The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
Studio executives probably lie awake at night, wishing something like The Sound Of Music would fall into their laps. There was plenty of reason to think the movie might be a success. It had a star, Julie Andrews, who’d just broken out with Mary Poppins, a tremendous hit. She’d won an Oscar for it, too, which didn’t hurt. It also had a director, Robert Wise, whose previous musical, West Side Story, had also been a much-loved smash and an Oscar juggernaut. More good signs: The Sound Of Music was based on a successful Broadway play from Rodgers and Hammerstein, the duo who had already been responsible for big musicals like Oklahoma! and South Pacific. So The Sound Of Music was in a position to succeed. But its success was way, way beyond what anyone involved imagined. It must’ve been like waking up to find a truck dumping piles of money in your front lawn.
Some mind-boggling statistics: For more than half of 1965, The Sound Of Music was the number one movie at the box office. Within a year and a half, it had replaced Gone With The Wind as the highest-grossing film of all time. It was also the first to earn more than $100 million at the box office. And it remained in theaters for four and a half years. More than a decade after its release, ABC paid $15 million—nearly twice the movie’s budget—to show The Sound Of Music on TV once. And it’s still making money.
Rodgers and Hammerstein have been dead for 40 and 59 years, respectively. But this year, Ariana Grande interpolated the Sound Of Music song “My Favorite Things” on her single “7 Rings,” which was the number one song in the country for eight weeks. The New York Times reports that 90 percent of the track’s publishing went to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Fifty-four years on, someone is still getting rich from The Sound Of Music.
The Sound Of Music wasn’t a small movie. It had an $8 million budget, which wasn’t chump change in 1965. Fox put real money into the production. But it wasn’t a tentpole. It caught fire anyway, probably saving the studio after it had dumped millions upon millions into making Cleopatra a few years earlier.
Why did The Sound Of Music land the way it did? Why did it capture the public imagination so completely? It had familiarity working for it. Maria von Trapp, Julie Andrews’ character, is a more dewy and ditzy character than Mary Poppins. But this was another story of Andrews working as a nanny for the anarchic children of an uptight rich guy, teaching both the kids and, eventually, the father to find joy in life. It must’ve been comforting to see Andrews in a role to which she was clearly well-suited. And people would’ve known the songs, too; the Broadway cast recording of The Sound Of Music had been the best-selling album in America in 1960. (This was an era when Broadway cast recordings routinely sold millions.)
And The Sound Of Music was also probably the least bloody World War II movie ever made. American moviegoers had gotten used to big, chaotic spectacles like The Longest Day. But all of The Sound Of Music takes place before the war even begins. The big issue is Anschluss, the Nazis’ annexation of Austria. Captain von Trapp doesn’t like the idea, so he sneaks his family out, and that’s how the movie ends. Nobody is caught. Nobody is killed. There are a few extremely non-suspenseful suspense scenes where the Nazis almost catch the von Trapps, but I can’t imagine that anyone watching the movie was seriously concerned that these kids might meet a bad end. Instead, the captain gets to sing his farewell to the country, in a scene clearly modeled on the “La Marseillaise” bit from Casablanca, and then the credits roll on the family happily traipsing over the Alps to freedom. In a time when World War II was very much still within living memory, it must’ve been reassuring to see this whole gigantic clan escape the morass unscathed.
But here’s my theory on why The Sound Of Music resonated: It’s good. There’s plenty wrong with the movie—it’s hacky and sentimental and obvious. But it’s hacky and sentimental and obvious in profoundly satisfying ways. The songs are great. The performances are great. The scenery and cinematography are stunning. It’s classic Hollywood sweep-you-off-your-feet stuff, a simple and undemanding sort of escapism.
A whole lot of the appeal comes down to Julie Andrews, who’d only really been in movies for about a year. (Andrews is still around, a grand enough presence to play a giant sea monster in Aquaman. But those early rookie years were something else. Has any star had a run comparable to Mary Poppins and The Sound Of Music in back-to-back years?) In The Sound Of Music, Andrews is an overwhelmingly pleasant presence, a human sun ray. All through the movie, she’s the one character who always seems to know what she’s doing, and who never does anything selfish or nasty or fucked-up. The movie introduces her spinning around on a hill in a majestic helicopter shot, and it regards her with that same kind of besotted awe throughout.
Even before anything resembling a story kicks in, we understand that Maria is a pure and searching soul, a sort of manic pixie dream nun. And as soon as she meets the movie’s kids—charmingly establishing herself as a force for warmth and then expertly guilting them over putting a frog in her pocket—she becomes both an idealized mother figure and an idealized older-sister type.
Andrews’ love story with Captain von Trapp isn’t especially convincing. (It’s weird to think how much of the story works as a gender-reversed version of the second season of Fleabag.) But Maria’s love story with those kids might be the best thing about the film. And from what we know about the actual Maria von Trapp, that’s pretty accurate to her real experience. She later wrote that she’d never been in love with the 25-years-older captain but that she really loved the kids she’d been charged with taking care of. There’s nothing much accurate about the story of The Sound Of Music; it fudges just about every biographical detail imaginable. But in the way she treats those kids, Andrews finds a sense of truth in it anyway.
