Opening Scene: The Sound of Music (Salzburg, 1930s)
They say give me the child until 7 and I will give you the adult. Well, I think I’m in real trouble. My mother was obsessed with The Sound of Music. By the time I was 7 I had seen the saccharine musical at least a dozen times.
I mean I’ve never become a nun, though I do wear black and white a lot. And I’ve never been a governess, though I once made a skirt out of an old curtain. And I cannot sing, though I’ve had delusional moments of running up mountains in full voice scaring the wildlife.
And then I went to Salzburg.
I ran through the foliaged arch aeroplaning my arms. I jumped backwards down those great stone steps singing. (It’s actually not very easy to do.) And I’ve gazed deeply into the eyes of a gorgeous man in the glass summerhouse under the trees. Though I think he was gay; he was happy to burst into song rather than kiss. Note to self, don’t meet men on The Sound of Music Bus Tour.
Perhaps I owe Salzburg an apology. Like many of the camera-wielding visitors there that summer I treated it a little like a trip to Universal Studios. Forget centuries of history, the place is just location after location. Here is where the children learnt to sing, there is where they climbed the trees and scraped their knees. They hid from the Nazis here, the children rang the bell for Maria like this, the wedding dress wiped its way up this church aisle right here. Where I’m standing. But, wait, where is the grill the nuns peered through as Maria exchanged her black habit for a white dress and married the Captain rather than the Lord? I’m sorry but some of this is just not adding up. You mean it wasn’t a documentary?
The Sound of Music was the film that saved a studio. Cleopatra had nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and it took a singing nun full of wise words and thrifty housekeeping ideas to save the day in 1965. Within one year, the film had it had become the top box office hit of all time, outstripping even Gone With The Wind. Scarlett O’Hara was another vamp who couldn’t stand up to that feisty nun.
But why? Why do we love The Sound of Music so much?
Julie Andrews, whose career never quite recovered from playing the singing postulant, thinks it’s because of the decent values, the scenery and the promise that if you have faith and persevere you can follow every rainbow and find every dream.
Christopher Plummer, who played the whistle-wielding captain with a broken heart of gold, hated the film and played every scene with a dose of sarcasm that turned him into a playful but stern heartthrob for generations. I spent much of my childhood confused that he was a naval captain in a landlocked country until a little history at school taught me that Austria used to have coast in what is now Croatia. My teacher was delighted I cared so much about learning all of a sudden. She was less pleased when my class presentation descended into a badly sung rendition of Edelweiss. My music teacher disowned me when I confidently answered that Salzburg’s greatest musical export was Maria von Trapp. (Mozart who?) And my geography teacher had
a similar loss of faith when I broke down crying the day I realised it would have been impossible to walk from Salzburg into Switzerland.
Smashed fantasies aside, the life lessons I took from The Sound of Music are as follows:
- Nuns always speak wisely if a tad theatrically;
- Nuns only argue in song;
- Nuns have no bad hair days and can probably conceal irreverent shoes under their habits;
- Some of my boyfriends might have turned out to be evil schmucks, but at least none of them turned out to be Nazi;
- Apple strudel solves everything;
- After too much Sacher Torte run singing across the Mozartsteg Bridge to not burst out of your tightly-laced dirndl;
- Retired Austrian naval captains who wear brown smoking jackets and carry riding crops in the absence of any horses will marry you not lock you in their basement;
- When you are really in love the world goes all soft and blurry;
- Bitch fights in club toilets should be sophisticated and urbane vis a vis the Baroness eviscerating Maria during the Ball;
- There are a crazy number of churches in Salzburg.
Never ever make the mistake of thinking this film is a piece of musical fluff. There are life lessons galore for all of us. I am the queen of the awkward goodbye – Maria taught me how to sing my way out of any situation. So long, farewell. Auf Wiedersehen. Adieu. And it poses some of the big philosophical questions of life: Just how do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? And I am still waiting for fate to turn the light on.
Like Maria, I wish the fictions of my life would spawn a multimillion dollar industry and be loved by generations. But failing that happy ending, I’ll go and ring that bell at the Nonnberg Convent. No one will answer because the bellpull is as false as my understanding of history, geography and marriage, but I am certain a wimple will keep the cold Salzburg wind out while I wait.