Salzburg, Austria continues living to the tune of the global cinematic phenomenon
What was once the highest-grossing movie musical ever made — and with receipts adjusted for inflation, it remains in the Top Ten of all time — turns 50 this year. In Salzburg, the Austrian city where it was set, the tills are alive with The Sound Of Music. Yet rarely has a film provoked such extreme passions of adoration and disdain. And this love-hate relationship is at its most intense in Salzburg itself, where few citizens will admit to having seen it, even while they gleefully cash in on its global popularity.
Many of the city’s visitors are drawn by their infatuation with the story of the nun Maria who fell in love with the stern ex-naval officer Captain von Trapp to whose children she became a liberating governess, the whole family fleeing from the Nazis’ clutches at the last minute (and going on to sing for their suppers in the US as the Trapp Family Singers). They are charmed by the crystalline voice of a young Julie Andrews and the swan songs of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (the lyricist died shortly after the opening of the original stage play) — My Favorite Things, Do-Re-Mi, Climb Ev’ry Mountain, Edelweiss and, of course, (The Hills Are Alive With) The Sound Of Music.
Salzburgians had already read Maria von Trapp’s memoir and seen two highly successful German-language movies made from it. So when the Hollywood version arrived in 1965, having taken lots of liberties with the true story, they regarded it as a bowdlerisation and gave it a wide berth. Still, almost every travel company in the city sells Sound Of Music tours, restaurants and bars present Trapp Family tribute performances, and gift shops offer all kinds of movie mementoes.
High-minded movie-goers, or ones without children, who have somehow managed to avoid watching the film throughout its half-century of existence, may be surprised: it is a wonderful piece of Hollywood hokum. In a review that contributed to her being sacked from McCall’s magazine, Pauline Kael, leading intellectual critic of her day, called it a “sugar-coated lie” and said that audiences have “turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs”.
That may be so, but as a highly professional exercise in capturing two audiences with one snap of a clapperboard, it has no equal. Kids were and still are captivated by the almost fairytale storyline, oblivious of the political significance of the annexation of Austria before the outbreak of World War II, while the inner child in most adults is happy to clap along — literally, in the case of the phenomenon of ‘sing-along’ performances, where viewers dress up as their favourite characters and mouth the lyrics in sync with a bouncing ball that highlights them onscreen.
For an inkling of the perfectionism that went into the making of the movie, you only have to look at the roll-call of famous names that didn’t feature in its credits: Stanley Donen, George Roy Hill and Gene Kelly all rejected 20th Century Fox president Richard D. Zanuck’s blandishments to direct — and William Wyler was unenthusiastic even after scouting 75 potential locations in Salzburg. The job finally fell to Robert Wise, after three refusals.
Grace Kelly, Shirley Jones, Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, Leslie Caron and Doris Day were all considered for the Andrews part, and Bing Crosby, Yul Brynner, Peter Finch, Walter Matthau, Sean Connery and Richard Burton for Christopher Plummer’s role — Plummer himself only agreeing after some major script revisions. Victor Borge and Noel Coward could have played the purely fictional Max Detweiler, while among those who missed the chance of becoming one of the seven von Trapp children were Mia Farrow, Lesley Ann Warren, Geraldine Chaplin, Patty Duke, Liza Minnelli, Sharon Tate, Richard Dreyfuss and The Osmonds!
One of the attractions of an SOM tour, apart from standing in the footprints of the original cast, is learning the inside story of what actually happened when the cameras rolled. How the famous falling-in-love kiss between Andrews and Plummer in the gazebo, for instance, had to be constantly cut because the Klieg lights used to create shafts of moonlight kept making a sound like passing wind and the pair couldn’t help cracking up. It was decided to dim the lights and shoot the scene in silhouette.
On his real relationship with Andrews, Plummer told Diane Sawyer: “We should have had a huge smashing affair. But there was no time because she had her children with her, which was most inconvenient.” Andrews, who like her co-star was in a dissolving marriage at the time, admitted having had a crush on him, but said: “We were never an item, as they say. But now we are the best of friends and that’s lovely … probably because we weren’t an item.” One person who did fall in love on the set was Eleanor Parker, who played The Baroness who battles Andrews for the heart of the Captain. Her fancy was taken by one of the cameramen!
It is not known how many takes were needed to shoot the scene of a rowing boat overturning on the lake outside Schloss Leopoldskron, which stood in for the von Trapp residence, but prior to each one, Andrews and the kids had to be hosed down so they could appear wet again. This anecdote and dozens like it are liable to figure in the guide’s patter on SOM tours, which take in all or most of the movie’s locations.
But the city has much more to offer, as its citizens never tire of pointing out. When the real Maria von Trapp told the director that fleeing over the mountains to Switzerland would have led the family straight to Hitler’s mountain retreat at Obersalzberg, and asked him whether they know anything about geography in Hollywood, he replied: “In Hollywood, you make your own geography.” The von Trapps actually went by train to Italy — just a day before the Austrian borders were closed, so Wise’s comment is as true of history as it is of geography.
The real history of Salzburg is vibrant enough not to need any help from Hollywood. It is, after all, the birthplace of one of the greatest composers who ever lived, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and home to the festival that annually celebrates his genius. Chamber music, cobblestoned streets, centuries-old cafés with irresistible cakes and pastries, all surrounded by snow-capped mountains and rolling green hills … the city built on salt has everything any tourist destination could ask for without having to rely on nostalgia for a five-fold Oscar-winning movie (celebrated at this year’s Academy Awards by a medley of its most memorable melodies sung by Lady Gaga).
That will bring us back to Doh oh oh oh … Let’s give the last word on what some regard as schmaltz (exaggerated sentimentalism), others as gemütlich (cosy and warm), to its star Andrews. Asked by Diane Sawyer for a few of her favourite things, she replied: “Oh God, easy, easy! Grandkids. My garden. My dogs. Home!”