THE SOUND OF MONEY
by Mike Thomas
William Wyler was an odd choice to direct “The Sound of Music.” The three-time Oscar winner had never directed a musical in his long career; his fabled reputation rested upon such serious dramatic fare as “Best Years of Our Lives,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Mrs. Miniver,” “The Heiress” and “Ben-Hur.” The Weltschmaltz of “The Sound of Music” would hardly seem to be Wyler’s slice of strudel, but there he was in the summer of 1963, flying around the Austrian Alps and arguing with his pilot about the Nazis while scouting locations for “The Sound of Music.” “Music” had been bought by 20th Century-Fox for over a million dollars in 1960 as part of its first rights refusal on any Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. But when production costs on Fox’s “Cleopatra” soared to the then-staggering $40 million the entire studio virtually shut down and “The Sound of Music” languished in development limbo, all but forgotten, as Fox fought to survive.
Watching the studio continue to hemorrhage money as “Cleopatra” entered its third year of shooting, producer Darryl F. Zanuck reacted with great concern. Not only was he the largest shareholder and former studio head of Fox, his upcoming WWII, all-star mega-production, “The Longest Day,” was about to be released by the studio as a reserved-seat, roadshow presentation.* When Zanuck heard that Fox studio chief Spyros Skouras was seriously considering quickly pushing the film into a wide release to get a much-needed infusion of cash, he exploded. Furious at Skouras’ mismanagement and near-destruction of his beloved studio, Zanuck called a board meeting and by its conclusion, some eight hours later, Skouras was gone and Darryl F. Zanuck was back running 20th Century-Fox. In a move that prompted the classic Variety headline, “The Son Also Rises,” Zanuck immediately installed his 27-year-old son Richard as the new head of production.
*In the 1960s the phrase "roadshow picture" was a film industry term for a big-budget, widescreen production, usually a musical or historical epic, that only played in one theatre per city and was modeled after the Broadway theatre-going experience - reserved tickets, a single performance a day except for matinees on weekends & a selected weekday. Roadshows film had overtures, intermissions, and a souvenir book of the film would be available in the lobby for a dollar. There were no coming attractions or previews as in regular theatres, 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 the overture began is still indelibly etched upon the memories of anyone fortunate enough to have attended a roadshow screening. Although as old as the American film industry itself - the very first American feature film, "The Birth of a Nation" was exhibited as a roadshow - the practice reached its height of its popularity in the Fifties and Sixties during Hollywood's attempts to combat the rise of television with widescreen spectaculars. Just a few examples of roadshows from that heyday were "Around the World in 80 Days," "Gigi," "Ben-Hur," "Spartacus," "The Alamo," "El Cid," "Mutiny on the Bounty," "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Longest Day," "Cleopatra," "My Fair Lady," “Doctor Zhivago,” and "2001: A Space Odyssey," as well as Wise's own contributions, "West Side Story," "The Sound of Music," "The Sand Pebbles," and "Star!" The roadshow film would play out its initial exclusive engagement over a period of say, six months or so, and then go into wide release in many theatres with multiple screenings per day. (And would usually lose about 10-20 minutes in the process so the second-run theatres could squeeze out an extra showing per day, which is why so many roadshow films of that period - "Spartacus," "The Alamo," "Lawrence of Arabia," and "The Sand Pebbles," for example - have needed restoration of deleted scenes.) Lamentably, the roadshow film died out around the time of "Easy Rider" and the rise of the multi-plex, and because such bloated duds as "Hello, Dolly!," "Tora! Tora! Tora!," and "Paint Your Wagon" made the entire practice seem out of touch and antiquated. Yet even today, event pictures like "Titanic," and "The Lord of the Rings" are very much in the tradition of the roadshow film.
“It was an incredible act of nepotism, I suppose,” recalls Richard Zanuck. “But I’d grown up on that lot, I’d sold newspapers there, I’d worked in all the various departments during summer vacations, and I knew all the people there, I knew the different jobs. And I’d already been a successful producer, so it really wasn’t that outrageous that he chose me to run the place. At the time my father took over, the studio was a ghost town, you could practically see thetumbleweeds rolling through the streets. The first thing I did was to fire everyone, we had to let a thousand people go, we even had to shut down the commissary. I just kept on a skeleton staff - a couple of lawyers and some secretaries and janitors, and a few writers to develop properties.”
Zanuck fils soon discovered that one of the Fox-owned properties that had been left languishing was “The Sound of Music.” “It was just sitting there on a shelf,” he said. “They had paid a lot of money for it but because of ‘Cleopatra,’ they’d never done anything with it. In fact, Swifty Lazar, who had negotiated the original deal for it, was so convinced we weren’t going to re-open the studio, he tried to buy it back. That was sort of the perception around town, that we were never going to re-open. But I told him in no uncertain terms that not only were we going to re-open but we were absolutely going to make that picture.”
In an attempt to signal that Fox was still a force in the industry, an announcement in Variety proudly heralded the signing of one of the industry’s most respected screenwriters, Ernest Lehman, to adapt “The Sound of Music.”
‘SOUND’ OF 20TH
Ernest Lehman has signed to script
“Sound of Music.” Deal completed
Friday by studio chief Richard Zanuck
is first of a number with top personalities
designed to get 20th-Fox back into full scale
production this summer. Choice of Lehman
to adapt the Rodgers-Hammerstein music
drama was signaled by prexy Darryl F. Zanuck,
who hired writer in 1955 to transfer another
R&H stage music hit, “The King and I.”
Lehman...will tackle the “Sound of Music”
screenplay on Jan. 14.
Variety, December 10, 1962
The studio would soon be issuing press releases trumpeting the fact that such major directors as Wyler, Carol Reed and Robert Wise would be directing “The Sound of Music,” “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and “The Sand Pebbles,” respectively, as part of the upcoming Fox slate of prestigious roadshow pictures. 20th Century-Fox was still in the game and the two Zanucks were determined to let the town know it. Wise had brought “The Sand Pebbles” to Fox after The Mirisch Company determined that it would be too expensive to shoot overseas and urged him to consider shooting the picture on the Sacramento River. Although he found the idea absurd, Wise dutifully scouted locations in Northern California but failed to find any locales that he felt could reasonably pass for 1920s China. Fearing (justifiably, as it turned out) that a location shoot in Asia, much of it on water, would run wildly over budget, The Mirisch Company and United Artists allowed Wise to take the property to Fox, which gladly welcomed him back to the lot. So, just about the time William Wyler was flying around the Austrian Alps, Robert Wise was scouting locations on the riverbanks of the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam. In a cable to Zanuck, Wise announced he had found some adequate locales that might work, but he cautioned the studio chief that the production could encounter problems with the local insurgents, the Viet Cong. Continuing his location scouting, Wise next traveled to Taiwan. There he found suitable locations that could be dressed to replicate not only the look of 1920s China but double for the Yangtze River, where much of the film was to take place. However, in 1963 there had never been a foreign film shot in Taiwan and the country was technically in a state of war with mainland China. It was a bureaucratic nightmare and when Wise returned home he was unsure whether or not the Taiwanese officials would ever allow “The Sand Pebbles” shooting to take place on the island.
Of course, filming an American motion picture in “Red" China in the mid-60s was never an option, and it was beginning to look like Robert Wise was running out of options for making his start date on “The Sand Pebbles.” Other issues hobbling commencement of the film included getting the script into final shape and assembling a cast. For the screenplay, Wise had selected his “Until They Sail” scribe, playwright Robert Anderson of “Tea and Sympathy” fame, to adapt the sprawling Richard McKenna best seller. But “Pebbles” was a big book, with (literally) a boatload of characters and subplots, and coming up with a clean narrative would require jettisoning many minor characters and incidents. As Anderson wrestled with the structure of the script, Wise began thinking of a suitable cast. His first choice to play the lead character – Jake Holman, an inarticulate loner on a Navy gunboat who lives for his engines, was Paul Newman, another veteran of “Until They Sail,” But Newman felt he was wrong for the part and passed. Near the bottom of the potential leading-man list was Steve McQueen, a former TV star who had just recently crossed over into features with some success. Wise, of course, had discovered McQueen in the Fifties and given him his first film role opposite Newman in a couple of brief scenes at the beginning of “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” Although he had made an explosive impact on TV with his bounty hunter western, “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and onscreen as one of “The Magnificent Seven,” McQueen had yet to establish himself as a star who could carry a major film. Consequently, Fox vetoed him for the starring role in what promised to be a costly production.
Wise had been Lehman’s first choice to direct the film “The Sound of Music,” but the director was already too involved in pre-production for “The Sand Pebbles,” and, he would later admit, the show’s reputation as a sugary confection had lessened his interest in the property. It was an attitude shared by more than a few in the industry. In the re-opened Fox commissary, Lehman ran into Burt Lancaster, who asked the writer what his next project was. When Lehman replied he was writing “The Sound of Music,” Lancaster sniffed, “Jesus, you must really need the money.” At a party at Jack Lemmon’s house, Lehman encountered a similar reaction from Billy Wilder, who told him in no uncertain terms, “No musical with swastikas will ever be a success!” But the story of a young postulate sent to become a governess for the unruly children of a retired Austrian Naval captain had captivated Lehman the first time he saw it on Broadway. Even after rebuffs from Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (who quickly escorted Lehman out of his house with the admonition to “find somebody else to direct this kind of shit”) his initial positive reaction to the play, despite its obvious glucose levels, fueled his conviction that it could be a successful and moving entertainment. He was determined to find a director who shared his belief in the material.
Meeting with Darryl and Richard Zanuck in New York in January of 1963 to discuss potential directors, Lehman casually mentioned that he thought William Wyler was one of the industry’s greatest directors. The elder Zanuck enthusiastically agreed and immediately phoned Wyler in California, who flew to New York the next day to meet with them and see the play. Much to Lehman’s chagrin, Wyler loathed it. As they left the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre he told Lehman, “I can’t meet Darryl. I hated the show and I’m not going to do this. But keep talking to me, anyway.” Lehman saw this as his opening and as they walked around Manhattan the writer outlined his ideas for changes he’d make and the positive things in the show he would develop and strengthen. As Darryl F. Zanuck sat waiting for them at the “21” Club, Lehman tried to get Wyler to articulate his objections to the musical. Hours passed as the two men continued walking, with Lehman for the defense, praising the merits of the wonderful Rodgers & Hammerstein score, discussing potential changes and detailing his vision of what the play could become. At around two in the morning, an exhausted Lehman stopped and asked Wyler what he thought of the scene where the martinet von Trapp started singing with his children.
