The Sound of Music

This essay was originally published in Musicals – Hollywood and Beyond, eds. Bill Marshall and Robynn Stilwell, (Exeter, England: Intellect Books, 2000), ISBN 1-84150-003-8, and appears here thanks to the kind permission of the publisher.

“What an impertinent thing to say! Me putting ideas into people’s heads! Really!”

– Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) to Jane Banks (Karen Dotrice) in Mary Poppins

Captain: Fraulein, were you this much trouble at the abbey?

Maria: Oh, much more, sir.

– Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and Maria (Julie Andrews) in The Sound of Music

It is widely acknowledged that the two films which established the blueprint for the screen image of Julie Andrews were the movie musicals Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) and The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). Of the six film musicals she has made, these, her first two, have proven by far the most popular and between them have contributed to the Julie Andrews persona that remains prominently fixed within the public imaginary. This onscreen persona – let’s call her Maria von Poppins – might, in one sense, be reducible to the conventional limitations of what, in many critical quarters, has been dismissed as a ‘squeaky clean nanny’ type, a prim and proper ‘Super-Goody Two-Shoes.’ But looking at both films we also discover more expansive, potentially subversive energies, fuelled by the distinctive force and focus of Julie Andrews’s performative presence.

Speaking from my own private imaginary, the presence of Julie Andrews, or of Maria von Poppins, extends back to a 10-year-old me, cloistered, like Maria, within the confines of a strictly regimented religious institution, in my case, a home for boys run by the United Protestant Association. The school librarian, Mrs Dray, had already recommended P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins books, most of which I would ‘sneak-read’ each morning in bed an hour or so before Matron would come through the dormitory, ringing the 6.00 a.m. wake-up bell. In such surroundings, both Mary Poppins and, later, Julie Andrews’s incarnation of her in the Walt Disney film version, proved to be beacons of light at the end of a fairly dark experiential tunnel.

Meanwhile, at school choir, we were being taught to warble both ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and the title song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein score to The Sound of Music. And once I had seen those hymn-like tunes rendered so memorably on celluloid by the same Julie Andrews, I was well and truly converted. A formidable feminine figure had entered my pre-adolescent consciousness, someone I don’t recall back then as being cold or priggish. Rather, she came across as warm and winning, possibly the absent sister I had never had, or maybe a fictional representation of that special fun aunt who singled you out for privileged attention and mutually shared secrets. Whoever, or whatever, Julie Andrews’s Maria von Poppins stood for, I knew I liked her and felt invigorated by the thought of her summoning me to sing, inviting me to dance.

So, at an impressionable age in a vulnerable situation, I sought some solace in Julie Andrews as she appeared in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. But what I, as a youngster, probably found so inspiring, even empowering, about one particular star and two of her movies, is fundamentally embedded in the diegetic strategies of the film musical texts themselves, and in the interpretive opportunities they yield. As Jane Feuer in her ground-breaking study, The Hollywood Musical, has pointed out, “Part of the reason some of us love musicals so passionately is that they give us a glimpse of what it would be like to be free” (1). Julie Andrews’s personification of Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp gave the child in me panoramic insight into the self-liberating possibilities of orchestrated joy, choreographed confidence and sung spirit.

In each film a singular woman descends upon a dysfunctional patriarchal world and sets about changing that world. In Mary Poppins that woman is more of a female entity, somewhere between a witch and a fairy, a gifted enchantress who floats down from the skies, propelled by an open, parrot-handled black umbrella. Nominally answering an advertisement for a nanny’s position, this beguiling creature swoops into the fragmented, fractured lives of a middle-class Edwardian household located in Cherry Tree Lane, London, circa 1910. The brusquely business-like, no-nonsense Mary Poppins turns the domestic universe of the Banks family completely upside down, functioning not so much in her appointed role as ‘nanny’ but more as a ‘governess’ in every sense of the word. She genuinely, totally governs, dispensing directives of delight, issuing Zen-like orders for living.

In a manner that she herself describes as “kind but extremely firm”, Poppins proceeds to unharness, liberate and readjust the mindsets and attitudes of the entire Banks ménage, especially the emotionally neglected children, Jane and Michael. With black umbrella in hand and quaint, cherry-decked, daisy-sprouting hat on head, Mary calmly re-arranges the familial agenda, ably assisted by a veritable carpet bag of magic tricks and the collaborative efforts of a friendly jack-of-all-trades, Dick Van Dyke’s Bert. In a sense, her seriously playful, anarchic spirit helps the Banks family find and cultivate the Mary Poppins inside themselves.

