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Twentieth Century Fox, the once proud company
that produced The Mark Of Zorro (1940) and The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)
was in desperate financial straits after the release of Cleopatra in
1963. The Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor debacle had lead to massive
firings. The studio had been forced to sell their huge back lot to
developers who created Century City. Director Billy Wilder sent Fox head
Daryl Zanuck a letter suggesting,"that the sooner your studio is
bulldozed to the ground the better." But Daryl and his son Richard
decided to go ahead with a property they had purchased three years
earlier, a popular Broadway Musical that had been panned by the critics,
Richard Rodgers And Oscar Hammerstein's The Sound Of Music.
two famous song writers source material came from the stories that Maria
von Trapp (1905-1987) would tell audiences while performing with her
nine singing stepchildren. How her late husband Georg had been a former
Captain in the Austro-Hungarian Navy, as distinguished in his country as
General Eisenhower. How when the Empire broke up it left Austria without
a coast and Georg without a job. How he had recognized that his
children's singing ability were enhanced by their new Governess, Maria
Kutschera and financial desperation had allowed him to overcome his
distaste for a show business career. And how, after Hitler had invaded
Austria, they had fled to America leaving all their belongings behind.
The von Trapps later learned that Heinrich Himmler, the head of the
Gestapo himself, had moved into the family home.
The Zanucks and
Director Robert Wise, after failing to land Doris Day, were interested in
Julie Andrews playing Maria. She was popular on stage but untested in
the movies. Jack Warner had chose Audrey Hepburn over Andrews for the film
version of My Fair Lady (1964) claiming she was not photogenic. But Julie
was making Mary Poppins for Walt Disney and getting good buzz. In
Hollywood it was strict tradition that you never show an incomplete film to
your competitors but Walt was so high on Andrews he delighted in letting
the Fox brass see rough cuts of Mary Poppins. Richard Zanuck and Wise
were convinced that Andrews was perfect for the part. But Julie wasn't
certain. She and Carol Burnett had made fun of The Sound Of Music during
a television special in 1962. It sounded so saccharine. A singing nun
and seven children running through the Austrian Alps. Then Robert Wise
pointed out that the Sound Of Music would be in direct box office
competition with My Fair Lady. "Lets do it," Andrews said
Most of the interiors were filmed in Los Angeles and
the exteriors were shot in Austria. The nuns were confused by having to
run through abbeys at Fox and coming out the door in Salzburg. Kym
Karath who played the youngest of the seven Von Trapp children gained a
lot of weight eating cream cakes during the six month stint in Europe.
For the final scene when Christopher Plummer as the Captain lead the
family to their escape through the Alps, the Canadian actor had to carry
the heavy child for several hours. After several takes he screamed at
Robert Wise to get it right, his back was breaking. Although Plummer
would come to appreciate the film in later years, during the shoot he
became dispirited and complained constantly. He referred to the picture
as The Sound Of Mucus.
Robert Wise said it was good that Plummer
was distant toward the children, it helped them to be scared of him on
screen. Conversely, Andrews was as warm as she needed to be. She helped
the child actors get over their nerves by making funny faces. The
production was held up constantly by rain. Andrews would entertain the
bored crew by bursting into song or doing Buster Keaton like pratfalls.
It was her idea that Maria should sometimes be cross or exhausted having
to take care of so many children, that she be more spirited than sweet.
But she couldn't always keep her humor. For the opening sequence with
Maria running through the hills Wise used a helicopter to the get the
shot. The force from the blades kept blowing Julie over. In between
takes she would spit out dirt and grass, cursing like a sailor.
The first reviews of the film were extremely negative. The premiere
party was like a wake. But the initial slow business turned into a
phenomenon as The Sound Of Music became the most successful film of all
time in 1965, surpassing even Gone With the Wind (1939). The Hollywood
Studios including Fox saw salvation in Musicals. Many such as Doctor
Dolittle (1967) and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) lost
millions of dollars. Bitter film executives who failed to cash in or who
were fired because of being copycats blamed The Sound of Music for
ruining the movie business.
One person who had a great time was
Maria von Trapp who made a brief cameo in the film. She loved how
Hollywood changed things. So what if in real life the Von Trapps had no
problem getting out of Austria, that their real problem had been getting
past American immigration. Who cared if she had lashed out at her
stepchildren when they wanted to quit their music careers and had felt
uncomfortable all living together out of a bus for eighteen years. And
the best part was the handsome young actor they got to play the Captain.
When she married Georg he was old. It had been more for security than
love. When introduced to Christopher Plummer, the former would-be nun shocked him
by greeting him with a big kiss on the lips. "My God, darling I
wish my husband looked as good as you!"
Stephen Schochet is the author of the upcoming book
Hollywood Stories: Short Entertaining Anecdotes About the Stars and
Legends of the Movies. He is also the author of two acclaimed
Tales of Hollywood: Hear the Origins of Hollywood!
Fascinating Walt Disney: Hear How Walt Disney's Dreams Came
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