The dominant aesthetic of commercial American filmmaking in the 1960s was that of unbridled size. Enormous action films with star-studded casts, like The Great Escape; sprawling ensemble comedies like The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming; grandiose historical epics like Doctor Zhivago. And, of course, the musicals. There's never been anything quite like a '60s musical: it sometimes feels like they were in private competition to see just how much bloat and monstrosity could be crammed into one movie. Especially when that one movie had the running time of two normal movies.

These films are - and I say this as an inveterate lover of musicals, and consider it to be maybe my favorite of all genres - almost all terrible. Saggy and painfully artificial, and the ones adapted from a stage source compound that with tortuously misjudged scene structure There's one exception though, The Sound of Music, an adaptation of the final musical by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, which premiered on stage in 1959. It was the film of 1965: dominating the box office everywhere but Europe (where its depiction of Nazis in the context of a thorough re-writing of actual history kept it out of theaters), winning the Best Picture Oscar and four others, and prior to the end of its release, coming close to setting a record for the most tickets sold for a single movie (it came in second to Gone with the Wind), and saving 20th Century Fox from near-collapse following the disaster of Cleopatra.

And like anything that popular and unavoidable and obligatory to see even if it's the kind of thing you never want to see, it has come under its share of withering criticism through the years, starting with its leading man, Christopher Plummer, who thought it was a saccharine piece of shit. That it is sentimental can hardly be disputed, and the songs are undoubtedly a bit sweet and gooey, but whatever, it works as cinema: much, much better than the stiff and soulless like of My Fair Lady, and considerably better than any of the other films based on Rodgers & Hammerstein's earlier (and mostly superior) shows, ranging from the grimly average (Carousel) to the grotesquely unacceptable (South Pacific) - I understand that there are those who admire the 1956 movie of The King and I, and good for them.

There are reasons for this that become entirely obvious if we compare the movie to the show, but even without cheating like that, it's clear enough that The Sound of Music is much less shackled by its source material than just about any comparable title. Most apparently, it has considerably shorter scenes than most stage-to-film musicals, and it moves between locations with much less forced, self-conscious "opening up" of the material. It's generally said that screenwriter Ernest Lehman did a great deal to fix the show, from the small matter of re-ordering songs (the now-standard "My Favorite Things" was not initially used to cheer up a group of children during a thunderstorm; Lehman smartly used it there to replace the comic yodel song "The Lonely Goatherd", which shows up in a new scene that slightly expands upon a subplot) to the more serious matter of refocusing the middle of the story away from a side character to give the plot a more streamlined flow, all the way to fleshing out the show's rather abrupt climax with more tension, story, and character moments. And in the process of rubbing the kinks out of the story, Lehman also "movified" it, enough to make The Sound of Music arguably the best screen adaptation of a stage musical that has yet been made, and certainly the most improved over its source material.

The story I imagine to be well-known simply though osmosis, even to those who've never seen the movie, or whose hatred for it has overwhelmed its content. In the convent at Salzburg in the 1930s, a postulant named Maria (Julie Andrews) has finally hit the point where the nuns responsible for overseeing her have realized that she's never going to make it in their life, and needs to see something of the world outside to help prod her in that direction. To that end, the Mother Superior (Peggy Wood) arranges for Maria to take a daunting job as governess for a certain Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), a widower with seven children ranging in age from 16 (going on 17) to five. The job of wrangling the children has defeated more sophisticated and experienced women than Maria, but she doesn't have an out. So with patience and steel will, she converts each of the von Trapp children to her lively, humane way of thinking and being and singing, eventually thawing out even the bitter, stern captain himself. In the meanwhile, he's been finishing up a courtship with the wealthy Baroness Elsa Schraeder (Eleanor Parker), and angrily rebuffing those of his countrymen starting to find themselves converting to the cause of Nazism, as it becomes increasingly obvious that Germany will be absorbing Austria, even over the objection of willful men of principle like von Trapp. And this makes life in the von Trapp household far more uncertain than even the love triangle between a stern father, an airily catty baroness, and a singing governess.