Visually, that self-transformative process is beautifully and poignantly spelt out toward the end of the film when the sternly chauvinist and Poppins-resistant Mr Banks (David Tomlinson) has his own black umbrella turned inside out and his bowler hat punched through in a grotesquely funny demotion ceremony enacted by the board of senior bankers who employ him. Literally stripped of his respectable ‘trappings’ (which also serve as inverted symbols of Poppins herself), Mr Banks cracks up, loses it, finally surrendering to the infectious impact of “that Poppins woman” and merrily regaling the board with tales of her deeds. Instead of humbly deferring to these ancient instigators of corporate authority. Banks departs from the scene, an umbrella-waving individual, blithely clicking his heels and triumphantly singing snatches from Mary’s signature tune.

Prior to Mr Banks’s conversion to the Poppins principle in the bank boardroom, we hear the strains of “A Spoonful of Sugar” accompanying one of the numerous highlights that are studded throughout the fabulously extended Chimney Sweep World sequence. The moment occurs early in the segment after Mary, Bert and the two Banks children have been swept up the lounge room chimney onto the rooftops of London to behold what Bert declares to be “a trackless jungle just waiting to be explored”. It is Mary who sighs, “Oh well, if we must, we must”, and who leads the troupe, mountaineer-style, across the tops of buildings, along to what seems a certain end point. Bert quite sensibly enquires, “As far as we go, right?” which Mary answers with a defiant “Not at all!” And then, using her trusty umbrella, she prods some nearby chimney smoke into the shape of a huge sooty staircase which the group ascends while the jubilant chords of Mary’s musical motif play on the soundtrack.

Apart from how this episode radically re-images smoke and smog into upper spheres of ethereally pretty pollution, it also delivers the positive picture of a transgressive alternative family unit, buoyantly afloat upon a cloud of industrial waste. Nothing is impossible and everything is (re-) conceivable within the world of Mary Poppins who is played by Julie Andrews with enough sweetly cool edge and sufficient serene control as to make the outlandish appear acceptable, the ugly look beautiful, the unreal become real. Andrews takes on what the original books’ author, P. L. Travers, calls the “Mother Goddess Kali” (2) aspects of the character with supreme grace and challenging ambivalence. So much so that it is wholly apt and fitting to witness the now fairly soiled-looking nanny announce to an outraged Mr Banks, surrounded by singing and dancing chimney sweeps in his own living room, that “First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear – I never explain anything”.

Mary Poppins

If Mary Poppins brings a kind of Utopian heaven to earth, then The Sound of Music‘s novitiate nun, Maria, affirms and virtually embodies a kind of heaven on earth, a heaven in earth. Mary Poppins might be out of this world, but Maria is utterly grounded within terrestrial space, standing on, and striding along, that hill at the beginning of the film and singing.

Singing about what? Basically about going to the hills when her heart is lonely and knowing she will hear what she has heard before. Maria is singing about feeling different and about taking empathetic comfort from nature. Her body language is unaffected, a bit gawky and bandy-legged, a bit tomboyish. She is something of a misfit, who is inspired, almost sensually re-charged, by music, the sound of it, the feel of it, the ineffable hit that it gives her (“My heart will be blessed/By the sound of music/And I’ll sing once more”). This opening song finishes with Maria hearing a beckoning convent bell and, after momentarily forgetting, and then fetching her discarded wimple, the misfit nun dashes back down to a very real, very social and political world (“Salzburg, Austria in the last Golden Days of the Thirties”) which she must somehow face and fit into.

How Maria goes about that existential adaptation makes for a remarkable journey. Her initially reluctant departure from the abbey, and her transfer to the forbidding von Trapp residence, where she is to take on the role of governess to a retired navy captain’s seven children, are bridged by the sturdily reassuring anthem, “I Have Confidence”. This hymn to specifically female (and more universally human) self-assertion is cleverly punctuated by Maria stumbling and tripping under the weight of a rather Mary Poppinsy carpet bag, and by coming to the song’s musical climax and letting forth a sheepishly intimidated “Oh, help!”

Once, however, Maria has entered the von Trapp household, she actively humanises, harmonises, and feminises these new environs. It is as if, with her love of nature and the hills, Maria comes down from the hills and ‘greens’ the cold, grey lives of the widowed Captain and his children, who march to whistles instead of finding time to play. The whole narrative universe of The Sound of Music is energised and enlivened by Maria’s fertile, feminine aura. As Jenny Craven observed on the film’s mid-1970s re-release, “Spring forever blooms around Maria”. (3) And what distinguishes The Sound of Music (and Mary Poppins for that matter) as a feminist, or proto-feminist, film musical is the selflessness of the heroine’s one-woman crusade, the magnanimous meaning of her mission. The overwhelming generosity of spirit, the all-embracing zeal which invests Julie Andrews’s performance as Maria is a large part of what draws so many people to The Sound of Music, what makes it an eminently replenishing text that celebrates the joys (and sorrows) of the journey to non-narcissistic, non-self-centred selfhood.