“Funny you should bring that up,” Wyler replied. “I almost cried.” Lehman grinned in triumph. “Willy, that’s it! That’s what it’s all about!” The next morning, Lehman phoned Darryl Zanuck with a mixture of optimism and trepidation. Although the mogul was not the type of man used to being stood up, Lehman was so confident of winning Wyler over that Zanuck immediately forgave the snub. “Stop working on the script,” he barked. “Your job is to get Willy Wyler to do this movie!” On the flight back to Los Angeles, Lehman continued wooing the reluctant director and for the next two weeks his seduction continued until Wyler finally relented and agreed to produce and direct “The Sound of Music.”
While in New York, Lehman had attended a screening of “The Trapp Family,” an edited and dubbed American version of two German films, “Der Trapp Familie” and “Der Trapp Familie in Amerika,” which provided a different view of the source material. Lehman obtained a copy of Maria von Trapp’s book, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers,” which had been the basis for the two German films as well as the Broadway show and immediately began marking it up with the many insights it gave him for Maria’s character, such as “black sheep of the community,” “never meant to be bad but upbringing had been more that of a wild boy than a young lady,” “slid down the banister, raced down the staircase - sinful acts.” He also met with Maria herself, whose main request was that the film soften the portrayal of Captain von Trapp. She felt the play had unfairly emphasized his rigid, militaristic side and neglected his warmth and love of his children and she hoped the film would show his participation in developing the children’s professional careers. Lehman was open to her suggestions and incorporated many of them into his notes.
By early February 1963 Lehman had drafted a set of proposed changes for Wyler’s approval. Most of these involved moving songs around and eliminating some of them altogether. So pervasive was Lehman’s re-arrangement of the material that only a single song in the film’s first act matched its running order with the play. As he had with “The King and I” and “West Side Story” Lehman knew when to respect the source material and when to re-shape it for film. He was all too aware that the realistic medium of film was far more demanding than the footlights of a Broadway stage in validating every segue into song. He eliminated two numbers sung by the Baroness and Max, “How Will Love Survive?” and “No Way to Stop It,” feeling that these characters were secondary and should be kept out of the “musical circle” of singers; he envisioned only Maria, the nuns, the Captain and his children singing. He also moved one of the key numbers, “My Favorite Things,” from its original placement early in the show and sung by Maria and the Mother Abbess, to the later scene in Maria’s bedroom where the children gather during the thunderstorm and first begin to accept Maria. It replaced “The Lonely Goatherd,” which found a home later in the script showcased in a newly-created scene where Maria and the children perform a puppet show for the Captain and his guests.
On February 2, Lehman had a lengthy meeting with Wyler, reviewing the outline and starting work on the first thirty pages of the script, which he completed on March 6. The Captain’s martial relationship with his children was explained as his way of coping with the trauma of his wife’s death by imposing a rigid discipline in the household. The triangle between Maria and the Captain and the Baroness was also refined. Wyler was enthusiastic but felt Lehman should write a full treatment before proceeding with the script, in order to solve whatever structural flaws the musical’s book might have. During the next two weeks Lehman wrote an 18-page treatment that picked up where his first thirty pages had left off.
Wyler hired veteran MGM musical supervisor Roger Edens as his associate producer and Edens and Lehman spent a great deal of time during the following weeks brainstorming. Edens was very familiar with Salzburg and offered many helpful suggestions on which locations Lehman could incorporate into the screenplay. On May 25, Lehman flew to Austria where he and Wyler, Edens and Wyler’s friend, Wolfgang Reinhardt, producer of the German film “Die Trapp Familie,” would scout locations. It was in Austria that that Lehman began noticing that Wyler’s attachment for the project, never a burning passion, was noticeably cooling. During the next two weeks, as they looked at over 75 potential locations for the film, Wyler spent a sizable amount of time taking long-distance calls from different studios discussing other film projects, including MGM’s “The Americanization of Emily.”
There were also the eternal “creative differences.” Wyler wanted to introduce a sense of danger and urgency to the finale and to make the Nazi menace even more threatening. He wanted to inject more anti-Nazi sentiment into the film and urged Lehman to write scenes showing German tanks rolling into Salzburg after the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria. Lehman felt it was a terrible idea that totally violated the spirit of the musical.
By the time they returned to California on June 10, Lehman was having decidedly mixed emotions about the film’s progress. He was delighted with the location scouting trip; Wyler, Edens and Reinhardt and he had found incredible sights that had fired his imagination and given him strong ideas for scene and song placement. But he was deeply troubled by the different views he and Wyler had about the material and was seriously questioning Wyler’s commitment to the film. He shared his doubts with Richard Zanuck, who instructed Lehman to write the screenplay as quickly as possible in order to discover the director’s true intentions about the project. Lehman spent the summer of 1963 working on his first draft screenplay and it flowed out of his pen at twice his customary speed. The scouting trip had confirmed his decision to “open up” the “Do-Re-Mi” number to take advantage of the many pictorial opportunities of Salzburg as he envisioned the sequence extending over several days and locations, similar to what had been done with the “West Side Story” number, “Quintet.” On September 10 the first draft was finished and delivered to Zanuck and Wyler, who had a reputation for being highly demanding of his screenwriters. “He ate writers alive,” said Lehman, adding that Wyler’s attention to detail and to getting the script right was always a sure sign that he was really committed to a project. So when Wyler read Lehman’s script and said, “Ernie, I’ve never read such a perfect first draft. I can’t think of a single thing I can improve,” Lehman went straight to Zanuck’s office and told him to start worrying about Wyler’s involvement.
Wyler invited Lehman to his home in Malibu for a small weekend party in order to convince one of the guests, Rex Harrison, to play the part of Captain von Trapp. While presenting his case to Harrison, Lehman observed Wyler actively engaged in conversation with the head of Columbia Studios. Later that night, Lehman was admiring Wyler’s study and noticed a script lying on the desk. Turning it over, he saw its title, “The Collector,” which he knew to be an upcoming Columbia project. The following Monday, Lehman went to Zanuck and told him, “Dick, Willy is going to direct ‘The Collector.’” Zanuck, who had sided with Lehman in opposing Wyler’s desire to have Nazi tanks rolling through the streets of Salzburg in the finale, had pretty much accepted the fact that Wyler wouldn’t be directing the film. When Paul Kohner, Wyler’s agent, visited Zanuck a few days later, he announced that his client wanted to direct “The Collector” before “The Sound of Music” and asked Zanuck to postpone “Music” until after the other film was completed. Zanuck was fully prepared, saying, “Tell Willie to go make ‘The Collector,’ we are not postponing ‘The Sound of Music’ five seconds.” And with that, William Wyler’s nine-month flirtation with “The Sound of Music” was over.
Robert Wise, on the other hand, was still very much committed to getting the USS San Pablo afloat, but the waters were proving resistant. For every sign of progress it seemed there were equal, if not greater, reversals. During the summer of 1963, Wise’s old friend from the RKO editing room, John Sturges, had scored a box office smash with “The Great Escape,” his stirring tribute to Allied POWs in WWII and Steve McQueen had emerged from the film a full-fledged movie star. Highlighted by his now-legendary motorcycle jump over the barbed wire fence, McQueen’s undeniable screen presence dominated the film, despite such canny scene stealers as James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Donald Pleasance, and Charles Bronson all vying for screen time. Fox was now willing to gamble on McQueen’s star power and gave its blessing for him to play Jake Holman.
But now the actor’s dance card was full. He was booked months ahead and, given the difficulties with the Taiwanese government, combined with predictions of inclement weather during the shoot in Asia and a script that was still not completed to anyone’s satisfaction, Wise and Zanuck had to accept the inescapable conclusion that “The Sand Pebbles” would not be ready to begin shooting for at least a year.
Frustrated by the delay, Wise let it be known that he was open to shooting a picture while waiting for “Pebbles” to get underway. Upon learning of Wise’s availability, Lehman asked their mutual agent, Phil Gersh, to slip Wise a copy of the “Music” script. In their three previous collaborations Lehman had come to feel that no screenwriter could have a better friend in a director than Bob Wise and that he would be the perfect choice to direct the film. Wise received the script but still had his reservations. Having never seen the Broadway show, he called Saul Chaplin, his musical supervisor on “West Side Story,” for his opinion. Chaplin told him that even though he had disliked the play, it had been the most successful of all the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows and he felt it contained their finest songs. Wise read the script and, to his astonishment, found he was captivated by Lehman’s efforts. The restructuring of the plot, the elegance of Lehman’s dialogue and the script’s emphasis on characterization had taken what had been a confectionary excuse for some pretty songs and turned it into a compelling human drama about the transformative power of love and the sustaining bonds of family during times of social crisis. Wise bought the Broadway cast album and was equally delighted with the Rodgers & Hammerstein score. But before committing to the project he sent the script to Chaplin, wanting to gauge his reaction. Chaplin was equally impressed, praising the many changes Lehman had made. After reading the script a second time and playing the album once more, Wise told Zanuck he wanted to do the picture.
Zanuck was both delighted and puzzled. Although thrilled that a director of Wise’s stature was going to direct the film, he wondered just how the hell he’d gotten a copy of the closely guarded script so soon. Zanuck called Lehman in to tell him the good news. “Ernie, guess who would like to direct ‘The Sound of Music?,’” Zanuck asked. “Who?” Lehman blankly replied. “Bob Wise!” exclaimed the delighted studio head. “No kidding!” replied the writer, failing to contain a slight smile. He was a better writer than actor, and it didn’t take long for Zanuck to figure out the culprit. “You son of a bitch!” Zanuck laughed. “You gave him the script, didn’t you?” Grinning from ear to ear, Lehman batted his eyelashes and replied with as much feigned innocence as he could muster, “Who, me?” At that very moment, if both men had listened carefully, the sound of cash registers tolling for the ages could have been heard in the distance.
“I do have a definite sense of embarrassment
for having laughed at one point about Ernie doing “Music”
and now find myself on it, too, but he had done a damn
good job and has improved the original so very much
that I do think that given the proper treatment and cast,
we can get a helluva good film and a popular one.
I’m not kidding myself - it’s no “West Side Story.”
But if we can fight off too much sentimentality
and the syrup that is inherent in the basic material
and give it an exciting cinematic treatment, perhaps
we can make it a much better picture than it was a play.
What am I talking about - the picture should only
be as successful!”
Letter from Robert Wise to Robert Anderson
Wise wrote Anderson to inform him about the year-long delay on “The Sand Pebbles,” which would allow the playwright some much-needed time to finish his revisions to the script. He also wanted to let Anderson know he would be directing “The Sound of Music” in the interim, with the official announcement coming a few days later in Variety:
‘SOUND’ AT 20TH
Robert Wise succeeds William
Wyler as producer-director of “The
Sound of Music” at 20th-Fox, film
is now to be a joint venture by Wise’s
Argyle Enterprises and 20th-Fox.
Lensing is now slated to go before
Todd-AO cameras March 15...and
will be a 20th Christmas 1964 release.
