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Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Trapp Family ( 1956 ) - The Original Sound of Music

Every Christmas season for the past ten years, ABC has been airing The Sound of Music ( 1965 ) which has sparked a new holiday-viewing tradition for many. Well, nine years before Julie Andrews portrayed the real-life nun-turned-governess Maria von Trapp in the famous musical, Ruth Leuwerik took on this role in Die Trapp-Familie aka The Trapp Family ( 1956 ). 

Anyone who has not seen this German classic would be surprised at just how similar it is to the 1965 Robert Wise remake... and how quickly the story chugs along without the musical interludes. Yes, the original The Sound of Music was not a musical! There are, of course, a few numbers that the children perform for their audiences ( and one lovely piece that Ruth Leuwerik sings to the children ), but instead, the film focuses more on Maria befriending the Trapp household and how they made their start in America as a family. 

Die Trapp-Familie begins in Salzburg in the early 1930s. Maria, a happy energetic novice who teaches children at a convent, learns from her superior that she will be sent to the home of Captain von Trapp ( Hans Holt ) to tutor his seven children. The task is not an easy one for the children have driven away 26 governesses within the past four years, but Maria quickly gains their admiration and their love. She also wins the affection of their father, and within a short period they wed. As the children's governess, Maria had taught the children to laugh and play - and to sing - which is something they had not done with the disciplinarian naval captain. 
When the local priest, Dr. Wasner ( Josef Meinrad ) hears the children singing together, he helps to train them so that they may perform for charity benefits. It is during one of these benefits that a talent scout for an American song agency notices them and offers the family a contract to perform in the States. This proves to be a fortunate invitation because Captain von Trapp had lost much of his wealth during the Depression and the Nazis emergence made Maria and the Captain realize it was time to leave Austria which was becoming a totalitarian regime. However, their arrival in the States isn't all roses and fanfare, especially when the talent scout informs them that their act is no longer wanted and they find themselves Trapp-ed at Ellis Island! 

Die Trapp Familie is a beautiful film with a lot of heart. It bears many similarities to The Sound of Music, from the lovely cinematography down to the almost identical costume designs, and it differs only in its emphasis on certain aspects of the von Trapps' life. For example, the drama of the rise of the Nazi power and how this influenced the Captain to flee Austria is very much downplayed. Also, the children are not as predominately featured and are younger than they were cast in The Sound of Music. 
What I enjoyed most about the original film is its realistic portrayal of the von Trapps coming to America. In typical Hollywood fashion, The Sound of Music closes sensationally with Christopher Plummer, Julie Andrews, and the children climbing the Alps into Switzerland carrying all of their belongings on their backs. In Die Trapp Familie we see them at the overcrowded immigration gateway of Ellis Island huddled together with other immigrants awaiting entrance into the States. When they are told that it would be weeks before they are permitted to work, Maria cries, blaming herself for bringing the family into this situation. Somehow this seems much more credible! 

The film also boasts an impressive cast comprised of some of Germany's most famous stars. Ruth Leuwerik, who is often cited as the First Lady of German Cinema, is an enchanting Maria von Trapp. She deftly portrays Maria in all her stages of growth: as a youthful zealous nun, to a clever governess, to a protective mother of seven. Hans Holt is a much more appealing Captain von Trapp than Christopher Plummer, while the children are excellently cast, too. 
Upon its release, Die Trapp Familie was such a box-office sensation in Europe that a sequel - Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika - shortly followed which depicted the family's continuing adventures in Vermont. Unfortunately, the US release of The Trapp Family in 1956 did not fare well. It was not until The Sound of Music hit theaters in 1965 that audiences fell in love with the story of the von Trapps, undoubtedly due to the appeal of the beautiful Rodgers & Hammerstein melodies. 

3 comments:

  1. I never even knew of this version! The photos even remind me of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I hope you plan to review the sequel.... On sad note, I saw that Heather Menzies Urich, who played Louisa Von Trapp in SOUND OF MUSIC, died yesterday at age 68. I just interviewed her last month.

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    1. I think you'd really like this version, Rick. Its easy to find online ( and with English subtitles ) and you'll note right away how similar it is in style to TSOM. Yes, I heard about Heather Urich passing away. It's ironic that you just interviewed her...68 years old, she wasn't old at all.

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