The Sound of Music and the Thrill of Screenwriting

1965-sound-of-music-photo1by Scott Holleran (@ScottHolleran)

This year’s TCM Classic Film Festival theme was History According to Hollywood. From films about Mexican revolutionaries and Islamic radicals to the 50-year-old blockbuster musical about a family fleeing the Nazis, the theme played well. TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, Leonard Maltin and others filled in for Robert Osborne, who announced that he had to skip this year’s festival for health reasons.

The Sound of Music (1965) marked its 50th anniversary, affording the festival an opportunity to invite its surviving principals to a special showing at Grauman’s (now TCL) Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, where co-star Christopher Plummer (The Man Who Would Be King, Malcolm X) pressed his hands into the Chinese’s famous forecourt.

But, as far as I’m concerned, the movie’s real star in its newest home entertainment release for Fox’s 50th anniversary Blu-Ray and DVD edition, is the subject of one of the 5-disc collection’s audio interviews: screenwriter Ernest Lehman.

For the writer, Mr. Lehman’s comments are fascinating.

The feature, Ernest Lehman: Master Storyteller, amounts to an invigorating monologue by the screenwriter about his work—Lehman wrote Executive Suite, Sabrina, The King and I, North by Northwest, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Sweet Smell of Success, West Side Story and Black Sunday—in which he examines Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music in various stages of development, as only the writer can.

For instance, Hammerstein told Lehman that he had seen his Executive Suite at the movie theater at Radio City Music Hall, an early confidence booster that made an impression on Lehman, who subsequently took it upon himself to all but bring the 1959 stage musical to pictures. Lehman explains that he’d approached Gene Kelly, who had directed an adaptation of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s The Flower Drum Song (1961), pleading with the great dancer at his Beverly Hills home until Kelly escorted Lehman to the property’s gate, telling him to “go find someone else to direct this piece of s**t.”

Lehman tracks The Sound of Music in progress, explaining that he also went to directors Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face) and Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, Sunset Blvd.), whom he says told Lehman, “No musical with a swastika in it can ever be a success.”

Lehman is the one who suggested William Wyler (Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur) to Fox studio’s Daryl Zanuck, who wanted Doris Day, who’d just finished Move Over Darling for Fox which looked like it was going to be a hit.

These stories, in Lehman’s telling, add to one’s appreciation for what became The Sound of Music. He convinced the Alsace, German-born Wyler to come to New York City, which he did, to meet Lehman and see the stage version. After that, the two were to meet Zanuck at the 21 Club.

Ernest Lehman explains that Wyler told Lehman after seeing the stage version that he hated the musical. Wyler refused to meet Zanuck. Not one to give up so easily, Lehman sold Wyler on the scene in which the father joins the children in song—Lehman pitched it as an expression of the child’s closeness with ones parents and vice versa, and as a dramatization of an almost subconscious universal longing and fulfillment—and William Wyler relented.

The legendary screenwriter’s story underscores that, in Hollywood, the writer is often an unsung visionary who marshals support for an idea as the springboard for the best pictures. Writing is not enough for the screenwriter; he not only has to be able to articulate his vision for the screenplay—he must also picture it, explain its meaning and may, in a given instance, be called upon to serve as the film’s unofficial fountainhead.

The Lehman audio commentary is only 30 minutes. But, in it, one gets a glimpse of Ernest Lehman’s greatness—he says he was influenced by the opening of West Side Story in writing the iconic opening of The Sound of Music—and he concludes that he sees the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as a “fairy tale that’s almost real” which he feels “will be watched a thousand years from now.”

Fifty years later, thanks to the screenwriter, audiences are still watching.

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