Go Tell It on the Mountain
Genevieve Yue on The Sound of Music
Growing up in the eighties, I watched The Sound of Music more than any other movie, but I never saw it on film. I’d catch it when it aired on television, usually around the holidays, or dig out my battered VHS tape recorded from one of those broadcasts. I didn’t realize then that I’d only seen about half of the film. In addition to the over 35 minutes cut to make room for commercials, the frame itself, originally in 70mm, was cropped, producing what was effectively a miniaturized version of the immensely popular family film (the highest grossing movie since Gone with the Wind) about a rebellious nun named Maria, played by Julie Andrews, who finds her way into the hearts and home of an Austrian family—a military captain and his seven motherless children—at the outset of World War II.
The Sound of Music was shot in Todd-AO, one of many widescreen formats developed in the fifties to compete with television. Cinema had to become all the more spectacular: bigger, more colorful, three-dimensional, or even, in rare and short-lived cases, scented. When these films were eventually downsized for television, they suffered acutely, though few as much as The Sound of Music, which began showing on television in the mid-seventies, a run that still endures today. Though the film’s large format gave plenty of room to zoom into actors’ faces, this meant trimming its many breathtaking vistas down to close-ups and medium shots that modestly sized television monitors could easily display. As a result, the television edit also introduced a number of new pan-and-scan movements. All seven of the kids in the Von Trapp brood, for example, usually couldn’t fit in a single frame, and instead the “camera” pans robotically across their faces, breaking up the sense of unity that the children are otherwise meant to convey. The assurance that the film was “formatted to fit your screen” meant that it would also look like everything else on television. It became a bland assortment of smiling faces more or less divorced from the verdant Austrian setting, the oft-touted “homeland,” which is arguably the emotional center of the film.
For those weaned on the cropped and cluttered television version of The Sound of Music, the widescreen view on film, in its full form, is like a breeze of crisp Alpine air. The expanded screen yields the delight of seeing all the columns in the Von Trapps’ stately foyer, the million beige bricks of Nonnberg Abbey, and, as Maria travels by bus to her new post as a governess, a window reflection that reveals the stunning landscape surrounding her. The film as originally released is significantly more elegant than its trimmed-for-TV version, its camera planted to absorb long views of the children leaping under a trellised walkway or sitting cross-legged on a grassy mountainside. Though director Robert Wise was known more for an exacting sense of detail—a training he acquired as an editor for Orson Welles and others—than visual flair, here he exhibits a powerfully understated appreciation for the film’s sumptuous environs, allowing the locations to speak, or rather sing, for themselves.
Wise’s film does what the original Rodgers and Hammerstein musical could not: provide a glorious view of the Austrian countryside, which is seen in nearly every shot. In the theater, the proscenium can only suggest so much, and the original Broadway staging left the evocations of homeland to references in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score, whether it was Maria’s beloved hills or the delicate Edelweiss wistfully regarded by the Captain (Christopher Plummer). The land the Von Trapps love is intrinsically connected to music and, particularly, the human voice; Salzburg, their home and the city of Mozart, is bounding with vocal talent as the lovable but scheming Max Detweiler (Richard Hayden), the Captain’s close friend, is quick to observe. The Anschluss-overrun parts of Austria, meanwhile, are either bereft of music or twist song for selfish or political gain. The Captain describes the threats of Nazi collaborator Hans Zeller (Ben Wright) as trumpet-like, and the soon-to-capitulate Vienna, the glittering capital and home to the Captain’s ostensible love interest Baroness Elsa Schraeder (Eleanor Parker), is little more than the place where the wealthy dilettante left her harmonica behind. (To be fair to the Baroness, the musical did include two duets between her and Max, though for the film these were excised so as not to make her appear too sympathetic, and thus clear a path for Maria.) Perhaps it was because of the lack of a strong geographical presence in the play, reduced to metaphor, that The Sound of Music was initially regarded as one of the songwriting duo’s lesser musicals.
Wise, however, gloriously realizes the potency of the landscape to which the characters sing their tributes. Shot in resplendent detail, the film, in its enlarged frame, might as well have been called The Land of Music, a hearty, wholesome place of rambunctious nuns and sweet-souled children united in song. To be Austrian, the film suggests, is to sing, and to sing together. The final scenes demonstrate this notion powerfully. At the Nazi-run Salzburg Music Festival, the Captain’s rendition of “Edelweiss,” at first breathily sung alone then joined by his wife, children, and finally the crowd, unites the divided audience in a singular voice of national pride. (To the chagrin of many Austrians, the song has been mistaken for their national anthem ever since.) When the Von Trapps finally escape over the Alps into Switzerland, the family is joined by an invisible chorus belting out the rousing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” previously serenaded to Maria by her benevolent Reverend Mother (Peggy Wood). This last image, shot by a helicopter, matches the film’s iconic opening sequence, which begins by floating past wispy clouds and rocky crags accompanied by the sound of whooshing wind, before pushing into Maria singing rapturously with her arms flung wide. At film’s end, she’s restored to this Edenic spot, a place where familial, national, and spiritual destinies converge, and where heaven almost certainly meets with earth.
The Sound of Music played January 25, 2014, at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.