Certainly, to some degree, The Sound of Music, like so many musicals, is a Cinderella story, charting the metamorphosis of the young, awkward misfit into a socially confident princess. There is even Peggy Wood’s venerable Reverend Mother, on hand, as a kind of fairy godmother, urging Maria to venture forth and participate in the grand ball of life beyond the abbey walls. Yet, in a quintessential Cinderella film musical like Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957), so much of the Audrey Hepburn character’s transformation is shaped and moulded by the Svengali-esque fashion-photographer played by Fred Astaire. In The Sound of Music, instead of Astaire, we have Christopher Plummer’s Captain von Trapp, who, indeed, does not succeed in making Maria “come round” to him. The Captain actually “comes round” to her, and not just to her personality and charms, but to her principles and ideals (“You’ve brought music back into the house”.)

The ethical power-play between Maria and the Captain reaches crisis pitch in the confrontational scene by the lake, where, dripping wet from having fallen off-balance from a row-boat ride she has been sharing with the children, the rebellious governess, like some sort of sea-nymph emerging from the waters to deliver the message of love, resolutely stands her ground. The Captain questions her about the (significantly green) play-clothes she’s made for the children from spare bedroom drapes, reminding Maria that they already have uniforms. Maria refers to the latter as ‘straitjackets’, and moves on to the matter of the Captain’s distant relationship with his own children, detailing each child by name and his or her problem with their father. The Captain’s attempts to silence her on this issue (“I said I don’t want to hear any more from you about my children”) are shattered by her urgent plea, “Oh please, Captain, love them! Love them all!” This prospectively trite line is granted a simple, tough strength by Julie Andrews’s sincere, no-frills delivery. It is ironically apposite that when she persists with “I am not finished yet”, he impulsively blurts out, “Oh, yes, you are, Captain…Fraulein”. Emotionally, Maria has not only gained the upper hand; the power of her convictions, momentarily at least, earns her male rank and privilege.

It’s intriguing how easily the two roles of Mary and Maria become conflated in our viewing memory as a composite construct, the Maria von Poppins persona, when each character, as portrayed by Julie Andrews, is so discretely different. Mary, using the yardstick of her own tape, measures up to being “practically perfect in every way”. Maria, on the other hand, is described by her fellow nuns as “a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown”. Mary’s influence on the Banks family is characterised by subtle manoeuvres and cryptic responses, whereas Maria adopts a more spontaneously direct, candid approach.

Some of the essential polarity between Mary and Maria is demonstrated in the musical number from each film, in which the new nanny or latest governess, respectively, gets to bond with the children. Each number also presents a kind of dynamic, personal creed, a code, by which the Julie Andrews character defines herself.

Mary introduces herself to Jane and Michael Banks via “A Spoonful of Sugar”, a song about getting the job done, in this instance, cleaning up the nursery, “in the most delightful way”. Despite the segment’s convenient use of magic and special effects, the song’s lyric emphasises the enjoyment of the labouring experience, the pleasures to be taken in process, all dependent on what Mary calls “your point of view”. Nest-feathering robins have merry tunes to cheer them up. Nectar-fetching bees have the sweet taste of flowery fluids to jolly them along. Following Mary’s example, Jane and Michael have the spell-working art of finger-snapping to get clothes folded and toys tidied. No matter how fancifully or divertingly, an object lesson is indeed being taught. The whimsical wizardry warms Jane and Michael to their most recent minder, but the rapport being struck is instructively magical, mystical and philosophical. With smiling composure, Julie Andrews’s Mary establishes ready contact with Jane and Michael from a bemused distance.

However, it is from the cosy proximity of her bed coverlets that Julie Andrews’s Maria becomes intimately acquainted with the seven von Trapp children on her first night, a rainy one, in the von Trapp mansion. Blood-curdling sounds of thunderstorm and lightning send the frightened youngsters dashing into the new governess’s bedroom for consolation and comfort. What Maria offers is the advice that “When I’m feeling unhappy, I just try and think of nice things”, a notion that is musically elaborated by the performance of “My Favourite Things”. This consistently upbeat catalogue song lists those relatively ordinary phenomena which exhilarate and hearten Maria, from raindrops on roses to doorbells and sleighbells to wild geese on moonlit flight. The procedure is then taken up by the children who come up with such uplifting options as chocolate icing, Christmas, bunny rabbits, and (my favourite) a good sneeze.

The magical effect, here, is one of transcendently selective optimism, the ability to isolate the positives against the negatives, and to share that with others. The whole reciprocative routine is gesturally enhanced by the tactile connectedness of hugged shoulders, held hands, and joyfully jostling bodies overcoming fear. The spinning centrepiece is Maria, herself, centrifugally spreading forth, and actually embodying the dynamics of authentically mutual communion. Mary Poppins might deliver an enjoyably educative spoonful of sugar while Maria pours out her entire, subjectively exemplary being. Mary’s radiant reserve is counter posed by Maria’s active engagement, and the children in each narrative respond accordingly.

