The oft parodied, exquisitely majestic opening sequence is perhaps the most stunning shot of the entire film, grandiosely introducing star Julie Andrews as nun Maria, twirling through the hills of Salzburg, Austria in the 1930s. “The Sound of Music” is blessed with some of the most memorable, joyously entertaining songs of any musical – an unusual feat for the plethora of works coming from the ‘50s and ‘60s, many of which contained not a single piece as momentous as the feeblest tune in this epic romantic masterpiece (and this includes other Rodgers and Hammerstein productions of the era). From “My Favorite Things” to the title theme, there is nary a forgettable composition in the entire presentation.
At the abbey where Maria lives as a postulant, the reverend mother tires of the young woman’s troublesomeness, misbehaviors, and absconding from the abbey for midday musings in the neighboring valley. She sends her away to work as a governess at the nearby estate of naval Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), where he desperately needs help tending to seven children, whose mother passed away – and who have gone through twelve governesses already. Upon her arrival at the cold, gray, towering home, it’s clear that it’s not the children that have scared away the nannies, but the strict, militaristic upbringing instilled by their father. Clothed in uniforms, responding to whistle signals, and marching about like miniature soldiers, the seven kids have developed covert methods of coping with such draconian discipline. Incorrigible and impossible, they resort to rudely speaking out and hazing their new au pair; an initiation that the intelligent Maria twists around on them for a lesson in first impressions and contrition.
The eldest girl, sixteen-year-old Liesl (Charmian Carr), is in love with messenger Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte), who visits her in the garden after delivering telegrams to the captain – a union kept secret from the certainly disapproving father. Despite Von Trapp’s insistence on a rigorous behavioral regimen and subordination, Maria is determined to teach the children to be children, through the joys of singing, dancing, playing, and merriment – all the ingredients of blithe adolescence they so sorely lack. When the captain returns from Vienna with romantic interest Baroness Schroeder (Eleanor Parker), he’s furious at his children’s rambunctiousness – until they sing for the noblewoman, bringing a cheer to the house that had been absent since the death of his wife.
There’s something magical and undisruptive about conversations that morph into songs, especially considering the typical dancing that accompanies such skits is refreshingly truant. Specific sequences containing characters that would never spontaneously cavort still manage choreography, but not in a distractingly flamboyant manner. When Liesl and Rolfe express their love, it’s through a kiss and a dance in the rain – another naturally flowing spectacle. When Maria shimmies, it’s either with the children or all alone to visualize daydreaming or introspection. The dialogue, when not sung, is carefully planned and frequently hilarious, full of clever exchanges and lively conversations.
It’s surprising that the most unrealistic element of the three-hour movie is a complex marionette show put on by the children, exposing talents and paraphernalia that couldn’t have been put together so quickly (though the exact span of time is unclear). Notwithstanding the eventual conflicts outside the captain’s demeanor (and the expected love triangle with the baroness and Von Trapp), dipping into the historical severity of the Anschluss, Nazis, and World War II, the film is supremely upbeat, happy, and hopeful. It’s a spectacular treat to see a musical tackle poignant subject matter with a sinister backdrop without betraying the festiveness of its fantasy purpose. While many accuse it of being too saccharine, including director Robert Wise before he finally agreed to helm the project, “The Sound of Music” is an extraordinary triumph, brilliantly balancing character, story, cinematography, and sound with lasting songs – resulting in an immense box office hit that went on to win the Best Picture Academy Award (as well as Best Director and a nomination for Andrews, who didn’t win primarily because of her Oscar victory for “Mary Poppins” the year before).