Wise, who was previously prepping
“The Sand Pebbles” for 20th under
his own banner as a joint production,
has set a start date of this back to Oct.
15 from Sept. 1.
November 5, 1963
Zanuck gave Lehman a four-week vacation in Palm Springs while Wise familiarized himself with the material. Wise read all the research amassed about the Trapp Family Singers and started learning as much as he could the story of Maria and the Trapp Family. Maria Augusta Kutschera had been raised an atheist by her socialist uncle, a strict, unloving disciplinarian. A tomboy in her youth, she had spent her happiest hours climbing the mountains above Salzburg. Converting to Catholicism in college, she entered Nonnberg Abbey intending to become a nun. But the sedentary existence of the Abbey seemed to affect her health and she developed severe migraines. The reverend Mother of the Abbey decided to send Maria to care for a sick child of Georg von Trapp, a retired Captain in the Austrian Navy, promising she could return to the Abbey in nine months. But Maria and the Captain fell in love and were married in 1927. Discovering that the Captain’s seven children (they would later have three more of their own) had a natural ear for music, Maria, with the Captain’s encouragement, began rehearsing them and soon they were performing at local festivals, on the radio and touring internationally. When Germany annexed Austria in 1937, the staunchly patriotic, anti-Nazi von Trapp refused his induction orders to serve in the German Navy and the family made its way over the Austrian mountain range into Italy and eventually to America where Maria and Georg opened a skiing lodge in Vermont.
Maria was a strong, dynamic woman and a force of nature. (Mary Martin would later write, “I came to the conclusion that perhaps the family didn’t just climb that mountain to escape. She pushed them all the way.”) She had taken children with musical aptitude and molded them into an internationally acclaimed musical act. Once they were in their new country, she decided to promote the family franchise and wrote the best-selling memoir, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.” A few years later, Wolfgang Reinhardt bought the film rights to her book and had a worldwide smash with “Die Trapp Familie.” It was so successful that he produced a sequel, “Die Trapp Familie in Amerika,” also a big hit. Paramount Pictures noticed the films’ successes and optioned the U.S. rights as a potential property for Audrey Hepburn. Richard Halliday, Mary Martin’s husband, had seen one of the German films and thought it would make a splendid stage vehicle for his wife. He and partner Leland Hayward purchased the rights to the films and enlisted the esteemed writing team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (“Life with Father,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “State of the Union”) to provide the script, originally conceived as a straight drama, with the occasional Austrian folk song thrown in.
Rodgers & Hammerstein were approached about composing an original song for the play but declined the offer, saying they would, however, be open to writing an entire new score for it after finishing “Flower Drum Song.” Halliday and Hayward quickly agreed and the musical opened on November 16, 1959. It was an immediate smash, running for 1,443 performances and winning six Tonys, including Best Musical. The critics however, were less than kind. Though praising the Rodgers & Hammerstein score with its now-classic showtunes “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “My Favorite Things,” and the title song, they either damned it with faint praise or attacked it with outright hostility, blasting the saccharine sentimentality that ran rampant throughout the show.
It was this kind of sugar-coating that Wise was determined to avoid and it became his overriding mandate to the production team. He quickly re-assembled the core of his “West Side Story” unit - music associate Chaplin, production designer Boris Leven and storyboard illustrator Maurice Zuberano – who, along with Fox production supervisor Saul Wurtzel and Assistant Director Ridgeway “Reggie” Callow, traveled to Salzburg in 1963 for location scouting. Like the previous Wyler-led team, they found many suitable sites for the film, though it became apparent when they visited Wyler’s preferred locations that the approach of the two directors was diametrically opposed. Wise insisted on a clean and realistic look, whereas Wyler had wanted the locations to be on a grand scale, opulent and ornate. “Wyler wanted to do the movie like the von Trapps were the Hapsburgs,” says Zuberano. “As if they were the royal family. Bob didn’t see it that way. Von Trapp was only a captain!” They also visited the original von Trapp villa, but it had been taken over by a Gestapo official during the war who had built a high wall around the property, rendering it unusable for the film. On the way back from Salzburg, Wise stopped in London to visit potential actors for the children's’ roles and then went on to New York to meet with Robert Anderson about the “Pebbles” script. While having lunch, they learned of the Kennedy assassination. As a passionate admirer of the president, Wise was devastated. “I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to get back to L.A., I don’t quite know why, but it just seemed like I had to get home right away,” he said years later. He immediately flew back to Los Angeles and sat transfixed by the tragedy he saw unfold during the next four days. Though he could not know it at the time, the death of John Kennedy would lead to a tearing of the social fabric that would eventually sweep away the world that Robert Wise was just about to conquer.
Wise and his team threw themselves into their work in a frenzied attempt to make the planned start date of March 1964. The first order of business was to finalize the script, then select a cast and start planning the look of the film. Although Mary Martin had been a successful Maria onstage, the movie camera would not allow the 50-year-old actress to pass for a twentysomething postulate. When Lehman met with Richard Rodgers, the skeptical composer said, “I suppose you’re going to cast Doris Day, huh?” In fact, Day’s husband, Marty Melcher, would lobby heavily for his wife to play the role, but Lehman told Rodgers “as far I’m concerned, there’s only one person to play this role and that’s Julie Andrews.” This satisfied Rodgers, who had enjoyed working with her on the TV special, “Cinderella,” and Lehman would insist to Wise she was the ideal candidate.
Andrews had been performing onstage since childhood and had scored success on Broadway as the adulterous Guenevere in Lerner and Lowe’s “Camelot,” on television in the title role of “Cinderella,” and in her Emmy-winning TV special with Carol Burnett, “Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall,” where she had spoofed “The Sound of Music” in a skit called the “The Tripp Family Singers.” But she was best known for originating the role of flower girl Eliza Doolittle who is transformed into a regal aristocrat in the original Broadway production of “My Fair Lady.” Although passed over for the film role of Doolittle in the movie version of “Lady,” Andrews would make an indelible film debut in Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins” a year later. She was already at work on her second film, a straight dramatic role in “The Americanization of Emily,” one of the projects Wyler had been toying with on the side. It was widely believed that Jack Warner had spread the rumor Andrews was unphotogenic in order to justify his decision to cast Audrey Hepburn as Eliza in “My Fair Lady.” Wise had heard those rumors and arranged for a screening of some “Poppins” footage on the Disney lot to see for himself.
He and Lehman drove over to a screening room in Burbank and were impressed by what they saw. Andrews was a beautifully photogenic actress with terrific screen presence. Her singing was magnificent and it was obvious she would be perfect for the part of Maria. During the screening, Wise whispered to Lehman, “Let’s sign her before any one else sees her!” But, just as Wise had been, Andrews was reluctant at first about the saccharine levels of the play. However, after assurances from the director that the schmaltzier elements would be heavily toned down, she signed on.
Her casting was a stroke of genius. She had won the public’s heart when she lost the “Lady” role to Hepburn, but eventually had the last laugh by winning a Best Actress Oscar for “Poppins” while Hepburn failed to garner so much as a nomination for “Lady.” There was also a kind of poetic justice in her casting, since Paramount had originally bought the rights to the German von Trapp films as a potential vehicle for Audrey Hepburn. So, as luck would have it, when “The Sound of Music” was to open in March of 1965, Julie Andrews was the screen’s reigning cinematic sweetheart. Her performance as Maria was a warmer, gentler variation of her “Poppins” uber-nanny image and in her roles as actress, singer, comedienne, romantic lead and movie star, Andrews carried the film. She won her Oscar for “Poppins” within days of the premiere of “The Sound of Music” and the film’s success is unimaginable without her; it cemented her status as one of the top box office personalities in the world and she would win a second consecutive Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
For the role of Captain von Trapp, Wise had a definite conviction that the film needed to go in a different direction than the play’s choice of the slightly rotund and older presence of Theodore Bikel. He felt a younger romantic lead was needed, an actor who could generate sexual tension with Andrews’s Maria. Wise drew up a list of potential casting choices: Sean Connery, Peter Finch, Richard Burton, Stephen Boyd, and even Yul Brynner, who lobbied vigorously for the part. Brynner had made his name in “The King and I,” playing another Rodgers & Hammerstein martinet who battled a spunky governess about raising his children so Wise eliminated him, feeling the similarities would be too redundant and because the idea of Brynner and Andrews as a romantic couple never seemed quite right to him. At one point someone even floated “der Bingle” - Bing Crosby - for the Captain’s part, but Wise was already interested in Christopher Plummer.
Wise had admired Plummer’s work on Broadway and pursued the reluctant actor, who felt that despite Lehman’s best efforts the role of the Captain was the dullest part he’d ever read. Wise assured him the part would be given more substance and had the actor meet with Lehman. Plummer elicited a promise from Lehman to give the part more of a wry, sardonic quality. Zanuck had initially opposed casting Plummer since the actor had only done three pictures and the studio chief wanted a bigger name in the role, especially since Andrews was an untried box-office commodity. But Wise insisted the Canadian actor had an edge, an electricity, a sense of danger that would translate into an exciting screen chemistry with Andrews and Zanuck relented. This was fortunate for it was Plummer who gave the film a grounding that prevented it from veering off into Viennese operetta and his clear blue eyes and steely jaw provided the Captain with an aristocratic bearing and icy sexuality. Plummer is the major reason for the film’s enduring appeal among successive legions of young girls, in love with the dashing von Trapp. Though “The Sound of Music” is correctly thought of as a Julie Andrews vehicle, it is the performance of Christopher Plummer that is the foundation on which the film rests.
For the key supporting role of Max, the family friend who becomes their stage manager, Wise considered such veteran character actors as Victor Borge, Robert Morley, Kurt Kaznar and even Noel Coward and Fred Astaire, but ultimately the role went to the ever-reliable Richard Haydn. He was a veteran character actor who could be counted on to spice up the show’s more sentimental aspects with his cynically droll asides. In fact, Haydn is almost outside the film, as if watching the events unfold and offering running commentary in a wonderfully subversive performance. It is one of the film’s minor pleasures to catch the twinkle in Plummer’s eye and his sly, crocodile grin whenever he has a scene with Haydn, as if the two of them are in a joke no one else in the cast shares.
Initially, for the role of the Baroness, Wise thought an elegant European actress such as Diane Cilento, Dana Wynter or Capucine might be able to bring a sophisticated presence to the rather stock character of Elsa, von Trapp’s society-minded fiancee. But he finally decided upon Eleanor Parker, with whom he had worked on “Three Secrets.” Wise not only knew and liked her but felt she could bring some classic Hollywood studio glamour to the part and be a familiar marquee name to help support the relatively new leading players. Another old pro cast was Peggy Wood, who had been in “Naughty Marietta” on Broadway in 1910. A veteran of more than 70 plays and countless movies, she was probably best-remembered for being one of the pioneers in TV, with her series “Mama,” which ran from 1949-1957. Her casting as the wise and compassionate Mother Abbess was validated when she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Veterans Anna Lee, well-known ghost singer Marni Nixon, and cabaret star Portia Nelson, as the dyspeptic Sister Berthe, were also cast and lend admirable support.
