THE HILLS ALMOST DIED
Everyone Hated ‘The Sound of Music’
The Sound of Music premiered to horrific reviews in 1965. Now it’s the most beloved and popular movie musical ever. On its 50th anniversary, how did it climb that mountain?
As it turns out, twirling around like a maniac at the top of a hill is enough to make a person nauseated. At least, it’s enough to make critics nauseated, many of whom loathed The Sound of Music so much when it first hit theaters in 1965 that their critical bombs were vicious enough to nearly decimate those darned hills completely.
The Sound of Music, the now iconic Julie Andrews- and Christopher Plummer-starring movie musical about love, nuns, Nazis, and clothing made out of curtains, celebrates its 50th anniversary Monday. It’s a milestone that celebrates decades of the film’s cultural influence, commercial success, and indisputable status as one of our favorite things.
So it’s startling to learn, then, that when The Sound of Music first premiered five decades ago, our beloved classic actually received middling-to-horrible reviews. In fact, many critics despised it. It’s a historical context that adds extra intrigue to the Sound of Music phenomenon. How did a film that was generally derided evolve to be considered the perfect movie musical, with hills so alive after all these years that Lady Gaga stole the Oscars show with her tribute to them?
It’s been a steep mountain to climb.
Back in 1965, eminent film critic Pauline Kael famously called The Sound of Music “the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat.” Worse, she goes on to say, “We have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.”
She was not alone with her lashings. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther devoted two full columns to his distaste for the film’s unpalatable sweetness and artificial execution, while other prominent critics couldn’t stomach the film’s utterly batty plot.
Crowther’s initial review was incensed by what he called the film’s “cosy-cum-corny” direction, calling the plot “romantic nonsense and sentiment.” In a later column written soon after the film’s release, he posited that The Sound of Music would destroy the movie-musical genre, taken to excellence by West Side Story and My Fair Lady, altogether.
“Except for Julie Andrews…the cast is generally stiff or mawkish. In the case of Christopher Plummer, it is both,” he wrote. Crowther really didn’t like Plummer in the film. He branded Captain Von Trapp’s poignant crooning of “Edelweiss,” a film scene and performance that’s noted for many of us as the first time we’ve seen a single tear stream down our father’s cheek, with the m-word, too, calling it “a bit too painfully mawkish.”
The barbs kept coming. The film? “Saccharine pudding.” The screenplay? “A virtual paraphrase of the musical-comedy book.” The direction? “Staged…so as to wring every drop of sentiment.” As a whole? “It all is sterile. As musical-film, it is not fresh. It is not sound.”
Still, Crowther was gracious enough to predict that the grandeur of the film’s sweeping shots of the Swiss Alps, not to mention Julie Andrews’s vigorously radiant performance, would be enough to appeal to the masses and make The Sound of Music a hit—something that Judith Crist, in an all-out-pan for the New York Herald Tribune, did not agree with, ruling that the film was designed for “the five to seven set and all their mommies.”
And Crist’s colleague Walter Kerr called the film, “Not only too sweet for words but almost too sweet for music.”
The Sound of Music’s director, Robert Wise, addressed the mixed critical reception years later, saying, “The East Coast, intellectual papers and magazines destroyed us, but the local papers and trades gave us great reviews.” (It’s also worth noting that Wise had initially turned down directing the film because he thought it was too saccharine.)
Indeed, while critics like Crowther and Crist groaned their way through “The Lonely Goatherd,” a handful of critics were charmed by raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and curtains on children, forecasting the wild success the film would eventually have.
Whitney Williams in Variety called it “one of the top musicals to reach the screen.” Richard L. Coe in The Washington Post praised the film for having a “sure-fire story, fabulous views of the Bavarian Alps, and the lilting score of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a fine cast, and, above all, Julie Andrews,” predicting that the Sound of Music would become the “best-loved picture of 1965.”
