How Do You Hold a Moonbeam In Your Hand

If you recognize the title as song lyrics, you are probably already humming the tune. You might even break into song. How, you might ask with a smile on your face, do we solve a problem like Maria?

If you are singing and dreaming of the hills (alive with the sound of music), chances are your second favorite movie is something like The Princess Bride and you probably watch It’s a Wonderful Life every holiday season. And that’s okay. No need to apologize.

You stand in good company. My wife and I trudged our way to the theater Wednesday to see The Sound of Music on the big screen. Well, I trudged. Dragging my feet. There’s no requirement that I act my age all the time. My wife went willingly and on purpose with what seemed like a thousand other women. Talk about an estrogen filled theater.

I’ll admit that I like the movie, in small doses. It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t all that bad the first time you watch it either. But the 15th time. Only Rocky is worth watching that often.

Like watching Rocky on the big screen, though, I was surprised at how much I liked the movie. The opening credits roll as we get that panoramic view of Austria. It’s an idealic country, steeped in tradition and, importantly to the movie, Catholicism. In fact, those two things are carefully woven together to help us recognize later in the movie that the Third Reich is not only oppressive: they are anti-christian. (Crazy hollywood liberal agenda.)

Like Frank Capra’s holiday masterpiece, the movie opens by establishing its American bona-fides–family, democracy, christianity, self-reliance, and patriotism. The movie begins with Julie Andrews, sans habit, singing and twirling until the church bells ring. She rushes back to the abbey, even though we know already she is the ne’r do well nun. She’s late, outspoken, devout, inquisitive–she’s the perfect American, er, Austrian. Maria is a problem.

She’s also a hell of an athlete. I don’t think I realized until I saw her on the big screen just how fluid and fast she was. (Either that or the Von Trapp family kids were all a bunch of clutzes.) She takes off a couple of times looking like a ginger Usain Bolt wearing a dress. The flying nun indeed. She’s strong-willed, intelligent, has great comic timing, and if it’s not sacreligious, she’s kind of a hottie.

But the two movies are so dang long. Sound of Music has an intermission, for god’s sake. I’m pretty sure the child actors who started the film were smoking and drinking by the end. I know that’s what I’m usually doing. They are, really, two separate movies. In fact, if they made them today, we would hire Peter Jackson and he could turn them into a 6 part series. (It’s Still a Wonderful Life and The Music Still Sounds: Rolph’s Revenge.) And would it have been too much to ask for our Austrians to avoid sounding so British. (Except for Rolph who sounds like he’s from Indiana.)

On an intellectual level, I can appreciate what’s going on in both movies. The unwavering patriotism, family, love, and perfection of the movies’ first half is called into question after the intermission. George is desperate. We wonder if he will sacrifice his ideals. Maria leaves her one true love, thinking she has dedicated her life to God. The Reverand Mother saves her, reminding her that love, true love, is God’s will regardless of the target. This is a pivotal scene and captures, for me, the important religious ideology of the movie. Maria’s love, unadulterated and pure, for the Captain and the children does not negate her love for God. It reflects and projects God’s love.

The second half of the movie takes a political turn. The baroness, richer than stink we might say, vies for the Captain’s heart and Germany slowly takes over Austria. The Captain’s first song since his wife dies is edelweiss (a song about an Austrian flower written for the play). The Captain’s exchanges with Max show us clearly that choices will be made. Importantly, the Baroness is so wealthy, she gets to go back to Vienna without a worry in the world about the Third Reich, but the captian makes it clear that family and country come first.

But love, the movie claims, will bring us together. (A Captain and Tennille reference seems appropriate here.) Love of each other, love of country, love of God–these are the bedrocks of the right and just the movie claims. Late in the movie, as the Von Trapps are fleeing, the nuns pull the distributor caps. It’s a great moment of comic relief. From a film standpoint, it’s brilliant because it breaks the tension as we realize Rolph has given himself to the dark side of Hitler. But it’s also a great scene because the movie reinforces that religion doesn’t get to exist outside of the political sphere all the time. That’s both encouraging and problematic. Render unto Caesar, unless Caesar is Hitler?

And on the small screen, this drives me nuts. I like the Reverend Mother, even though when she sings she looks like the Emperor in Star Wars. Her advice to Maria, God’s walls might be a refuge but they aren’t there for us to hide behind, is spot on. God, the head nun tells us, is not an excuse to not live your life. She’s moral, upright, clearly in tune with religion. So, why, I ask, do they let the dirty Nazis in at all? Why not take a stand and protect the Von Trapps? Why does the subterfuge by the other nuns need forgiveness because they have sinned? The entire movie has established the real Austria with right, truth, love, and religion but the ending undercuts that sentiment by giving us a church unwilling to stand it’s ground against the mealy-mouthed, Hitler loving bastard trying to take the Captain away. More important for me, the ending seems a little simplistic. It flirts with politics and then turns its back, leaving us with the idea that Hitler’s greatest sin was ending the music.

None of that bothered me the other night though. When we headed into the theater I told my wife no singing. You could feel the pent up songbirds throughout the movie, There was a murmur rolling throughout the theater everytime Julie Andrews sung. It was like an understated Rocky Horror Picture Show and I found myself kind of hoping someone would burst out in song. I’m just glad no one showed up wearing dresses made of curtains.

And on the way home, I caught myself humming edeilweiss, wondering if I shouldn’t try to see It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen next Christmas. Don’t tell my wife, though, pretty soon she’ll think I like those sappy, overly sentimental movies.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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