It was the casting of the Captain’s children that Wise felt would be a potential minefield. The entire picture could easily become unbearably cloying if there were any precocious show biz babies playing cutesy for the camera and mugging away. Wise spent a great deal of time holding auditions, and among the many hopefuls he saw were Mia Farrow, Kurt Russell, Lesley Ann Warren, Patty Duke, Richard Dreyfuss and even the Osmond Brothers. More than 200 young actors were considered for the children's roles and Wise toyed with the idea of casting Geraldine Chaplin as Liesl. Ultimately, it was an inexperienced young girl who piqued his interest with her freshly scrubbed looks and burgeoning, untapped sensuality. Wise decided Charmian Farnon would be perfect for the part of Liesl, although he decided to change her name to the more alliterative Charmian Carr. Eschewing more well-known child actors, Wise ultimately cast unknowns in the parts, with the sole exception of Angela Cartwright, who was a familiar TV presence on the “Danny Thomas Show,” and had worked for Wise in “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” His preference for unfamiliar actors was due to his desire for a freshness, a belief they would be more believable without baggage from previous roles.
Concurrently, production designer Boris Leven and storyboard artist Maurice Zuberano began making their sketches for the film. Wise had made it clear he wanted Leven to avoid any kind of Austrian gingerbread; he wanted a clean, elegant look to the film. The trusty “Zuby” immediately began translating Lehman’s script into the precise, detailed drawings that Wise would scrupulously adhere to throughout the shoot. Another member of this team was costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, whose sketches were the opposite of the lederhosen look Wise wanted to avoid. Her designs were clean and functional and even Maria’s stunning wedding gown was sleek but not ostentatious.
But for Wise it was Boris Leven’s production design that was responsible for the overall look of the film. The director would later recall Leven’s contribution, saying, “I place as much importance on the production design as I do on the cinematography. This will sound like heresy to the cinematographers, but I think the production designer, if he’s creative, can contribute as much to the look of a film as the cameraman. Boris Leven was a brilliant production designer and he did all my Sixties films, with the exception of ‘The Haunting.’ In the past, I had a situation where the production designer would bring the cinematographer a sketch of how a set was going to look. As an artist, he would naturally put a light source to make a good painting. The cinematographer would resent that, like the production designer was trying to tell him how to light a set. Several times I’ve seen a cinematographer look at the set sketch, put it away and go his own way. My cinematographer on “The Sound of Music” was Ted McCord, with whom I had enjoyed working so much on ‘Two for the Seesaw.’ Ted really loved Boris’s ideas about lighting and they would often consult each other. Sometimes Ted would ask Boris to come on to the set and see what he thought about a certain approach toward lighting. After seeing the rushes at the end of the day, they’d walk back to their cars discussing what they had just seen. It was a very cooperative working relationship, which I value very highly and had not always had.”
McCord’s work on the film was stunningly rendered in Todd-A0 65 mm and anyone who has been fortunate enough to see the film in that format can attest to the outstanding clarity of the images. The process was the high-definition medium of its time. Especially memorable are the opening shots in the film as the camera silently drifts through the majestic Alps. This was another contribution of Lehman’s; it had come to him while working on the script back in his office on the Fox lot, as he recalled the trip to Salzburg. On Tuesday June 24, 1963 Ernie Lehman closed his eyes and imagined himself drifting through the skies, looking down upon those magnificent Austrian gorges and valleys, soaring beyond all of life’s cares before alighting on the mountaintop where Maria will sing the title song. It is one of the most gripping openings in motion picture history and it almost didn’t happen.
In a story he always enjoyed telling on himself, Wise at first rejected the aerial opening. “I had read the script and liked it very much but I had problems with the aerial opening. I thought we were just copying ourselves because we’d used the same type of opening for ‘West Side Story,’” Wise recalled. “I called Ernie and said, ‘We’ve got to get a different opening. Everybody is going to say we don’t know anything to do except getting the helicopter to open our films.’ Ernie said, ‘I know what you mean, but I can’t think of any other opening that I believe is right for this film. If you can think of one, be my guest.’ After a week or two, I told Ernie ‘I give up. I can’t think of anything nearly as effective, the hell with it. If it’s right for the film, we’ll just go ahead and do it.’ Well, the irony was, no ever compared it to ‘West Side,’ and in fact it is talked about far more than the opening of ‘West Side!’”
Lehman’s descriptions of the opening shots violate almost every cardinal rule of modern day screenwriting classes taught by self-proclaimed experts. Not only does he lay out the shots in minute detail for the director, (the horror!) he then turns impressionistic and begins to describe the feelings he intends the shots to convey. But Wise was always open to whatever his writers wanted to include in their scripts, reasonably figuring that if he didn’t like it he wouldn’t use it. Today someone who has never seen the film could read the opening passages of the script and easily imagine what those majestic first frames look like. Although Lehman was widely admired for the sharpness and wit of his dialogue, he himself was rightly proud of his visual conceptions, and the two most memorable scenes of his career – the crop dusting sequence in “North by Northwest” and the airborne montage that opens “The Sound of Music” - are both wordless.
The musical elements of the show were overseen by Saul Chaplin and the choreography by Marc Breaux and his wife, DeeDee Wood, who had just finished choreographing “Poppins.” Once the songs and music to be used in the film version were finalized, Wise and Chaplin would meet before rehearsals with the actors began and discuss the characters, then Chaplin and the choreographers would work out a routine. None of the original stage choreography was used. Breaux and Chaplin flew to Salzburg to time the two dance sequences that would be filmed on location there. It was a fortuitous stroke when they spied the Mirbell Gardens steps and came up with an ending for “Do Re Mi” where the children jump up and down the steps as if they were the notes on a musical staff. The only non-original piece of choreography in the film was “The Laendler,” an Austrian folk dance performed by the Captain and Maria during the ball. It is an emotional turning point in the film, where Maria discovers she has romantic feelings for the Captain and the dance is used in classic screen tradition to express her realization that she has fallen in love with him.
In a bylined article Wise defended the many changes the filmmakers made to the play, including the all-new choreography, in an effort to circumvent anticipated complaints about altering the already beloved musical:
“One of the most frequent complaints encountered
in moving a stage property to the screen is that
the choreography has been changed. Of all the criticism
involved this one has the least validity....On stage the
choreography is necessarily confined to the proscenium
arch. We have no strictures and can permit the flow
of dancing to break out of the other areas. It not
only serves to broaden the scope of the number itself,
it helps to serve as a bridge to the ensuing scene.
And, of course, the ability to shoot dance sequences
in pieces for subsequent integration enabled
choreographers Marc Breaux and DeeDee Wood
to give the dancers far greater latitude in numbers
that would be too physically exhausting if done at
one time - and impossible if attempted as a nightly routine.”
Why ‘Sound of Music’ Sounds Differently”
by Robert Wise
Los Angeles Times
January 24, 1965
At a script conference in December, Wise, Lehman and Chaplin discussed the song, “An Ordinary Couple.” Although Lehman found it acceptable, both Wise and Chaplin thought it weak. “It was a song two old people might sing to each other,” observed Wise. “Not a young, vibrant couple.” Rodgers later admitted he never much cared for the song and if Hammerstein hadn’t been so ill they would have replaced it. They also decided to drop “How Will Love Survive?”, a political number sung by the Captain, Elsa and Max, because it dragged and stopped the momentum of the show. There was a general consensus that a new song was needed for Maria after she leaves the Abbey for her journey to the von Trapp estate. Although the songs would be written by Rodgers, Lehman needed to write introductions for them and by December 10 he had given Rodgers new scenes and dummy lyrics for Maria’s “Walking Soliloquy.” Wise and Chaplin then met with Rodgers in January 1964 and the composer agreed to drop both songs and to write a new song to replace “Ordinary Couple,” and one for Maria’s “Soliloquy.” Chaplin went on to explain that the “Soliloquy” number would be broken down into three parts; it was to be what Lehman called “a stop and start song,” with each verse radiating Maria’s growing enthusiasm until she explodes with the last line, “I have confidence in me!” Rodgers was receptive and began work on the new songs.
On Valentine’s Day a package from the composer arrived at Fox with the words and music to a lovely new song called “Something Good,” a tender ballad that would easily take its place among the other classics in the score. But when Chaplin heard the new “soliloquy” song he was thoroughly disappointed. Instead of the “uptempo” walking song Lehman had envisioned, Rodgers had done a slow, ponderous dirge. Rodgers submitted a different version of the song and although it had more energy Chaplin was still dissatisfied. He called in Lehman and they wrote new lyrics, incorporated parts of Rodgers’ melody and came up with the final version, now called, “I Have Confidence.” Chaplin then had Marni Nixon, the noted “ghost singer” who was appearing in the film as Sister Sophia, record the song. He sent it to Rodgers, who wrote that although he preferred his version, he granted permission for them to use the composite version if they desired, and it was this Chaplin/Lehman/Rodgers hybrid that was featured in the film, though credited solely to Rodgers.
Music and dance rehearsals began in February 1964 and consisted of choreographing the dance numbers, making wardrobe tests and pre-recording the songs for the actors to lip-sync later. The songs were never recorded all the way through but in sections, Wise recalled. “It’s almost impossible for a singer and an orchestra to go through a whole three or four minute number, so you may do bars one through twenty eight, get that right and then pick up with bars twenty nine through fifty and so on. You set your tempos there. I used to be known as “Ten percent” Wise. I’d come into a rehearsal and I’d listen to the recording and often I’d say, “Yeah, it’s swell, but it needs to be ten percent faster.’ And it was usually better.”
Almost at once, the pre-recording of the songs precipitated a crisis that threatened to derail the start date of the production. When Christopher Plummer arrived just weeks before principal photography was to begin, he was under the impression that he would be allowed to sing in the film. When told instead that he would be dubbed, he threatened to quit. “Plummer hadn’t understood that they were going to pre-record his songs with a voice double,” Wise would later recall. “That meant that he would have to sing in sync with that ‘dummy’ voice as they were acting in front of the camera. Plummer wanted to do his own pre-recording, with the chance to redo his singing if necessary, after the shooting of the picture was completed. He felt by the time the picture was in post-production, he would have improved on his voice enough so that it could stay in the picture.”
