot in any way. Without them, you are left with a story about a potential nun who marries a rich Austrian with a bunch of kids and money. Look, aside from a few technical religious issues (e.g. nuns do not Confess their sins to other nuns), The Sound of Music is a fine piece of cinema if you can sit through the whole thing. It is absolutely worthy of all five Academy Awards it won. And if you enjoy musicals, can it get any better than one that lasts three hours? And I will continue to review such films when they are requested of me. In the meantime, I will remain perplexed by them.