Like so many people who grew up with The Sound of Music, I was very sad to hear of Charmian Carr’s death this weekend at the age of 73. Carr played Liesl Von Trapp, the oldest daughter in the classic 1965 film The Sound of Music, a film that is still beloved by millions of people around the world. I have attended every Sing-along Sound of Music at the Hollywood Bowl since they began in 2001. Carr was a co-host at most of those events, regaling the crowd of 18,000 devoted fans with lines from “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” and judging the costume contest that saw hundreds of creative get-ups by toddlers and Drag Queens alike including countless Liesl Von Trapps. Charmian would often bring to the stage her movie brothers and sisters who would come to the Hollywood Bowl for the sing-along, and occasionally they were joined at big anniversary appearances by their “parents,” Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. I wondered why Carr was missing from the Hollywood Bowl sing-alongs in the past few years, I had no idea that she’d been suffering from a rare case of dementia that ultimately took her life on Saturday.
If there are any boys who grew up in the 60s who were NOT in love with Charmian Carr’s Liesl, I’ve never met one. Our feelings were a bit complicated. We all envied Friedrich and Kurt for having such a wonderful big sister, but we also longed to be the one to sing those words to beautiful Liesl in that gazebo:
You wait, little girl, on an empty stageFor fate to turn the light on.Your life, little girl, is an empty pageThat men will want to write on.
Oy. I didn’t say the Rodgers & Hammerstein song was a feminist tract! And why oh why couldn’t our sweet, intelligent Liesl see that Rolf was up to no good — attracted by the dark forces that were about to consume Austria and all of Europe? Oh, Liesl, Liesl, Liesl, he may be cute, but you need to run as fast as you can from that brown-shirted maniac! Still, seeing the couple dance around that gazebo, even though Carr had injured her ankle during one of the takes and was in pain during the filming of that scene (if you look very closely, you can see the flesh-colored ace bandage she is sporting), you could almost believe that this young, attractive, fresh-scrubbed couple had a blissful future in store.
I am sixteen going on seventeenInnocent as a roseBachelor dandies, drinkers of brandiesWhat do I know of those?Totally unprepared am ITo face a world of menTimid and shy and scared am IOf things beyond my ken.I need someone older and wiserTelling me what to doYou are seventeen going on eighteenI’ll depend on you.
Gone are your old ideas of life
The old ideas grow dim
Low and behold you’re someones wife
And you belong to him.
Charmian Carr might have bought that argument because while 20th Century Fox was grooming her for stardom (she had won the role of Liesl over much more established actresses such as Mia Farrow, Patty Duke, Geraldine Chaplin, Lesley Ann Warren, and even Sharon Tate), Carr did very little acting work after the film came out. Within two years, she decided to chuck her career, get married, and devote her life to raising her two daughters. She later started a very successful interior design company (her clients included Sound of Music screenwriter Ernest Lehman and Michael Jackson) and later joined the Sound of Music nostalgia circuit, writing two books about the film and hosting screenings. In 2014, she even recorded a new version of “Edelweiss” with the great-grandchildren of the real Georg and Maria von Trapp.
As a Jewish boy growing up in Chicago, I admit that I initially viewed the film with a fairly distorted lens. Here’s the thing: For a story about Nazis and World War II, don’t you think that Jewish people are curiously absent? There is not a single mention of a Jew in the stage play or the film. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the worst thing the Nazis did during the war was to force families to sing at music festivals dressed in their old bedroom curtains.
Throughout my early viewings of the film, I searched in vain for a single mention of Jews. Had Hollywood succeeded where Hitler had failed? Was their version of pre-war Europe Judenfrei — completely free of Jews? If Jewish director Robert Wise didn’t feel the need to include Jews in this story, I felt I had no choice but to find my own.
The first time I saw Julie Andrews twirling on that Austrian hilltop in brilliant 70-millimeter Technicolor, the image was so vivid I felt as if I could reach into the screen and run my hand through the mountain brook “as it trips and falls over stones on its way.” But wait! Wasn’t this the same woman who I saw the year before as Mary Poppins, the magical nanny every kid in the 1960s dreamed of having who was “practically perfect” in every way? I always wondered what happened to Mary after she left those ingrates Jane and Michael Banks in London. Now I knew — she went to Austria! In my feverish imagination, Mary had now become Maria, a postulate, or nun-in-training, at the Nonnberg Abbey in the hills of Salzburg. I already knew what nuns were thanks to my Catholic teachers Debbie Reynolds (The Singing Nun) and Audrey Hepburn (The Nun’s Story).
In my hunt for Jews in The Sound of Music, I finally decided that Maria herself must be Jewish. Maria/Mary was obviously a front for the name she was born with: Miriam. “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” the nuns sing early in the film, evoking the Nazi rhetoric about “the Jewish problem.” Indeed, I came to believe that the problem of Maria was that she was a Jewess masquerading as a nun. It was painfully obvious that she didn’t belong with this somber group. From the very first scene in the film, Maria breaks all of the convent’s rules by dancing and singing in the hills, missing mass, and messing up her clothes.