There's a lot of ways for this to go wrong, and it wasn't until seeing The Sound of Music onstage for the first time in the spring of 2014 that I realised how many of them it stumbled into, and how much the low-grade resentment of some of the cast and crew for the material did to keep the movie from falling into the tar pits of candy-coated insipidity. Plummer, as has been well-reported, had no respect for the show at all, and regretted the decision he made to appear in the film; onscreen, that translates into a barking sharpness that transforms the early scenes, before von Trapp has warmed up to Maria and the sound of music, from "silly cranky papa is being grumpy" to "oh shit, dad's home". Even afterwards, when Plummer can't be quite so openly contemptuous, he still keeps just enough stiffness and brittleness to his manner of standing and speaking that the film never quite turns into a cozy Christmas card of everybody loving everybody in the most saccharine way possible. And he makes an excellent fencing partner for Andrews throughout, obliging her to respond to his resistance as much as to what's already written into the character, thereby forbidding her from turning out the fluty, frivolous version of Maria that is an inherent danger of the part. Not that I think Andrews needed help: she'd already proven the previous year, with her film debut in Mary Poppins (the dailies of which helped to get her this role - Mary Poppins wouldn't open until The Sound of Music was already in production), that her idling mode was a sort of melancholy-tinged soulfulness, and her singing voice too full and warm to feel as brightly sweet as the worst kind of Maria. There is chipper happiness in her performance, but it's modulated with a quiet way of receding into herself every time she's not being called upon to be "on" for the children. I haven't seen every stage Maria, of course - I haven't even heard Mary Martin in the original cast recording - but it's hard to imagine this character emerging in a more satisfying performance than the one Andrews gives, mixing optimism, nervousness, and wisdom in a blend that perfectly allows her to emerge as a person and not a collection of positive characteristics with a guitar.

Then, of course, we have director Robert Wise, who initially passed on the project due to his disinterest in the story, only to step in after William Wyler, having done most of the heavy lifting of pre-production, lost interest before shooting was to begin. It is immensely clear while watching that Wise wanted to push the show to be more than it was: unlike a lot of musicals from any era, The Sound of Music doesn't feel like tedious book scenes putting a comfortable buffer around songs, but like an actual story about actual people, that at times finds it convenient to indulge in a song rather than speech. The location shooting in Salzburg does a lot for this, giving the film a sense of a physical place found in no other English-language musical of the '60s, and Wise incorporated the locations into the movie with a clarity of purpose that goes far beyond mere realism. Anyone could do spectacle, filming the gorgeous Austrian Alps in the Todd-AO system (Ted McCord handled the cinematography); Wise, uses the setting instead as a way of placing his characters in a particular time and place and context. Admittedly, that context is largely invented (the film's idea of the Anschluß is a bit on the historically outrageous side, and its depiction of the von Trapp's history quite detached from reality), but in all the scenes of characters lounging on the patio with magnificent mountains towering in the distance, or in the decision to set the bouncy "Do-Re-Mi" against a tourist's montage of Salzburg locations, the feeling that this story takes place in a real world, if not necessarily our real world, absolutely overcomes the artifice of the material.

And anyway, Wise never indulges the material; other than the subplot involving teenage Liesl's (Charmian Carr) infatuation with local boy Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte), which visibly fails to engage him, the director kept a slight detachment from the von Trapp children resulting in scenes that play more as "here is a child" than "awww, she's so cute". It helps that nothing in Andrews's or Plummer's performance encourages that kind of impression, and Wise's willingness to cede every frame to the cutting, sardonic Parker everytime she re-enters the script suggests, strongly, that he identified with her. Lo and behold, he manages to pull the film with him, just a little bit.

Now, this is still The Sound of Music. An excessively corny family-friendly sweetness is burned into any property with songs like "Do-Re-Mi" and "So Long, Farewell" and "The Lonely Goatherd" scattered throughout it (I confess this to be, just ahead of The King & I, my least favorite of Rodgers & Hammerstein's major shows, and I find that "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" so commandingly blows everything else out of the water that I'm even harder on the rest of the songs than they deserve), and even in its unexpectedly grounded, realistic, weighty form, the film is absolutely calculated to make any borderline cynic plunge into frothing, rabid fury. Wise & company only succeeded in making it address legitimate humans and legitimate human feelings; they did not find a way to make it sophisticated. But sophistication isn't the end-all and be-all and what The Sound of Music does better than many movie musicals, and all movie musicals adapted from stage, is convincingly suggest the way that the musical, as a form, is about emotions so powerful and rich that they can't be appropriately expressed in speech, only in performance and singing - something Julie Andrews, in particular, was as good at as any other film actor has ever been. Not everybody likes that kind of thing, of course, but for those of us who do, The Sound of Music fully lives up to its reputation as a classic, unabashed corniness and all.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1965
-The Biblical epic exhausts itself and implodes with the lengthy, soporific The Greatest Story Ever Told
-'60s-era teen crap reaches its artistic pinnacle with AIP's Beach Blanket Bingo
-A taste of things to come: Arthur Penn directs Warren Beatty in the French New Wave-tinged gangster film Mickey One

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1965
-Between Miloš Forman's Loves of a Blonde, and Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos's The Shop on Main Street, we really cannot ignore the Czech New Wave any longer
-Kurosawa Akira and Mifune Toshiro work together for the last time on the 19th Century character drama Red Beard
-Later butchered for release in the West, The Saragossa Manuscript is one of the major works of '60s Polish cinema