You probably know Robert Wise from his 1944 film The Curse of the Cat People.
Okay, maybe not. No matter. He directed 38 other films in a career that lasted from 1944 to 1989 and included films of every genre you could think of. Star Trek: The Motion Picture? That's his, too.
Wise worked in multiple roles, including director, editor, producer, and even (in one film) actor. He even helped edit what many folks consider the best movie of all time, Citizen Kane—which was his first legit film gig (source). Weird fact: he was the last surviving crew member of that film when he died in 2005 (source).
As a director, Wise's two most famous films were undoubtedly The Sound of Music and West Side Story, both of which were written by Ernest Lehman. Guess they made a good pair. Wise won directing Oscars for both films (though he shared the Oscar for West Side Story with co-director Jerome Robbins). As producer for West Side Story, he took home another Oscar when the film won Best Picture.
And get this: Wise almost didn't get to direct The Sound of Music. He was 20th Century Fox's President Richard Zanuck's first choice (Ernest Lehman's, too), but he was already committed to another project, The Sand Pebbles. So instead, they tapped veteran director William Wyler, who hadn't been wild about the Broadway version of the musical and had mixed feelings about directing the film. Apparently, he wanted it to be more about the Nazis, and the studio was thinking music, music, music (source).
Fortunately for Fox, The Sand Pebbles was delayed and Wise became available. He focused on the music, unsweetened the story a bit, and the rest is cinema history. Wise was surprised at the audience response to The Sound of Music. He told Variety in 1965, "I knew we had a good picture but I had no idea that it would become such a staggering hit" (source).
Did anyone, really?
In honor of Wise's amazing body of work, the Academy recognized him with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. This award isn't one of those awards that the Academy gives every year. Nah, they wait until someone's lifetime of film work blows them away. In 1966, that someone was Robert Wise.
Proud owner of six Oscar nominations (no wins, though), screenwriter Ernest Lehman worked with some of Hollywood's most famous directors. He specialized in adapting Broadway plays and musicals for the silver screen, including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The King and I, Hello, Dolly! and West Side Story. He was most famous for the Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest, which was actually his only original screenplays (source). With West Side Story, he paired up with director Robert Wise, whom he'd work with again in The Sound of Music.
Lehman did it all. A successful magazine writer and novelist, he took a spin in the producer's chair for Portnoy's Complaint (which he also directed) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That's some seriously impressive output.
The Academy agreed.
In 2001, Lehman received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first screenwriter to get that accolade. Oh, and guess who presented it?
Julie Andrews (source).
One of the big-deal Hollywood film studios, 20th Century Fox dates its founding all the way back to 1915 as the Fox Film Corporation. The studio really found its mojo when it merged in 1935 with producer Darryl F. Zanuck's Twentieth Century Pictures. They quickly earned respect in the 1940s with two Oscar-winning films, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941).
Zanuck wasn't afraid to take on controversial subjects like anti-Semitism (Gentleman's Agreement, Best Picture 1947) and mental illness (Snake Pit, 1948). The 1950s saw Fox with a string of hits based on Broadway musicals, including Oklahoma! (1955), Carousel (1956), The King and I (1956) and South Pacific (1958).
But when 20th Century Fox took on The Sound of Music, the company was in big trouble. Its last film, Cleopatra, had almost bankrupted the studio, costing $44 million (over $300 in today's dollars). The off-screen shenanigans between its stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, caused a ton of problems for the production.
Bottom line: The Sound of Music was an expensive gamble—one that paid off big-time for Fox. The film's smashing box office success saved the studio from financial disaster.
Fox still excels in big-budget fare and/or films that are likely to be popular with a wider audience... you know, stuff like Star Wars, The Martian, Avatar, and everything in the Taken series.
Not that we're comparing Maria to Yoda.
But we kind of are.
As TV became more common in American households, the studios needed a way to get audiences off their couches and into the theaters. New formats were developed to offer an experience you couldn't get on your tiny (pre-HD, pre-humongous screens, pre-surround sound, probably black-and-white) TV at home.
The Sound of Music was shot using a 70 mm Todd-AO process, a widescreen format that had been developed in the early 1950s and first used to film Oklahoma!. According to its developers, "TODD-AO 70mm film, plus the TODD-AO special camera, plus the TODD-AO newly developed 6 channel high fidelity magnetic sound, plus the TODD-AO 'all-purpose' 70mm projector plus the great arched TODD-AO screen equal the most revolutionary of all screen inventions, with clarity of perspective, detail and color reproduction never before achieved" (source).
In other words, there was a definite wow factor.
Problem was, you could only get that "wow" in theaters with those giant curved screens. The Sound of Music had a limited early release in major cities in theaters that could accommodate the TODD-AO format. The film was marketed to death, with exclusive engagements and reserved seating, just like a Broadway show (source).
Once people couldn't stop talking about it, the film then had a wider release.
With its $8.2 million budget, The Sound of Music encountered some hiccups in production that made it a little more expensive than anticipated, striking fear in the hearts of Fox executives still reeling from the financial fiasco of Cleopatra.