What does, of course, link both these numbers is that Julie Andrews sings them. The uncluttered sincerity and openness of Julie Andrews’s acting is matched by her unique and unmistakable singing style. Much of what is so memorable about Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music is how each score (by the Sherman Brothers and Rodgers and Hammerstein, respectively) bears the imprint of the Andrews voice, which, by 1963 and 1964 (when the films were shot) was in full, prime bloom. Apart from its vocal range, the recorded singing voice of Julie Andrews is quite remarkable for its crisp clarity and precise diction.

These traits are often rare in a soprano. Andrews chose to sing for meaning over colour and tone. The voice was not clouded by elaborate shadings, or decorated with ornamental trills in the high, piping tradition of previous cine-sopranos like Jeanette MacDonald, Kathryn Grayson or Jane Powell. It is a perfectly pitched, superbly articulated vocal instrument, ideal for the lyric-dependent songs of stage and movie musicals.

Yet, unlike, for instance, a Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli or Bette Midler, Andrews does not dominate or overwhelm a song to the point of egocentric appropriation. Nor does she swamp the material with idiosyncratic, personal embellishments. What she does do, and it is a substantial aspect of her contribution to the musical genre, is to honour the text of a song, to present, purely and simply, the song. Hers is a straight-shooting soprano that delivers the goods clean. While other performers seem to be proclaiming, “Here is my song” or “This song is me”, a Julie Andrews rendition transparently states, “Here is the song” or “It’s the song that’s being offered by and through me”. What might become lost in the way of charismatic overkill is gained through the ringing transmission of particular words set to particular music.

The Sound of Music

Perhaps it is her song-serving, text-honouring integrity of purpose as a performer that constitutes part of the ‘problem’ that is Julie Andrews’s Maria von Poppins persona. When morally dutiful female characters are enacted by expressively dutiful actresses, the effects can prove doubly ‘good’ or twice, even thrice, as ‘nice’. Like Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr and Doris Day before her, Andrews, especially in these two movie musical roles, tends to be remembered for her persona’s bright and beaming attributes, rather than the concomitant bolder and brassier qualities. The deferential respect and soaring purity of her song presentation only serve to reinforce this misconceptual foregrounding of clean gleam over gutsy grit.

But, nonetheless, both characters who constitute the Maria von Poppins persona exhibit pluck and spunk to spare. That Maria eventually consents to marry into the similarly principled Captain von Trapp’s clan, that Mary flies off, and all but abandons the re-integrated Banks family to the charge of a now benignly enlightened patriarch, are plot resolutions which do not necessarily diminish either female individual’s autonomous impact on each narrative world. As Richard Dyer observes, in agreement with Molly Haskell, concerning the co-opted denouements in Hollywood vehicles of the 1930s and 1940s, “the independence elements are stronger, more vivid than the climb-down resolutions”. (4)

If anything, the endings of both Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music depict movement upwards and onwards rather than the tidy compromise of downward resolve. Mary sails stoically aloft, umbrella out, against a twilit London skyline towards a horizonal beyond, pregnant with venturesome possibility. Maria takes up the rear guard of the von Trapp family, climbing up a mountainside, to escape occupying Nazis, forging ahead in the direction of personal and political freedom. The putative closure of these conclusions is bracingly, optimistically open.

If such climactic elation can be accomplished due to the story-steering efforts of a problematically prissy female protagonist, we must acknowledge the potency, indeed, the ground-clearing passion, of these supposedly antiseptic heroines, Mary and Maria. Of course the significant property of any antiseptic is to cure and cleanse, to effect a healing change. What Julie Andrews’s Maria von Poppins persona successfully achieves within the diegetic realms of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music is to leave a provocative mark, to question the status quo, to tunefully trigger upheavals on major and minor scales. For this, the Maria von Poppins figure deserves to be celebrated and saluted by those of us who may have benefited from her fervently invigorating, clearly defined, eternally spring-fresh essence. Hail Mary! Ave Maria! No problem.

Endnotes

  1. Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical, Macmillan, London and Basingstoke, 1982, p. 84
  2. P. L. Travers, interviewed by E. Burness and J. Griswold in George Plimpton, ed., Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Ninth Series, Penguin Books, New York, 1992, p. 41
  3. Jenny Craven, The Sound of Music (Re-Issue), Films and Filming, Vol. 22, No 10, July 1976, p. 40
  4. Richard Dyer, Stars, British Film Institute, London, 1982, p. 65

About The Author

Peter Kemp is a writer, broadcaster and lecturer in cinema studies in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.