Wise, who had his hands full with the hundreds of last-minute logistical problems had little time or inclination to stroke actors’ egos, especially at this critical stage, so he dispatched Lehman, who had developed a bond of trust with Plummer while they had fleshed out the Captain’s role together, to go try and placate the actor. Lehman had already completed his work on the film and was off working on a project that might be considered the anti-”Sound of Music,” his Code-shattering screen adaptation of Edward Albee’s ode to wedded bliss, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Lehman tried to placate and sympathize with Plummer in order to salvage the start time of the film, which was only days away. “He said he felt emasculated,” Lehman recalled. “He said knowing his voice would be dubbed destroyed his ability to play the role.” Dick Zanuck finally stepped in and told Plummer he could do the pre-record and when filming was completed, if Plummer thought his voice had improved enough, he could re-record it for the film. Wise agreed to this and Plummer took voice lessons every day, determined that it would be his voice singing in the film.
“It was a tense and edgy period,” said Wise of those last few days before principal photography began. “No matter how much pre-production preparation time one has on a film - and we had six months of it on “Music” - on that first day of shooting, you feel like a high diver taking the plunge into a pool far below. The anticipation is very nerve-wracking, and it’s only when the plunge has been made and the shooting starts that the nerves settle down. We had to start shooting because of commitments on the other end but we couldn’t go quite that soon to Salzburg because the weather would still be bad and there’d be snow on the ground, so we shot a month in the studio before we moved to Salzburg to pick up the location shooting.” The day before the production went before the cameras, Richard Zanuck sent Wise a cable expressing his best wishes for a successful shoot, in words that seem eerily prescient:
TODAY WE LAUNCH “SOUND
OF MUSIC” WHICH IS THE MOST
IMPORTANT PICTURE ON OUR
PRODUCTION SCHEDULE AND
I COULDN’T HAVE MORE
CONFIDENCE IN THE TEAM OF
TECHNICIANS AND ACTORS WE
HAVE ASSEMBLED FOR THIS PICTURE
BUT MY GREATEST SATISFACTION IS
THAT YOU ARE AT THE HELM AND I AM
SECURE IN KNOWING THAT WE WILL
HAVE A GREAT AND MONUMENTAL
Principal photography began on Thursday, March 26 on Stage 15 of the Fox lot with the bedroom scene where Maria calms the frightened children by singing “My Favorite Things.” Beginning filming in the middle of the week was a tradition with Wise, who believed a mid-week start carried fewer pressures than a Monday start date. It is a crucial scene in the film for it is the moment when the new governess wins the unruly brood over, another plot point introduced by Lehman. “In the play, the kids seemed to like Maria, right from the start,” Wise recalls. “The introduction of the conflict between the children and Maria, their dislike of her - the toad, the dinner table scene - was another effective change, as was Ernie’s decision to bring the captain into the scene at the end.” The replacement of the original number in this scene, “The Lonely Goatherd” with “My Favorite Things,” proved to be an inspired decision. Not only was “Things” the stronger song, (it was later covered by jazz giant John Coltrane in a landmark recording) but by re-conceiving “Goatherd” as a puppet show, the song was transformed into something far more interesting visually and it now seems inconceivable that either song could be set anywhere else in the story.
Even in this first scene Wise could see that the chemistry between his leading lady and her younger co-stars was everything he hoped for. “Julie was just wonderful working with the children, from the littlest one to Liesl. She was warm, hugged them, played with them, cheered them up, kidded them, and I don’t know of any scene in the picture where I had more help from an actor than this sequence. It was such a joy to see how well she worked with the children, how much they responded to her and how much they loved her. I think it added a warmth you can see on the screen.” The next few weeks saw the filming of the musical numbers “Dixit Dominus,” “Maria,” and the Trapp family’s flight from the Nazis and discovery by Rolf in the crypt This was a last minute substitution suggested by Leven; the original script had the scene take place elsewhere in the Abbey. Then, after a month's shooting, the company traveled to Austria to begin an anticipated six week-location shoot on April 23, 1964. The first scene filmed in Salzburg was the marriage of Maria and the Captain in the Mondsee Cathedral. Andrews remembers the sequence fondly, especially her wedding dress. “I never felt as beautiful as when I wore that wedding gown, I’ve never felt prettier, before or since. That dress was a miracle.”
It would have been an even bigger miracle if the crew had been able to meet the expected shooting schedule. Salzburg, had one of the highest average rainfalls in Europe and six weeks soon turned into eleven. The film quickly went over budget and fell behind schedule, the surveys prepared by production manager Saul Wurtzel having proven alarmingly inaccurate. “We always get those surveys,” Wise recounted, years later, “And when we get to the location, and the weather is terrible and the locals all say, ‘But this is the first time this has ever happened,’ it never fails. We always bring bad weather with us. I can’t tell you how long we sat around in buses and cars, reading, sleeping, whatever, waiting for the rain to let up. If it was just overcast, you still couldn’t shoot because you had started the sequence in the sunlight and you needed the continuity.” Eventually, the crew ran out of alternative sets and could do nothing but wait it out.
“It was intermittent, you’d get three days of perfect weather, then it would rain for three days,” Wise recalls. “But when you have days when you can’t even get an insert, it’s terrible.” Assistant Director Callow joked that Wise should make his fortune as a rainmaker. “I have never gone anywhere with any director in the world who has had so much trouble with weather as Bob Wise,” Callow laughed, adding that the weather problems were ironic, since Wise was “the most prepared director I’ve ever worked with. He retires early, he gets up at 5 o’clock in the morning and prepares his work for the day. Bob would know precisely what he was going to do all the time,” whenever the weather co-operated that is, which was remarkably seldom that summer.
The initial filming had progressed smoothly but by May weather conditions had deteriorated. The shooting of “Do, Re, Mi,” with its many locations across the city of Salzburg, stretched from mid-May to the end of June, with many days lost to rain. Wise and Callow devised three different plans for shooting: one for ideal weather, one for overcast skies and a third, interior “cover set” in the event of rain. It was a system they would put to even greater use on “The Sand Pebbles.”
“The two biggest challenges facing every director,” Wise once observed, “are budget and schedule. They both impact each other and weather impacts them both. Whenever you’re on location, you are completely at the mercy of the weather.” Choreographer DeeDee Wood remembers Wise’s ever-present stopwatch. “Bob had this pocket watch, and he’d look at it every five to ten minutes to keep on schedule,” she said. But he never got impatient.” Wise’s patience was about to be tried even more during one of the musical numbers when an unexpected visitor showed up: Maria von Trapp herself, who had decided to pay a visit to the set. Wise did not relish meeting her; their previous correspondence had been difficult. He had been warned by Lehman that she could be overbearing and he found her demands for script changes so intrusive he fired off a letter to Richard Zanuck complaining about her meddling and suggesting that she be kept at arm’s length during production.
But here she was, so Wise had her costumed as an extra for a crowd scene during the shooting of “I Have Confidence.” After a day of multiple takes Maria von Trapp was exhausted and her dreams of Hollywood stardom forgotten, so the much-relieved director finished the number with little problem. But, having survived that brief encounter, the usually placid Wise finally did lose his fabled cool with the younger cast members after they ran amok in their hotel and were threatened with expulsion.
“We were awful,” Heather Menzies would later confess to The Los Angeles Times. “We played tricks on people, threw things out the window to the cars below. Bob Wise had to step in and read us the riot act.” Wise assigned his wife Pat to oversee the children and make sure they behaved during the remainder of the shoot. One of the adult cast was proving slightly rebellious as well. Never enchanted with his role to begin with, Christopher Plummer had taken to referring to the film as “The Sound of Mucus,” and was possessed of a decidedly supercilious attitude towards the entire project.
“He behaved as though he was a distinguished legendary actor who had condescendingly agreed to grace this small, amateurish company with his presence,” recalled Saul Chaplin. DeeDee Wood confirmed that sour assessment, adding, “His style was more like, ‘let’s see what you can explode out of me today.’ He was dark.” Plummer also seemed to have little interest in his onscreen brood. Kym Karath, who played Gerthe, said, “I remember absolutely nothing about Christopher Plummer. He stayed so far away from us.” The place where Plummer could be found was the Hotel Bristol lobby, where he played piano nightly.
“Chris was an excellent pianist,” Wise has said. “I think at one time he had to decide whether to pursue a career in acting or in music, he was that good, he could have played professionally. He used to play all night at the hotel and then come straight to the set the next morning and always knew his lines perfectly. He never came into a scene where he didn’t add something, a very intelligent guy.” Andrews is also quick to defend her co-star, saying “His intensity was just right for the part. As far as I’m concerned he couldn’t have nicer or more professional, I suppose you always fall in love a little with your leading man. Nothing went on between us, but I adore him to this day.” Plummer’s views mellowed after seeing the spectacular dailies, declaring he was “staggered by that opening” footage. “He was very impressed,” Chaplin admitted, “and for a few days, he forgot who he was.”
That opening footage of Maria striding across the hilltop, spinning her arms around and launching into “The Sound of Music,” has become an iconic moment that will live in the annals of screen history. “people think it was all done in a single shot,” Wise would explain, “But that’s where my background as an editor came in handy. By cutting on the action when Julie does her spin, the cut is hidden and it feels like a single shot.” Just as the opening of “West Side” grabbed the audience, so too does this breathtaking sequence and in true Hollywood fashion, it was the last sequence to be filmed on location. On June 28, several weeks behind schedule, the shoot on the mountaintop began. Driving ten kilometers into Bavaria to get to the site, the company discovered that all the roads leading up to “Maria’s Mountain” had been washed away by the constant rainfall. A somewhat less glamorous mode of transport was secured to carry cast and crew up the rugged hillside. While all the other actors had returned to Los Angeles the star of the film, draped in her mink coat, was hauled up the side of the hill in an ox-cart. Andrews’s entrance was mapped out as Maurice Zuberano, directing the sequence from a helicopter, would swoop down while she confidently strides across the mountaintop, spinning her arms around to signal the pilot to pull up when they were getting too close.
“The cameraman was strapped onto the side of the helicopter, hanging out so he could get the shot,” recounts Andrews. “I’d start at the end of the field and the helicopter would come at me, then it would go around me to get back to the beginning to repeat the scene. But when it circled around me, the downdraft from the jets was so strong that it would literally knock me over, I couldn’t stand up. They had to do this shot about ten times and finally I got so angry I yelled, ‘That’s enough!’” Wise was among crew members hiding halfway up a tree, trying to keep out of sight of the cameras, watching Andrews get knocked down, then get back up, take after take. He had planned the title song sequence on the mountaintop in a modular fashion, a series of shots to be assembled by veteran editor William Reynolds in the cutting room.
“We had designed that whole opening number to be shot in about six or seven sections,” Wise would later explain. “Julie walks across the hill and twirls, she walks through the field, she dances around trees, etc. I kept chewing away at them. We would line up our shot, we’d have the playback ready and maybe we’d get one section. Then we’d come the next day and set up for another section but then it would start to rain and it would be no good. We’d sit up there under the tarps and wait.” The production reports tell the story: June 29: “Mountain clouded and fogged in, unable to shoot.” July 1: “Attempted one scene - rain, Rain, Rain!”