Shooting on location in Austria, much of it outdoors, wasn't easy. Apparently, the producers didn't know that Austria tends to be rainy during the season when they were shooting. It was especially wet that year. You don't have to be a filmmaker to know what that means: actors (many of them children) plus expensive equipment plus rain don't mix well, which means production delays and cost overruns. Production was delayed by weeks, and the crew spent days sitting around freezing and waiting for the sun to come out.
Ah, the magic of movie making.
A bunch of different estates and locations stood in for the von Trapp villa, depending on which view of the home was needed for the scene. Most interior scenes were shot on soundstages in Fox's Los Angeles studio, although some were shot in Austria. And those gorgeous Alps? They were the real deal.
Here's some fun production trivia: the film's most famous shot was extremely difficult to capture—and by that, of course, we mean that first glimpse of Maria twirling and singing on the mountaintop. That shot had to be filmed using a helicopter, and the wind from its downdraft kept knocking over the leading lady. They were close to abandoning the whole attempt when they finally got the shot. Director Robert Wise was watching from the branches of a tree, where he was hiding to stay out of the shot (source).
The movie ended up substantially over budget as a result of all those delays, leading the producers to fear that it would ultimately lose money and seal Fox's financial doom.
They didn't have to worry.
Even if you don't know it, you know Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the legendary guys who wrote the score for The Sound of Music. All those songs your parents and grandparents walk around humming? Chances are they were written by this dynamic duo.
Both men had been successful in collaborating with other composers and lyricists, but together they were the ultimate Broadway power couple, producing scores for tons of beloved classical musicals in the 1940s and 1950s, including Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, and Oklahoma!. Oklahoma!, produced in 1949, is considered a milestone in the evolution of the American musical. It integrated song and drama in a way that was a huge departure from earlier types of musicals that emphasized humor and fluff. R&H musicals were often adapted from plays and novels, another difference from earlier works in musical theater.
The Sound of Music was actually their last collaboration, and the bittersweet "Edelweiss" was the last song they wrote together. Hammerstein died not long after The Sound of Music opened on Broadway. (Source).
Like most Rodgers and Hammerstein scores, The Sound of Music score was originally written as a stage production. After Hammerstein's death, Richard Rodgers wrote some additional music and lyrics for the film, which is why the world now has "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good" (source). He also eliminated three songs from the original stage production.
The score that we know today almost didn't come to be. When the original stage production was being developed based on the West German film "The von Trapp Family," the original idea was to make it a play featuring songs that the actual von Trapps sang, as opposed to a full-blown musical. The show's production team thought adding a couple of original songs would be a good idea, so they approached Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.
Soon enough, though, everyone agreed that the new music didn't really mesh well with the Austrian folk songs, and so Rodgers and Hammerstein offered to do a whole original score. And the rest, as they say, is musical history (source).
What makes the score so unforgettable? Well, first, it has a ridiculously high "sing-ability" factor. There's a reason it's been a sing-along phenomenon, right? The songs are tuneful and easy to follow. And because there are children in the cast, lots of the songs are memorable to kids, too. Raise your hand if you learned your do-re-mi from Maria.
We thought so.
What's also unique is that the whole topic of music is a major part of the plot, so many of the musical moments are presented as actual musical performances—for the children, for the baroness and Max, for the captain's party, for the Salzburg festival. So the music not only makes a lot more plot "sense," but it also draws attention to the movie's themes. It's not coming out of the blue.
Some critics have felt that Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were too sweet and sentimental (The Sound of Music being a great example), but their stories dealt with serious themes: domestic violence (Carousel), racism (South Pacific), immigrant culture (Flower Drum Song), tradition vs. modernism (The King and I). And The Sound of Music has those Nazis (source).
It's impossible to overestimate the impact of R&H on the American musical theater. They pretty much created the modern Broadway musical and influenced generations of composers. Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, we could go on and on) has said that everything he knows, he learned from from Oscar Hammerstein. (And he knows a lot. How's eight Tonys, an Oscar, eight Grammys, and a Pulitzer?)
Richard Rodgers was the first person to receive every single award it was possible to receive in his field—an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony, and Pulitzer Prize. He was one of the first Kennedy Center Honors honorees (1978) and even has a Broadway theater named after him (source).
Hammerstein earned all the same awards except the Emmy, and if he'd lived longer he'd probably have that one, too. For only the second time in history, they dimmed the lights on Broadway when he died.
It wasn't the hills that filled our hearts with the sound of music. It was Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Since 2000, a sing-along version of the film toured Britain. With audiences dressed in lederhosen or nuns' habits, the film is screened with subtitled dialogue so you can sing your heart out and know all the words (as if you didn't already). As the film's 50th anniversary approached, the sing-along became a worldwide phenomenon.
Things can get pretty raucous.
The biggest fans were probably that generation of kids growing up in the '60s who, with their parents, watched the VHS of The Sound of Music endlessly and returned to see it in theaters over and over. In some towns, the number of tickets sold far exceeded the population of the town, suggesting that there were a lot of repeat viewings. One woman in Wales even claimed to have seen it 900 times (source).
In fact, the only place in the world where the film wasn't wildly popular was Germany and Austria. Germans and Austrians still aren't fans; they didn't like filmmakers messing with their true stories. And we're assuming there's that whole Nazi thing they'd like to forget…