He was correct. The film was such a box office hit that it briefly replaced Gone With the Wind as the highest grossing film of all time. Adjusted for inflation, the film still stands as the third-highest-grossing movie ever at the domestic box office, ahead of modern blockbusters like Titanic, The Empire Strikes Back, and Avatar.
More, it’s the rare family film in which its popularity stands the test of time, most recently revitalizing the live-event TV business with NBC’s smash hit (but also critically derided) live musical staging and revitalizing Lady Gaga’s career with a spectacular Oscars tribute.
In fact, the film eventually became so popular that Pauline Kael was reportedly fired from her position as movie critic at McCall’s for panning it.
It’s certainly not unusual for a film to be ravaged by critics but voraciously consumed by moviegoers. The success of the Transformers franchise certainly speaks to that. (The Sound of Music, the film industry’s original Transformers?) But bad films that still manage to eke out decent box office returns don’t stand the test of time the way The Sound of Music has. There’s a disconnect, it seems, between the film’s initial critical response and its longevity.
Are we only viewing The Sound of Music through rose-colored glasses tinted with memories of watching it with our grandmothers, or of starring as a Von Trapp child in a production when we were kids, or of learning what a female deer was called by singing along to “Do-Re-Mi”? Is our opinion of The Sound of Music inextricable from our cherished memories of and emotional attachment to it?
That is most certainly true, and perhaps the driving force behind its 50-year reign as Hollywood’s most popular movie musical. But it doesn’t account for the fact that, undeniably, this is not a perfect film, or at least not the perfect film that we’ve convinced ourselves that it is all these years later.
Even some of the more positive Sound of Music reviews from 1965 make no qualms about the fact that this movie’s plot is absolutely ridiculous. There are two main conflicts driving the narrative in The Sound of Music. In one, a father is upset that his children’s clothes are made out of curtains. In the other, the Nazis are invading Austria. They are given the same weight.
How did the movie overcome that irrefutable flaw to become a movie that’s not just enjoyable, but widely considered to be good? It should be fairly obvious: with the indomitable spirit of Julie Andrews.
Julie Andrews singlehandedly saved what should have been a turkey of a film. All signs pointed to its failure. It’s already been pointed out that Robert Wise initially balked at directing it because he thought the material was bad to begin with, and it’s Hollywood legend at this point how unenthused Christopher Plummer was to be starring in it, famously referring to the film as The Sound of Mucus and allegedly requiring to be liquored up before going on set.
But did you know that Andrews had also initially turned down the role because she feared it was too similar to Mary Poppins, the nanny she so winningly had just brought to life the year before? We should all be so thankful that she didn’t. From first frame to last, she imbues Maria and the film with a boundless ebullience, professionalism, and richness that radiates off the screen—and still hasn’t lost its shine. She doesn’t just elevate subpar material. She turns subpar material into iconic cinema.
“With a wide-eyed, trusting Miss Andrews as Maria, eventually Baroness Von Trapp, you believe every world of the tale…as you never did when Mary Martin tried it,” Coe writes. (Martin played Maria in the stage musical.)
Even critics who hated the film, like Crowther, credited Andrews for making the whole movie seem less asinine than it really was. “Despite the hopeless pretense of reality with which she and the others have to contend, especially in the last phase, when the Von Trapps are supposed to be fleeing from the Nazis and their homeland, Miss Andrews treats the whole thing with the same air of serenely controlled self-confidence that she has when we first come upon her trilling the title song on a mountain top,” he writes.
And then, his highest praise: “Miss Andrews is nothing daunted. She plays a more saccharine nanny than Mary Poppins, but it doesn’t get her goat.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to pull such a feat out of her bag of tricks, but it’s because Andrews’s reservoir of skills and virtues is as infinite as Mary Poppins’s own carpet bag that we’ve all come to view The Sound of Music as excellence. The accomplishment of a performance like hers almost can’t be quantified or characterized, if only in the adoration for it all these years later.
She’s what breathed life into the hills 50 years ago, when everything else about The Sound of Music should have had them on life support. And after all this time that has passed, she’s still what keeps them alive.