Up on that mountain, Wise was feeling the pressure from Richard Zanuck back at the studio. Because of the weather delays the production was now 25 days behind schedule and $740,000 over its $8 million budget. “I told Bobby he had to get back home and that he could do the remaining shots in the Rockies,” Zanuck would recall. “Bobby said he had one last scene to shoot and asked if he could stay one day longer to get it. I told him OK, one day more, but if he didn’t get it on Thursday, he would have to come home Friday.” The remaining unfilmed sequence was in the middle of the song, where Andrews lilts across the rocks in a stream. (The stream, like the birch trees she walks among, were artificial constructions by the film crew designed to break up the big opening number and give Andrews something to do besides walk around on the bare mountaintop).
The final day on location began with wet, overcast skies and Wise was deeply concerned about getting his last remaining piece of the puzzle. He had no idea how to film the scene back in the States and he feared he’d be left with a gaping hole in the middle of the opening number. “Everyone was sitting around under the tarps, sweating it out because they knew I had a deadline,” he explained in an interview. “We had the shot all lined up, the dolly tracks were down, the lighting ready. Then suddenly, in mid-afternoon, the weather broke for about half an hour, and we ran out, zipped off the tarps, and finally got the last shot. That’s one of the tightest situations I’ve ever been in.” Breathing a huge sigh of relief at getting the final shot, Wise and company flew back to Los Angeles the next day, Friday July 3, while Zuberano stayed behind to film the aerial opening. Richard Zanuck now laughs at the close call that Wise avoided. “When I see that opening used all the time in retrospectives and things, I think of how close we came to not getting it,” he said. “And it’s one of the all-time great movie openings, it really grabs you and sets you up for the rest of the picture.”
Filming resumed on the soundstages of Fox the following Monday. Back in the confines of the studio, the shooting continued without incident for the next six weeks as everyone wrapped the remaining scenes, including the “So Long, Farewell,” “Edelweiss” and “Lonely Goatherd” numbers. It was only during the shooting of “Something Good,” the last scene to be filmed before Andrews and Plummer were scheduled to be released from the film, that a peculiar problem arose. The song was set in a gazebo, where Maria and the Captain confess their love for each other. It is an emotional highlight of the film, the lovely song perfectly capturing the tentative stirrings of love.
But something kept occurring on the set that undercut the romantic flavor of the piece. Ted McCord had lit the scene with an old carbon arclight to suggest moonlight drifting into the gazebo. But as carbon arc lights aged or wore out, they would make a loud, unpleasant noise resembling nothing so much as a roaring fart, hardly a conducive accompaniment to a love scene. As Andrews remembers it, “Chris and I were standing very close, we were about an inch away from each other, looking into each others eyes. We were just getting to the point where we would say “I love you,” or we’d start kissing and then those old arc lights would let out a ‘raspberry’! Well, Chris and I would start laughing, we couldn’t help it. Then we’d go back to the scene and those lights would start groaning at us again! Our giggling got even worse, in fact, it got to the point where we couldn’t get through the scene!”
After a dozen takes without getting a usable one, Wise called for a lunch break, hoping the matter could be resolved in the afternoon. Andrews says of her case of the giggles, “I was in a high state of nervousness by now. I walked around the studio...talking to myself, trying to calm myself down.” But when they returned to stage, it happened all over again and they started giggling uncontrollably. Finally, Wise shouted, “Shoot ‘em in the dark, so no one can see them laughing” and he had the troublesome (and noisy) arc lights turned off. Which is how the most romantic scene in the film came to be shot in silhouette.
With the exception of a few inserts and pickups shots, the completion of “You Are Sixteen” brought five months of principal photography to an end on August 19, 1964. The post-production schedule gave ample time to make the film’s scheduled premiere on March 2, 1965 at the Rivoli Theatre in New York. Work continued on the editing, scoring, mixing, and the thorny problem of Christopher Plummer’s singing voice. He had been diligently taking voice lessons and spent two days re-recording his songs. When Wise and Chaplin heard the tapes they were disappointed. Plummer’s singing hadn’t improved enough but they had promised him the decision would be his, so they hoped for the best as Wise brought the actor in to listen to his three performances -- “Edelweiss,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Something Good.” Wise waited outside as the actor played the recordings over and over. Finally, Plummer emerged and asked Wise what he thought. Wise told him flatly, “I don’t think it’s up to the standard of the rest of the picture and the fact that your voice isn’t that good will bring down the level of the marvelous performance you give as the Captain.” To his credit, Plummer agreed, so Bill Lee was brought in to dub his voice for the musical numbers without incident.
“Music” was the first musical to have the songs dubbed into the languages of the main foreign markets --- French, Italian, Spanish and German. In the past, songs had never been dubbed, (subtitles had always been used during the musical numbers) and it was a very shrewd idea. Overseen by Chaplin, the dubbed songs had an impact that helped propel the show in many foreign countries that generally weren’t receptive to musicals. The remainder of the post-production continued smoothly and Wise anxiously looked forward to sneak previews in Minneapolis and Tulsa. In a memo to Zanuck, Wise articulated his firm belief in the value of such previews, pointing out that “we spend years, much effort and millions of dollars getting a picture on film and then so often, we don’t spend the additional time and effort to give it the proper acid test before a non-professional audience.” A non-professional audience in Minneapolis on a snowy evening in 1965 would give Wise a preview he would never forget.
“Minneapolis was the most incredible preview I’ve ever been to,” Zanuck says, with a touch of awe in his voice at the memory. “It had been snowing, there were blizzards, it was about thirty below, we didn’t figure there’d be anyone there. When we drove up, Bobby, Ted Mann, myself, and David Brown, we couldn’t believe what we saw. People were standing in line around the block to see the picture. And the response was incredible, we got a standing ovation at the intermission! David Brown was sitting in the row ahead of us and he turned around and said, ‘Hear that? That’s the sound of money.’ We got another standing ovation at the end and then we went upstairs to look at the preview cards. We couldn’t believe what they said – every single one of them read excellent, except for three people who rated it good. It was incredible, you couldn’t make numbers like that up. “But then I started thinking about those three who wrote ‘good’ and wondered, ‘What the hell’s wrong with them?’”
After a similar reception in Tulsa, Wise tinkered a bit with the picture, tightening things, dropping a scene of Maria praying before she visits the Abbess, and Rolf’s appearance in the middle of “Do, Re, Mi.” Then on March 2, 1965 “The Sound of Music” had its world premiere at the Rivoli Theatre in New York. During intermission Wise went out to find an advance copy of The New York Times review. He would regret doing so, for it was a scathing put-down by the usually staid, stolid Bosley Crowther. Crowther ripped the film apart, charging the picture was just a carbon copy of the Broadway play and was simply a cynical, commercial ploy on the part of Wise.
“Julie Andrews ...is always in
peril of collapsing under the weight
and romantic nonsense and sentiment...
Does she know that the business with
the captain and the wealthy baroness is right out
of Victor Herbert operetta, circa 1910?
Of course, she does. And she also seems to
realize that the whole thing is being
staged by Mr. Wise in a cosy-cum-corny
fashion that even theatre people know is old hat...
The adults are fairly horrendous, especially
Christopher Plummer...Looking as handsome
and phony as a store window Alpine guide,
Mr. Plummer acts the hard-jawed, stiff-backed
fellow with equal artificiality. Richard Haydn
is conventionally histrionic...and Eleanor Parker
is highly enameled and just as brittle...To be
sure, Mr. Wise has used his cameras to set a
magnificently graphic scene in and around the
actual city of Salzburg...he zooms over the
snow-capped peaks...just as he zoomed down into
New York’s crowded streets in his memorable film of
“West Side Story”...businesswise, Mr. Wise is no fool.”
The New York Times
March 1, 1965
It would only get worse. Judith Crist, who in many ways was even more powerful than Crowther due to her nationwide exposure as the film critic on NBC’s “Today” show, wrote a savage review in The Herald-Tribune that greeted Wise a few hours later. “The movie is for the five to seven set and their mommies who think they aren’t up to the stinging sophistication and biting wit of ‘Mary Poppins’...pure loathsome...” Lehman had read both reviews in California with outrage. He called Wise at his hotel in New York and Pat Wise took the call, telling him that Wise was taking a stroll in Central Park. “I know he’s there, put him on,” Lehman demanded. Wise reluctantly took the call. “How could they do this to us?” he cried. He was devastated. They were the worst reviews of his career; even when his earlier films may have misfired, he had never been so personally attacked and publicly vilified.
In a notoriously hostile review Pauline Kael savaged the picture with such ferocity and venom that it supposedly cost her the job at the woman’s magazine, McCall’s. (Though her editor denies it. He says she was fired because she didn’t like any major American movies that year.) The film, she wrote, is “self-indulgent and cheap, and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel. The best of all possible worlds, that’s what ‘The Sound of Music’ pretends we live in...it’s the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat...and this is the attitude that makes a critic feel that maybe it’s all hopeless. Why not just send the director, Robert Wise a wire: ‘You win, I give up?’”
One feels compelled to ask if Kael had gone off her meds to be aroused to hysterical indignation over such innocuous fare, but she certainly was not alone in her disdain for the picture. “The East Coast papers, intellectual papers and magazines destroyed us,” Wise would painfully recall. Fortunately for Wise, Lehman and shareholders of 20th Century-Fox, not only were there some critics who failed to share Kael’s acidic opinion of the film, but the viewing public had a slightly more appreciative response. “The local papers and the trades gave us great reviews,” Wise said, noting the rave in Variety, which no doubt helped salve the wounds of the New York drubbing: “One of the top musicals to reach the screen... captivating, drama set to the most imaginative use of the R-H tunes, magnificently mounted and with a brilliant cast,” and prophetically, “Bears the mark of assured lengthy runs.” And there was a sympathetic and perceptive review in The Los Angeles Times:
“They have taken this sweet, sometimes
saccharine and structurally slight story of
the Von Trapp Family Singers and
transformed it into close to three hours
of visual and vocal brilliance, all in the
universal terms of cinema. They have
invested it with new delights and even
a sense of depth in human relationships...
by Philip K. Scheuer
The Los Angeles Times
March 7, 1965
The Sound of Music” was the opening salvo in Fox’s 1965 roadshow series, to be followed by the summertime comedy about the early days of aviation, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines,” then, in the fall, “The Agony and the Ecstasy” based on the Sistine Chapel segment of Irving Wallace’s novel about Michelangelo, with Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison. As part of the publicity surrounding the trio of upcoming roadshow films, inspring of 1964 Fox organized a three city press junket to the sets of each production. In Salzburg, the cast and crew of “The Sound of Music” met with 120 different American film reviewers and a year later nearly every one of them would write a favorable review of “The Sound of Music.” Before filming had even started veteran publicist Mike Kaplan was hired to oversee the publicity and marketing of the picture. He would prove to be an absolutely crucial member of the production and was just as important to the film’s success as Lehman, Zuberano, Chaplin, Leven or McCord. His campaign for “The Sound of Music” was a masterpiece of Hollywood public relations strategy and Wise was always quick to acknowledge Kaplan’s contribution.