Christopher Plummer is good, too. He hated the movie, and he hated acting in it. Plummer was a highly touted stage actor with only a few movies on his resume, and he thought of the movie as sentimental junk. Only a few years ago, Plummer called it “awful and sentimental and gooey,” and he was drunk for at least some of its filming. And yet he sells the character, even the abrupt moment where the captain goes from cartoonishly harsh disciplinarian to warm and supportive nurturer. Plummer made sure that we know the captain is only an asshole because he’s mourning his dead wife, and when he shakes that off, he carries himself with a great humor, as though he’s suddenly genuinely entertained by his kids’ exploits.
Since The Sound Of Music, Plummer has played dozens of roles, most of them far more forgettable. For reasons related to my age and my own shitty taste, I still think of him mostly as the villainous televangelist guy from the 1987 Dragnet movie. So it’s striking to see Plummer so young and vital and good, and to see him resembling Michael Fassbender.
The movie looks incredible. So many of the Broadway adaptations from that time looked stilted and stage-bound. But rather than shooting on sound stages, Robert Wise filmed much of the movie in Austria, capturing all that ridiculously gorgeous mountain scenery in vivid color, which makes for a more immersive experience. Most of the film looks like it was shot during the golden hour. Choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood had already worked with Andrews on Mary Poppins, and they figured out how to make all those dance moves look like they existed within that world, even when that choreography has to involve kids on bikes.
There are issues, of course. Like just about every big movie of its era, The Sound Of Music is at least half an hour too long. The kids are a bit much, and other than the oldest daughter, none of them have much of a distinct personality. The idea of a seven-kid family where the kids never fight with each other is a beautiful and absurd fantasy. We’re forced to buy a few sudden implausibilities. Those kids, for instance, transform into expert singers awfully quickly, and they become marionette virtuosos even faster. And if I were ever at a party where a vast mob of kids forced you to listen to a precious goodnight song, it would be unendurable. I’d jump out a window by the time they hit the second chorus.
Still, the movie almost never loses its warm glow. For the first half, it sets the baroness, the captain’s rich gold-digging girlfriend, up as the villain. But when she realizes that he’s in love with Maria, she handles it a whole lot better than you or I probably would. Just like every non-Nazi in the movie, she’s fundamentally a good person, so she wishes everybody well and disappears. But there are Nazis, and the movie doesn’t let them off the hook. The telegram kid who sings the creepy, paternalistic love song to the oldest daughter turns enthusiastically toward fascism at first opportunity; it’s almost a relief to realize that you were never supposed to like him. And there’s something magical about a movie that deals with the rise of the Third Reich by having a little kid say, “Maybe the flag with the black spider on it makes people nervous.”
Somehow, I don’t think I’d ever seen The Sound Of Music all the way through before writing about it for this column. It was just one of those things. As a kid, I’d see the lady spinning around on the hill, and I’d turn the TV off and go throw rocks at my friends instead. I wasn’t looking forward to watching it as an adult, either. But upon seeing it, I realized that I’d absorbed most of the movie just by being alive in the world for the past few decades. The Sound Of Music is a film without high stakes or realistic characters or historical accuracy. It’s something else. It’s a relentlessly pleasing and upbeat three hours, a warm cinematic bath. It charmed audiences in 1965 for the same reason that it charmed me now. It’s charming.
The contender: The obvious thing here would be to name David Lean’s ponderous epic Doctor Zhivago, the number two movie of 1965. Doctor Zhivago, like The Sound Of Music, was absolutely huge. (Adjusted for inflation, it’s the number eight highest grosser of all time. The Sound Of Music is number three.) And in that vast decade-spanning story of people trying to keep their families together while history keeps trying to tear them apart, there’s a lot of good stuff. (The ending, in particular, is shattering.) But Doctor Zhivago is slow going, and a lot of it is rough. Watching it today feels more like binging a six-episode miniseries than watching a single discrete movie.
So instead, I’m giving this distinction to Elliot Silverstein’s Cat Ballou, a sort of screwball Western that never loses momentum or settles for being anything less than delightful. Cat Ballou made Jane Fonda a star, and it won an Oscar for Lee Marvin, getting the all-time great movie tough guy to play both a drunken slob of a gunfighter and a cold-blooded killer with a fake metal nose. My favorite touch is probably the way the film uses Nat King Cole and the vaudeville comic Stubby Kaye as a Greek chorus, singing about Cat Ballou’s exploits even as they amble through the scenes of her life. The whole thing makes for a relentlessly entertaining slapstick shoot-’em-up, and it made me laugh in the same stupid and genuine holy-shit ways that Jackie Chan movies make me laugh.
Next time: Notorious hard-ass auteur John Huston attempts to adapt a little-known literary work with the epic and episodic The Bible: In The Beginning....