The Sound of Music hasn’t tarnished over time; it was always dated, always reviled by the learned. Rumor has it that Pauline Kael was fired from McCall’s for her withering review of it (“the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat”) and that Joan Didion was fired from Vogue for hers, which described it as “more embarrassing than most, if only because of its suggestion that history need not happen to people … Just whistle a happy tune, and leave the Anschluss behind.”
She’s right that the film hints at the limits of art’s power in the face of real danger. “Believe me,” Billy Wilder said at an industry party when he heard of Fox’s production plans, “no musical with swastikas in it will ever be a success!” Of course he was wrong—this was three years before The Producers—though the film might have contained more swastikas than it does. Before Robert Wise could be convinced to sign on, William Wyler was meant to direct. He’d lost relatives in concentration camps and was angling to add a military scene showing tanks decimating Salzburg. Instead, the film treats Nazism as little more than a vague threat to the Austrian aristocracy. At the same time, it capitalizes on a villain everyone can get behind, rendering the Third Reich a least favorite thing. Who among us doesn’t love siblings, lakeside villas, and grandma-chic floral prints—and who wouldn’t root for a Nazi-sympathizing boyfriend to get dumped?
When I was a tween, my mother, fearing for my intellectual development, suggested I try reading a book other than Charmian Carr’s Forever Liesl: A Memoir of the Sound of Music. This was long after she’d first brought home the VHS of the film from the library and I’d eyed the technical-sounding title with skepticism—even now it strikes me as something pulled from a course catalog, a way to make science credits palatable to humanities kids in the style of Physics in the Arts. But I watched it and was transfixed, the story of love in the time of fascism and marionette theater proving too much to resist. I promptly sought out the sound track and, later, Carr’s book. In September, Carr, who played the eldest daughter in the family von Trapp, died at seventy-three, of a rare form of Alzheimer’s. The Sound of Music, for which she was plucked from obscurity at twenty-one, was the pinnacle of her public life, and so the obituaries were short, with Forever Liesl getting little more than a mention.
In it, Carr recalls life on set, offering up fun facts and medium-grade gossip. She was one in a long line of potential Liesls (“rhymes with weasel,” the associate producer, Saul Chaplin, instructed on her first day), Mia Farrow among them. Casting notes reveal that reasons for dismissal included “too hammy,” “too-too!!” “can’t act,” “big in fanny,” and “a little too worldly.” Carr’s eyes were thought to be too blue—“life is like that sometimes,” she writes—but Wise decided to give her a try, and she happily started reporting to Soundstage 15 at Twentieth Century Fox. Better than that was shooting on location in Austria, and a room at Salzburg’s Bristol Hotel, where every night Christopher Plummer would assemble a crowd for some drunken singing at the upright piano.
Carr’s book came out in 2000, the same year my sixth-grade teacher announced that our class would put on The Sound of Music. I auditioned with fervor but lacked the talent to match, and so I was relegated to the understudy cast as the bookish Brigitta. Astonishingly, rehearsals were held in the midafternoon, in lieu of lessons: How could pre-algebra compare to this rare creative chance? I can still hear the sound of desks scraping against the floor to make room for the bed on wheels used for “My Favorite Things,” and the not-dissimilar sound of boys on the cusp of puberty shooting for the high notes in “Edelweiss.”
Perhaps more than any other song in the book, “Edelweiss,” which Rodgers and Hammerstein had dreamed up for the 1959 stage musical, speaks to the extent that The Sound of Music has wormed its way into our collective memory. Thinking it was a real folk song—and the Austrian national anthem to boot—Reagan famously played it for the Austrian president at a White House state dinner in 1984.
A recent story in The New York Times Magazine reveals that, as a child, Chelsea Clinton wrote a letter to Reagan imploring him not to visit Germany’s Bitburg Cemetery, where many SS men are buried. “I’ve seen The Sound of Music,” it read. “The Nazis are not nice people.” In October, while she was on the campaign trail for an election I thought her mother had in the bag, I went to the Soho Playhouse and saw The Radicalization of Rolfe, an unfortunate counterexample to the newly popular phrase “Now more than ever, we need the arts.” Art being good is not the same thing as art doing good, to say nothing of art that is bad. The Radicalization of Rolfe has as much right to exist as the next Fringe Festival transfer, but what about art or attempts at art that do damage, which we sometimes call propaganda? Kael thought that The Sound of Music fit the bill, predicting it would prove “the single most repressive influence on artistic freedom in movies for the next few years.”
If Didion took issue with the film’s historical dishonesty, Kael spoke of a general “luxuriant falseness,” finding the combined effect of the wholesome story and high production value to be emotional manipulation. One suspects she teared up in spite of herself during “Edelweiss” and vowed she’d never forget. “The worst despots in history, the most cynical purveyors of mass culture respond at this level and may feel pleased at how tenderhearted they really are because they do,” she wrote. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine our new president, a person who might be said to have confidence in confidence alone, tweeting something about the film: “Just wached the Sound of Music with Ivanka and the kids. Good movie, very successfull! Shows family values and when America was great!”
The line THE LAST GOLDEN DAYS OF THE THIRTIES appears onscreen after the opening credits of the film, which came out in 1965, as notions of postwar propriety were losing ground. Clearly the family at the heart of the movie is white, nationalist, heteronormative, and eager to be saved by a sexless nun. Ironically, though, the bland balm has appealed to plenty outside of these categories, remaining a favorite of the gay community and one ripe for riffs, from Doug Elkin’s “Fräulein Maria,” a dance show in drag, to the “VonTrapped” episode of Will & Grace. Some of us go to the hills not to remember so much as to forget. Rosie O’Donnell has spoken of the movie as something to pin her sadness on. She watches it whenever she’s in a funk, and at least once a year with her whole family.
In December, I watched it again with mine, and found it to be a less escapist three hours than I’d bargained for. At one point the captain, stewing on the terrace after being confronted with a “Heil Hitler” from Rolfe and apolitical complacency from Max, tells the baroness he’s afraid he’s “in a world that’s disappearing,” and this time the line didn’t smack of empty nostalgia.
Carr didn’t relate to compulsive repeat viewers. “I don’t understand that kind of obsession,” she wrote. “I’ve never felt such a strong attachment to something so intangible.” Perhaps, like my mother, she was a no-nonsense type who liked to pause in the doorframe of the TV room and tell her children to “do something productive.” Definitely Carr and her screen siblings were polite about deferring to their real-life counterparts as the ones who really did something. The true von Trapps, not to be blamed for looking more hearty than Hollywood in their lederhosen, really did have their assets frozen—Himmler used their house as his headquarters for a time—and relied on their voices to get by, eventually escaping war-torn Europe and running a ski resort in hilly Vermont.
This year, I’m hoping to channel their spirit and feel less useless, to read and write more, yes, but also to show up for others. Most likely I will not watch The Sound of Music again for a long time, four or maybe even eight years, and that’s okay. I’m glad to go. I cannot tell a lie.
Kate Guadagnino is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.