Kaplan came aboard in February 1964 and immediately threw himself into promoting the film. He came up with the tagline “The Happiest Sound in All the World,” which would find its way onto all posters and print ads and he oversaw the dozen attempts at creating the poster art until he was satisfied with the now famous image of Julie Andrews, guitar and bag in hand, running over the hill as the children follow. 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 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.
The film had its West Coast premiere on March 10, 1965 at the Fox Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles and as Richard Zanuck states, “It wasn’t a big hit right away. It took some time for the audience to find it and it built slowly, growing the audience as it played. There was a tremendous repeat business, people coming back to see over and over. I used to go over to Fox Wilshire, which is where it was playing, and the audiences just kept coming back and back. It was incredible, the matinees, were full, the weekends were full, the attendance just kept getting bigger and bigger as it went along, instead of declining...Ordinarily, musicals don’t do well overseas, but it was just as big a hit in the foreign markets as it was at home. Pretty soon we were getting reports of grosses from places we never had never heard of before!”
In Egypt the film was known as “Love and Tenderness,” in Portugal “Music in the Earth,” in Italy “All Together with Passion,” in Thailand it was called “Charms of Heaven-Sound,” in Spain it was “Smiles and Tears,” in Argentina, “The Rebellious Novice,” and in Hong Kong it was imaginatively retitled, “Fairy Music Blow Fragrant Place Hear.” It broke previous box-office records in 29 different countries, except Austria and Germany. In Austria it was resented for diluting Austrian costumes and songs and the orchestration was criticized as too American. In Germany, the Nazi element was so resented that the Fox branch manager in Munich cut the film by a third, omitting all references to the Nazis and ending the film after Maria’s wedding to the Captain in order to appease neo-Nazi elements in Munich. Wise was furious when he found out about the cuts and demanded that the footage be re-instated immediately.
WISE SHOCKED BY
MUNICH’S NAZI CUTS,
OF BRANCH OFFICES
Robert Wise termed as “incomprehensible,”
“arbitrary,” and “high-handed” the actions
of a Munich branch manager of 20th-Fox
who, as reported in the last week’s VARIETY,
trimmed the Nazi footage out of “The Sound of
Music.” Cutting has since been overruled by
20th-Fox toppers in N.Y., but Wise now is
pondering the question of “spelling out
more clearly” the relationship between a
producer, his distrib and the distrib’s employees...
“Music,” a b.o. blockbuster, has had ‘disappointing’
initial reaction Germany, Wise said.....
Variety June 7,1965
Although the Austrians certainly enjoyed the increase in tourism generated by the film, their complaint that the movie had been drained of Austrian kultur may have had a point. Preoccupied with eliminating the schmaltz factor, Wise may have gone overboard in eliminating all of the Old World, mid-European flavor. The original musical arrangements by Robert Russell Bennett had a rich, Viennese quality that are absent in the clean, functional Irwin Kostal score; the film could have been just as easily been set in Norway. Perhaps a little more lederhosen and strudel was needed. But the main reason for the picture’s lack of success in Germany and Austria may well have been because the two earlier von Trapp movies had been very popular in both countries and the Wise film was seen as something of an interloper, an Americanized remake of a more authentic Austro-German movie .
But throughout the rest of the planet, it was a “Sound of Music” world. By January 1966 a story in Time entitled “The Gross is Greener” predicted “The Sound of Music” would soon dethrone “Gone With the Wind” as the all-time box-office champion. Shattering all previous box office records around the world, the film set new records for repeated viewings on a worldwide scale that no one had ever imagined possible. Parade magazine, a Sunday newspaper supplement distributed throughout the country, carried a photo of Wise and Andrews on the cover with the caption “The Biggest Box-Office Draw of All Time.” Mystified by the film’s success, The New York Times Sunday Magazine spent over a dozen pages crunching the numbers and asking the existential question, “How Come?” “If we knew the answer to that, we’d know the answer to a lot of things,” quipped Richard Zanuck.
“Since its premiere 20 months ago,
it has brought the screenwriter more
than $1,000 a day. The director expects to make
at least $8 million....Although the movie is still
playing on a reserved seat basis - in industry jargon,
on “roadshow” or “hard-ticket” - it is on the verge of
overtaking the six-time re-released, 27 year old
“Gone With the Wind” in domestic earnings, and
the surface has barely been scratched, since it
has generally been shown in only one
theatre in a city or, to be precise, in
3.164 - only 275 in this country - theatres
out of a possible 35,000 worldwide. Still ahead,
are the neighborhood houses, and the drive-ins,
when it goes into multiple release, and the
prospect of re-release....In about six months, Fox
official project it will pass “Ben-Hur,” as the top
overseas grosser. In short, it is on its way toward
earning more money than any picture has ever
earned, anytime, anywhere.”
“Biggest Money-Making Movie of All Time - How Come?”
by Joan Barthel
New York Times Sunday Magazine, November 20, 1966
Mike Kaplan was quoted in the Times piece as believing the key to the film’s success was its escapist appeal. “It’s a homespun fairy tale and people still like fairy tales.” Kaplan had been left in charge of overseeing the Oscar campaign while Wise was on location in Taiwan shooting “The Sand Pebbles.” He decided the film needed little hype since the unbelievable phenomenon was its own best promotion, a show business phenomenon unlike any other before. It was the Energizer Bunny of 1966, it just kept going and going and going, and so did the audience. Kaplan promoted stories about Elizabeth Pick, a 38-year old typist in Los Angeles who had seen the film 100 times, the woman in Wales who saw it every day, or the Oregon man who had seen the film so many times that he sent the studio a screenplay written from memory. In Salt Lake City, among a population of 199,300 the number of tickets sold was over 309,000; Orlando, Syracuse, Cedar Rapids and two dozen other cities also had ticket sales that exceeded their populations. Nominated for 10 Oscars, the one nod it failed to get was for Ernest Lehman’s screenplay. Wise felt terrible for Lehman, who had been so crucial in getting the film made with his improvements to the play, his brilliant script and his insight about casting Julie Andrews. He wrote Lehman a letter, commiserating with his old friend: “All I can say is ‘you wuz robbed.” Lehman graciously wrote back to Wise:
“The enormous success of the picture all over
the world and my own realization that I had
guessed right in believing that that play could
become a very rewarding and popular film
and that I did have an important role in getting
it from stage to screen...make it very
difficult for me to have any unhappy feelings
about anything connected with the
picture. When you stop to consider what
we achieved....well, out with the champagne!”
Letter from Ernest Lehman to Robert Wise
The main Oscar competition that year was David Lean’s epic romance of the Russian Revolution, “Doctor Zhivago,” and Kaplan calculated the odds. That two of Lean’s films had won Best Picture Oscars in the last decade was an advantage for the Wise film, but since the Best Picture winner the year before had been a musical, and since Andrews had just won an Oscar, it could go either way. But the momentum was clearly with “Music” and the film was an awards juggernaut, winning most of the major ones. It scored a Golden Globe for Best Picture (Musical) and Best Actress and Wise won the Directors Guild Award for Best Director and the inaugural David O. Selznick Award for Best Picture from the Producers Guild.
As Kaplan continued to mastermind the Oscar campaign, he began incorporating audience quotes into a new ad campaign for the Oscars. A schoolboy in Malaysia: “I saw it four times, I was ecstasised;” a farmer in Monmouthshire, England: “When it finishes its run here we shall have lost something wonderful;” a housewife in Malawi: “People who don’t like it must be hard-faced, with wrinkled foreboding frowns;” a teacher in Pittsburgh: “Without a doubt, the finest film ever – a legend in its own time;” a sailor stationed in Puerto Rico: “I have seen it 70 times and could see it 1,000 more;” an accountant in New Jersey: “I’m a James Bond fan but this is the best movie I’ve ever seen;” and from a psychiatrist in California: “I’m worried, it’s cheaper than therapy.”
Even the negative publicity demonstrated the film’s enormous clout. In Moorhead, Minnesota where the film had been running for a year in the town’s only movie theatre, the local college kids demanded a change of fare, launching an anti-”Sound of Music” demonstration under the name POOIE (People’s Organization Of Intelligent Educatees) and waving placards declaring “49 Weeks of Schmaltz is Enough!” and “Don’t Get Caught in von Trapp.” Kaplan continued to position the film for Academy consideration, blanketing the trades with ads throughout spring of 1966 and arranging screenings at the Fox lots for entire families, which proved to be massively attended. Saul Chaplin escorted Julie Andrews to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for the Academy Awards ceremony. Since Wise was overseas filming “The Sand Pebbles,” Chaplin would accept the statue if “Music” won for Best Picture, and Andrews would collect Wise’s award if he won for Best Director. “We were nervous wrecks,” Andrews admitted. As Kaplan had anticipated, it was a shootout between “Zhivago” and “Music” that had been going back and forth throughout the technical awards. Moments after she lost the Best Actress award to Julie Christie, Julie Andrews found herself racing up the steps of the stage to collect Robert Wise’s Oscar for Best Director. A few moments later, Saul Chaplin was onstage collecting Wise’s Best Picture Oscar. Backstage, Andrews let out a victory whoop and fell into the arms of Mike Kaplan as they both broke into tears.
It was already Tuesday afternoon in Southeast Asia, where the U.S. gunboat San Pablo was steaming through the straits of Hong Kong. Radio updates on the Oscars had been coming in throughout the day and a loud cheer would go up every time “The Sound of Music” won a category. Filming aboard the gunboat continued until the Best Director announcement was made. When the report came through that Wise had won, pandemonium erupted. "I didn’t know it at the time,” Wise later described, “the Chinese crew had secretly strung the entire mast full of firecrackers. Ted Taylor, my public relations man on the picture, had also smuggled aboard a troupe of Chinese dragon dancers and had hidden them in the hold.” Between the exploding firecrackers and the dragon dancers on the deck, a giddy Wise and his “Music” cohorts, Assistant Director “Reggie” Callow and Production Manager Saul Wurtzel called off shooting for the remainder of the day and erupted in joyous exhilaration. Wise sent a cable off to Lehman at first chance, “DEAR ERNIE YOU OWN A GIANT SHARE OF ALL WE WON MONDAY NIGHT. MANY MANY THANKS. BOB” A cable to Wise arrived the next day from Richard Zanuck:
I FEEL LIKE TAKING THE
NEXT PLANE OVER AND
IN PERSON. LAST NIGHT
WAS THE GREATEST NIGHT
FOX HAS HAD SINCE 1950
WHICH WAS THE LAST TIME
WE WON THE BEST PICTURE
AWARD. IT WAS ONE OF THE
GREATEST PERSONAL THRILLS
I HAVE EVER EXPERIENCED
AND ON BEHALF OF THE ENTIRE
ORGANIZATION I THANK YOU
FOR MAKING THIS POSSIBLE
WITH YOUR OUTSTANDING
TALENT AND TERRIFIC EFFORTS.
