"How do you solve a problem like Maria?"
Hollywood movies from Cinderella to Stepmom typically represent stepmothers as problems, or much worse, but The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) is the only film I've seen that solves the "problem" of a woman by turning her into a stepmother.
We first meet Maria dancing in green mountain fields high above the city of Salzburg; she's dwarfed by her landscape (as she will be dwarfed by buildings, institutions, and situations throughout the film), but carefree as she sings. She doesn't look like a problem, just a joyful young woman reveling in the beautiful countryside.
Tolling bells call her to attention and she races down the mountain only to arrive at her convent home late for Mass, again. The nuns have already been singing, "How do you solve a problem like Maria," and before long the wise Reverend Mother, one of the film's several childless mothers, arrives at her answer: send Maria away from the abbey to serve as governess to seven unruly, motherless children.
"Really?" asked my son Ben, when I told him the story of Maria and the von Trapp children. Despite my best efforts to entice him into watching the film with me, he kept wandering out of the room, more interested in his new Lego set than the singing and dancing on screen. But the idea of the pretty young Maria in charge of seven kids stopped him in his tracks.
He stared at the screen as Maria, a victim of the children's prank, bounced up from the pinecone left on her seat. He turned to me slowly and asked, "Is she a grown-up?"
Well, according to the movie, no. And that's the secret to her success.
The nuns' song began, "She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee, her dress has got a tear," and continues, "She is gentle! She is wild! She's a riddle! She's a child! She's a headache! She's an angel! She's a girl!" In case we haven't gotten it yet, the film soon shows her reaching up practically over her head to grab the doorknob of the von Trapp mansion. When Captain Von Trapp meets the gamine girl in her tweed jumper and her boyish haircut, he drives home the point, saying, "I'm afraid you don't look very much like a governess."
In fact, she looks barely older than the eldest of her young charges, Liesl, who introduces herself by announcing that she's too old to have a governess. Maria agrees, remarking, "Then we'll just be good friends."
It's one of the many lines stepmothers have used over the years to smooth the rocky transition with children unhappy at being presented with a new parent: "You don't have to call me Mom;" "I'm not going to replace your mother;" "Think of me like an aunt." Maria has it easier than most because these children are preoccupied less by mourning their deceased mother than by what's in front of them--their grieving, absent father.
So when Maria learns that he's courting a wealthy Viennese widow, she decides that her role as governess will be to prepare the children for a stepmother. What she does instead, with her games and her songs and her laughter, is prepare the father to parent again, with a different stepmother: herself.
But behind the oh-so adorably ruffian children, the carefully choreographed dance numbers and the fake-folk music of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, the movie is making a serious point. And maybe that's why Ben didn't want to watch it. I was inviting him to join me for a light family musical, but perhaps he sensed something weighty beneath the sweet frosting of this film even before the second act, when the Nazis roll into town.
The film's opening title--Austria "in the last golden days of the thirties"--prepares us to see the montages of Salzburg sights through a veil of sentiment and to note the political comments sprinkled throughout the film. A second montage closes the first act with more of those beautiful Salzburg scenes, now even more poignant because we know the Nazis are on Austria's doorstep.
When the action resumes, we see the Baroness ineptly playing ball with the children, quickly followed by the Captain's announcement of their (ultimately brief) engagement: "You're going to have a new mother," he tells his children. "We talked about it last night, and we're all going to be very happy." For someone whom we've heard sing so beautifully, and for someone, as well, who's been so outspoken in his resistance to the political takeover of Austria, he's surprisingly tone-deaf when it comes to his family. The fait accompli he presents to his children sounds like a dose of medicine, it smacks of backroom dealings, and it's hard not to think of the Anschluss, of the Nazis rolling into Austria for its own good.
The poor Baroness. She's no Hitler, not even close, but to a group of young children, her tight topknot and stiff ways make her a poor candidate for stepmother. Of course Maria, the free-spirit, the child, is the one that they love. And so when the Captain realizes he loves Maria, too, and inquires whose permission he should seek for her hand, Maria tells him to ask the children.
Maria walks up the aisle to her new husband without a word of dialogue, just a swell of music, the nuns' light song about their beloved problem, Maria, played now by a stately organ. The wedding scene fades to shots of church bells ringing in celebration, then fades again to those same bells grimly tolling over shots of Nazi tanks moving in to annex Austria.
When we next see Maria, returned home from her honeymoon, she stands taller next to the Captain; the children call her "Mother" and ask her advice. It's time to set aside childish games, and her songs, at a folk music festival, provide a cover for the family's escape from Nazi-controlled Austria. The problem Maria, the girlish Maria, has provided a solution for this one family's troubles, and grown fully into her role as a stepmother.