The Hills Are Still Alive: 50th Anniversary of "The Sound of Music"

Today on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. premiere of "The Sound of Music," we're celebrating with a look back at some fun facts about the making of the classic movie musical.
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The Sound of Music Photo

A still from the iconic opening scene of the film version of "The Sound of Music," starring Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp. (Photo: ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Time to don your lederhosen and practice your scales—The Sound of Music is celebrating its 50th birthday today. When Robert Wise’s film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit Broadway musical was released March 2, 1965, probably most of the participants were not dreaming of the kind of extraordinary staying power the movie has exhibited; they were just concerned that it make back its $8 million cost and keep the creditors from beleaguered 20th Century-Fox’s door. Star Julie Andrews was probably most worried that portraying another wholesome nanny after Mary Poppins would shackle her image and career (a valid concern, as it turned out). But the movie has persevered through re-releases and broadcast and home video and sing-alongs and Carrie Underwood. Even the haters may find it hard to resist knowing a few facts about the making of the movie.

1) Maria von Trapp sold the rights to her life story for a song. After her book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers was published in 1949, there was interest from various quarters in buying the film rights. In 1955, the Trapp family was strapped for money and Maria sold the rights to German movie producer Wolfgang Reinhardt for a flat $9,000. She and her family would see no royalties from the two subsequent German films based on the Trapp family’s adventures, or from the Broadway production of The Sound of Music, which ran for more than three years, or from the film version, which has grossed around $300 million.

2) 20th Century-Fox almost didn’t make The Sound of Music. When the Broadway show opened in 1959 and proved to be such a smash hit, the studio, which had already produced four R&H adaptations, bought film rights for $1.25 million. Then came Cleopatra—the $40 million drain on studio resources that temporarily shut Fox down and made any new expensive undertaking an iffy proposition. It was only when Richard Zanuck took over Fox production reins that the property was revived.

3) If William Wyler had had his way, film audiences would have seen a much grittier Sound of Music. Wyler, a Swiss-German Jew who had won three Best Director Oscars, was originally assigned to direct the film. He envisioned a lot more Nazis, swastikas, and cheering Austrian crowds to greet the Anschluss that takes up the movie’s final stretch. Eventually, Wyler decided to direct the disturbing psychological thriller The Collector instead, and Robert Wise, who had guided the film version of West Side Story to 10 Oscars, came onboard.

4) Doris Day as Maria? Walter Matthau as Captain von Trapp? Yes, the all-American Day was seriously considered for the role, along with Leslie Caron, Anne Bancroft, and even Grace Kelly, aka Princess Grace of Monaco. And Matthau was actually tested, with other names from Yul Brynner to Bing Crosby also floated for the part of Maria’s employer/paramour. Luckily, footage of Andrews in Mary Poppins was available to the filmmakers and she became the top choice. And Christopher Plummer was selected for the dash of danger he could bring to the Captain.

5) Liesl was a bit older than “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” Charmian Carr was 21 going on 22 when she portrayed the eldest Trapp sibling. Nonetheless, she beat out competitors like Lesley Ann Warren, Teri Garr, Sharon Tate, and Mia Farrow for the role.

Sound of Music Photo

Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and governess Maria (Julie Andrews) with the seven musical von Trapp children. (Photo: ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

6) Julie Andrews had a hair malfunction shortly before shooting started in March 1964. An attempt to give the star’s natural dark brown locks a few blond highlights resulted in something closer to orange. To get her presentable for “My Favorite Things,” the first number to be filmed at Fox Studios, Andrews’ hair was bleached to Maria’s familiar golden color.

7) Though the singing voices of Christopher Plummer and Peggy Wood’s Mother Abbess were dubbed, the real voices of the actors playing the seven Trapp kids were recorded. But so were seven additional children’s voices and five adult voices to fill out the sound. 

8) Shooting “Do-Re-Mi” was not exactly as easy as ABC. The Salzburg, Austria location filming that served The Sound of Music so well was a nearly constant battle against the elements, since it was a very wet and chilly spring in the Trapps’ hometown. Waiting for the sun extended location shooting from eight to eleven weeks, and the “Do-Re-Mi” number, which occupies about nine minutes of screen time, took almost two months to complete.

9) Just after that famous Alpine opening twirl during the title number, Julie Andrews was knocked onto her English tush. Repeatedly, on take after take. The helicopter that captured this famous moment so thrillingly also caused a downdraft that not even the Andrews resolve could withstand. Luckily, the problem only occurred after the helicopter had passed, so no footage of Julie taking a pratfall made it on camera.

Sound of Music Photo

Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews were filmed in shadow to conceal a fit of the giggles during their romantic duet "Something Good." (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest)

10)  Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer were shot in silhouette during the “Something Good” number to cover up a fit of giggles. Back in Hollywood, during one of the last scenes filmed, Andrews and Plummer were getting punchy. The arc lights hung over the gazebo set kept producing, in the actress’ words, “a raspberry sound.” Nothing could stem the tide of hilarity sweeping over the love scene, so cinematographer Ted McCord cast his romantic leads in shadow. A Sound of Music with fart jokes? Who knows, it might have given the film a whole new fan base.

To learn much, much more about the making of the movie, a very good place to start is Tom Santopietro’s book The Sound of Music Story (St. Martin’s Press, 2015)