I hate to have to say it
But I very firmly feel
Maria’s not an asset to the Abbey!
Where were Maria’s real parents, I wondered, and why were they never mentioned? Perhaps the Nazis had already taken them away and Maria had found shelter in the convent down the hill from her Jewish shtetl. Some of the nuns, including the Reverend Mother, seemed kind and benevolent, like many of the Righteous Gentiles who helped hide Jews during the war. But others clearly despised Maria for her differences. Remember Sister Berthe calling Maria a “demon?” I wouldn’t be surprised if that anti-Semitic nun was hiding copies of the Nazi publication Der Stürmer under her wimpole.
The problem of Maria is eventually solved by forced exile — Maria is sent to care for the seven children of the recently widowed Captain Von Trapp, a hero of the Austrian navy. While Georg Von Trapp is a fierce opponent of the encroaching Nazi regime, he runs his household as if it were an SS training camp. The children wear uniforms and answer to individualized whistles. “The Von Trapp children don’t play,” the housekeeper warns Maria on her arrival, “they march!”
But Maria changes all that. On her first day, the mischievous Von Trapp children drop a frog in their new governess’ pocket and put a pine cone on her chair which makes her jump up and yelp in pain. Instead of punishing the little devils or telling their father, Maria thanks the children profusely for their kind, welcoming behavior. By the end of her speech, all seven are reduced to tears. Maria’s skill at instigating major guilt trips was another sure sign that she was Jewish!
How I envied the seven Von Trapp children as they began to blossom under Maria’s loving care. Liesl, Friedrich, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta, and little Gretl. What Jewish child in America didn’t want to be one of them? And again, what Jewish boy didn’t have a crush on Liesl, the eldest of the brood and the quintessential shiksa of our fantasies? How could we protect our sweet Liesl from Rolf, a right-wing Hitler youth, who later in the film (spoiler alert!) will inform on the entire family?
After Maria opens up the children’s hearts through song, Captain Von Trapp returns from a trip to Vienna with his new fiancée in tow, the Baroness Elsa Schraeder. Although rich and cultured, we soon learn of her secret plan to ship the children off to boarding school as soon as she and Georg are married. Boarding school? Was that another euphemism of the day, like the Jews being sent to “work camps” or “relocated in the East?” I wondered about Elsa’s late husband. Was Baron Schraeder a high-ranking Nazi official? The Baroness seems to possess the Nazi skill of sniffing out Jews wherever she finds them. “There goes a young woman who’s never going to be a nun,” she remarks after meeting Maria.
At the request of the Baroness, the Captain agrees to throw a lavish party just prior to the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria. The whole town is invited, including Nazi sympathizers such as the evil Herr Zeller who will soon not have to hide his swastika pin behind his lapel or muffle his “Heil Hitler” salute. Maria leads the children in a song that warns the Austrians of the dangers that lie directly ahead and of the “cuckoos” that are about to take over their beautiful homeland.
Regretfully they tell us
But firmly they compel us
To say goodbye to you.
It is during the party that the Baroness tricks Maria into leaving the house by claiming that the Captain is in love with the would-be nun. Maria abandons her post and returns to the Abbey, but the Reverend Mother convinces her that she cannot hide within the walls of the convent, she must “climb every mountain” in search of her beshert — her destiny.
Maria returns to the children and, sure enough, Georg confesses his love for her and sends the Baroness packing. Maria realizes that she loves the Captain and she can’t believe her good fortune. She reviews her humble past in the shtetl:
Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth
For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should.
Whether or not he should love her? Was this a reference to the Nuremberg laws, now in effect in Nazi-controlled Austria, that prohibited Aryans from marrying Jews? It’s true that as soon as the two tie the knot, nothing but trouble follows. They return from their honeymoon to find a giant Nazi flag hanging in their doorway and then Herr Zeller announces that the Captain must accompany him to Berlin at once to take a post in the German navy. Oy, has Maria brought all this tsuris on her new family?
Never fear. Despite the passivity of Pope Pius, the nuns hide the fleeing Von Trapps from their Nazi pursuers. Amidst glorious song and a breathtaking Technicolor sunrise, the family escapes by foot up into the Austrian Alps and down into the safety of neutral Switzerland. No matter that this maneuver is geographically impossible (the real-life Von Trapps simply took the train to Switzerland), it’s the perfect ending to a near-perfect film.
Today, the world feels like it has lost a sister. Kym Karath, the actress who played Gretl, the youngest Von Trapp child, in announcing Carr’s death yesterday, said, “It is with infinite sadness that I share the tragic news that the precious and exquisite Charmian Carr, beautiful Liesl, has passed away.” Her other movie brothers and sisters have spoken many times about how bonded they are as adults — their real lives as interwoven with each other as if they were an actual family. Which they are.