WE ARE PROUD OF YOU
Forty years have not dimmed Zanuck’s appreciation of those efforts. “Bobby Wise saved the studio, no question,” he has said on more than one occasion. But in a misguided attempt to emulate the gigantic success of the picture and to validate the perpetual wisdom of Fred Allen’s crack that “imitation is the sincerest form of Hollywood,” virtually every studio began rushing into production a series of expensive, bloated musicals -- Columbia with “Funny Girl” (directed by Wyler) and “Oliver!;" Warners with “Camelot” and “Finian’s Rainbow;” Paramount with “Paint Your Wagon,” and “Darling Lili.” MGM tried to cash in with “The Singing Nun” and Fox went to the well again with “Doctor Doolittle,” “Hello, Dolly!” and the ill-fated re-teaming of Wise and Andrews in “Star!” With the exception of the two Columbia pictures, every project was a creaky, ill-conceived, poorly executed, lumbering white elephant and nearly sank several studios.
“I sometimes secretly curse ‘The Sound of Music,’” Zanuck has admitted, “Because we tried to duplicate its success but that audience didn’t stick around for long. It was the failure of those other musicals that got me fired from Fox.” In the intervening years, it is has become all too apparent that “Music” was sui generis. It could not leave a legacy for other films to emulate simply because its colossal success was due to a combination of factors that were unique and unrepeatable, a convergence of talents at a particular moment in time. Sitting on the edge of a culture fault line that divided the first half of the Sixties from the cultural rebellion of the last half (the following year saw the emergence of a new order, ushered in by none other than Ernest Lehman, whose script and production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” shattered the Production Code in 1966), “The Sound of Music” was the end of the old order, a last, great, studio artifact to connect with such a mass audience before the culture wars and the final collapse of the studio system. “Those days are gone,” Zanuck wistfully admits, “And they’re not coming back.”
To understand just what a wide cultural arc the long the run of “The Sound of Music” spanned requires a historical context. When Lehman first began writing the “Music” script, JFK was president and the Beatles were just a gleam in Brian Epstein’s eye. By the time the movie had finished its long theatrical run, some four and a half years after its premiere, John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had all been assassinated, the Vietnam war had torn the country apart, sex, drugs & rock n' roll had become the touchstones of an alternative youth counterculture, the psychedelic Summer of Love of the hippies had come and gone, the Beatles were recording their last album, a man was walking on the moon, and the first X-rated movie (“Midnight Cowboy”) was about to win an Oscar for Best Picture. It was a time of staggering change, yet “The Sound of Music” remained impervious to it all, remaining a bedrock of security and comfort during times of incredible social upheaval.
In the intervening decades, nothing has so demonstrated the film’s remarkable staying power as the recent phenomena of “The Sound of Music” singalongs. Initially originating in the U.K., it was at first an underground, campy sort of event, a la “The Rocky Horror Show,” with much of the same sort of midnight screening crowd. Then it emigrated to the U.S., where it underwent a bizarre transformation. It was embraced by families, who took their children to sing along, irony-free. Holding up provided cards with question marks, throwing “favorite things” like mittens at the screen during “My Favorite Things,” audiences were a combination of those who saw it as a camp night out or those who simply loved the film. Wise himself visited the Hollywood Bowl in 2003 to see the sight for himself and was greeted like a hero by a crowd comprised of All-American families in lederhosen as well as a large contingent of West Hollywood transvestites in nuns’ habits and Nazi uniforms.
“We thought we had a good chance at a successful film, but I don’t think any of us anticipated that “The Sound of Music” was going to go through the roof like it did," Wise has said on many occasions. "Obviously, one has to be very pleased and warmed by the spontaneous reactions that come up so often, in so many places around the world, that’s most rewarding.” Wise would also add, with a faint hint of resentment, “The only slightly perverse thing about it is that it tends to make people forget and overlook some of the other films I’ve done that I’m very proud of, such as ‘The Body Snatcher,’ ‘The Set-Up,’ ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still,’ ‘Executive Suite,’ ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me,’ ‘I Want to Live!,’ ‘West Side Story,’ ‘The Haunting,’ and ‘The Sand Pebbles.’ It doesn’t overpower ‘West Side Story’ so much but I get many more comments about ‘The Sound of Music’ than I do about ‘West Side Story.’ But its tremendous success didn’t become a burden to me.”
Perhaps. Yet Wise never again received the kind of critical respect he enjoyed before “Music” turned into the Godzilla of movie musicals, laying waste to all box office records in its path. With the unprecedented grosses of “The Sound of Music,” Robert Wise had become the most successful motion picture director in movie history. That kind of achievement can bring out resentment and not just in Hollywood (where Wise’s modesty and congenial manner helped deflate much of the Schadenfreude in the industry). But it did cause a loss of critical respect that was nearly proportionate to the popular success of the film, for many critics, such as the influential Kael and her acolytes, the giant shadow cast by “The Sound of Music” was an unforgivable crime against cinema and it seemed to mitigate all positive memories of anything Wise had done in his career. I can recall being a film student at UCSD in 1974 watching influential critic Manny Farber become apologetic in his praise of “The Set-Up” since it had been directed by the same man who had unleashed “The Sound of Music” upon an unsuspecting world. In his seminal rating of American directors in “The American Cinema,” auteurist Andrew Sarris placed Wise in his “Strained Seriousness” category, noting “his temperament is vaguely liberal, his style vaguely realistic; but after “The Sound of Music,” the stylistic signature of Robert Wise is indistinct to the point of invisibility. Even the unity of time experiments of “The Set-Up” and the clickety-clack montage of “Executive Suite” seem to belong in another era entirely...What has happened to Wise in the 50s and 60s has happened to most technicians without a strong personality.” Yet even Sarris felt compelled to tack a brief, damning-with-faint-praise addition: “Still, Wise’s conscientious craftsmanship is something of a virtue in these days of giddy chaos. The commercial success of “The Sound of Music” is a tribute to Wise’s ability to treat the most sentimental material with a straight face.” This is one critical observation that is somewhat close to mark, for Wise was a conscientious craftsman and it was precisely this trait that enabled him to go from a low-budget black-and-white horror film like “The Haunting” to a glossy 70 mm Todd-AO musical like “The Sound of Music” and then on to the anti-imperialist allegory of “The Sand Pebbles,” a feat well beyond the capabilities of many a more self-focused auteurist.
For Wise, “The Sound of Music” was simply a stop-gap undertaking to occupy his down time until “The Sand Pebbles” could get underway. But, like all of his previous thirty films, it would be a project that he would invest with every ounce of his talent, skill, and knowledge of the medium to make as good a picture as he could. The idea of imposing his personality onto a piece of material, as the auteurists championed, would have been anathema to Robert Wise; he would have considered it bad manners. He felt his choice of material was indication enough of his personal beliefs and for an old-school studio director like himself, directing a film wasn’t about personal expression or cult of personality, it was all about making a good picture.
One could argue, of course, his supposed invisible style is itself a style and reflected his belief that each different piece of material dictated a different stylistic approach. But the key to understanding Wise as a director is realizing his belief in, and his commitment to, his characters. If he was entrusted with the job of bringing them to life on screen, he truly felt an obligation to them. It was his duty was to tell their story as efficiently as he could with all the talents at his disposal. To camp it up or “kid” the material was unthinkable to him and it is this very lack of irony that make his more fantastical films such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Haunting,” and yes, “The Sound of Music,” work. He would no more think of sending up the Trapp Family Singers than he would consider mocking Klaatu and Gort in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” because of the more fantastic elements of the story.
In any discussion of the career of Robert Wise, “The Sound of Music” remains the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the middle of the room: it cannot be ignored, its sheer mass tends to dominate all aspects of conversation. Wise himself never made any extravagant claims for the film; though gratified (and astonished) by its incredible reception, he never wavered in his regard for “West Side Story” as the greater artistic achievement. He was as mystified by the worldwide popularity of “Music” as everyone else but ultimately came to accept it as something that had simply taken on a life of its own, far beyond what he and his collaborators had envisioned. He enjoyed the experience and then moved on. Ironically, the main criticism of the film - its sentimentality – was the very thing that Wise had tried so hard to eliminate from it and seen today, if anything, the film seems a little too antiseptically cleansed of all Austrian charm. Perhaps a little more lederhosen & strudel might have helped overcome its somewhat distant emotional core; when compared to its contemporaries, the musical lacks the roguish charm and energy of “The Music Man,” the dazzling stylization and Shavian wit of “My Fair Lady,” or even the warmth of that other Julie Andrews governess vehicle, “Mary Poppins.” Its reserve feels almost Bressonian in its emotional austerity, or at least as reserved as any musical with a brood of tow-headed moppets can be. (Auteurists take note, that very reserve of the film is in fact, an accurate reflection of the personality of its director, for as charming and personable as he was, Robert Wise was never one given to effusive displays of emotion). And yet, what are musicals but precisely that very thing - effusive displays of emotion rendered through song? I can vividly remember seeing the film at the Loma Theatre as a kid in San Diego halfway through its two and a half year engagement and being struck by its detachment. Coming out of the theatre I wondered, “Well, that was pleasant enough, but what’s the big deal?,” a question that remains unanswered to this day. Though many have tried.
When the New York Times Sunday Magazine spent all that ink pondering the unprecedented success of “The Sound of Music.” neither Wise, Zanuck, Lehman, Andrews, Richard Rodgers, George Cukor or William Wyler could offer any a satisfactory answer to the film's incredible popularity, they were as clueless to the reasons for its success as its befuddled detractors were. Its modest charms are worthy of neither the extreme hostility or the unquestioning devotion it has received through the years, yet it continues to inspire both. But whatever reservations one may have about the film, ultimately, they are all irrelevant, for “The Sound of Music” doesn’t care what I think of it, “The Sound of Music” doesn’t care what you think of it. Like those majestic Alpine mountains that open the film, for reasons that will probably never be adequately understood by mortal minds, “The Sound of Music” is a force of nature, immune from both the ravages of time and all critical opinion. So go ahead and throw all the spitwads and brickbats at it you want, “The Sound of Music” laughs. It will remain the unexplainable phenomenon, the unassailable citadel that towers above the cinematic landscape - it is the Matterhorn, the Everest, of movie musicals - and it will endure for generation upon generation to come, unto the last syllable of recorded time. For “The Sound of Music,” like the Dude Lebowski, abides.