There are innumerable critical choices involved in the production of a great film, but one of the most apparent (and important) is determining how an important character first appears. It can happen in a flash, or slowly build to a satisfying reveal, but however achieved, much of a movie’s success can hinge on these moments. Heroes, villains, and anyone in between; the first impression is often how we remember them for the rest of our lives, so filmmakers had better make it count. How to Make an Entrance hopes to celebrate some of the greatest film character entrances of all time by attempting to examine and explore why they work so well — and along the way, perhaps reintroduce readers to some classic cinema friends.
Maria in The Sound of Music (1965)
How do you solve a problem like introducing a plucky musical heroine whose personal story is set against an epic backdrop? The hills are alive in The Sound of Music, but because of an iconic entrance by its main character, it’s Maria who initiates the film’s real spark. She’s not just spinning around that mountaintop like an idiot for no reason, folks; there’s calculated movie magic at play here. Whether you count this sometimes saccharine story among a few of your favorite things, or can’t wait for it to say “so long, farewell,” the way in which Sister Maria is first shown on screen in this 1965 classic is constructed perfectly to tell the audience everything they need to know about the character, as well as the general spirit of the film itself.
Starting out high in the alps, the initial shots are icy and frigid. Soon, however, the birds begin to chirp, and viewers are treated to stunning aerial shots of sparkling lakes, lush forests, and green meadows. The transition from a cold environment to a warmer one might be coincidence — but it also might just telegraph the transformation that the Von Trapp family is about about to go through courtesy of their soon-to-be governess, who fittingly is the destination of the sequence. Establishing the rugged but beautiful terrain also suggests the untamed, natural essence of Maria’s character, while the picturesque villages that dot the landscape are apt representations of her more wholesome, civilized side.
It’s a calculated, primal opening that surely appeals to anyone who yearns for carefree moments (which is everyone). The filmmakers are immediately saying to the audience, “Forget the toil and trouble of life for now. We’re going to whisk you away to a fantasy land, where wonder happens…” These initial shots sever the audience’s link to the real world, and set the stage for pure escapism — the kind its main character seeks away from a life in the nunnery that demands more discipline than perhaps this good-natured, vivacious young woman can sit still for.
Finally, in an astounding shot that starts out as a grand panorama of mountains and trees then slowly approaches a moving speck on the hillside, viewers catch their first glimpse of Maria strolling through a sea of velvety grass. Note the v-shaped treetops that guide the eye right to where it’s supposed to go, as the music swells in anticipation. Maria starts that famous spinning, and we’re there!
A playful cut transitions to earth with a closer angle (and avoids showing Julie Andrews being continuously knocked to the ground by the helicopter’s downdraft), and The Sound of Music launches into its title theme. With a purposeful tracking shot, audiences listen to the song as their eyes relish Maria striding forward with a smiling confidence, casually putting her hands in her pockets, and remaining in the center of the frame. She’s no longer a speck against those mountains, having instead become the most important object in view — yet a brush back of her hair still suggests an endearing vulnerability.
From there the scene continues on in a traditional musical way as Maria goofs off in semi-fake nature (the birch trees were installed by the production, as was the brook) by hopping and skipping and the like, but by now audiences know what they need to. When Maria is later confronted by baffled nuns, we understand where her heart lies, and though we know she must grow up, we hope she doesn’t too much. When she is challenged by both bratty kids and an icy employer, we believe she has the patience and warmth to persist, and are saddened by a momentary loss of faith in herself. When she has trouble expressing certain feelings, we’re not surprised, having witnessed a small gesture of possible insecurity. Most of all, we are drawn to her, like that swooping aerial shot, and we get why others throughout the story are as well. She brings joy to the hills; perhaps that feeling can be spread somewhere else?
Call it what you will, but The Sound of Music is grand entertainment, undeniably skilled at what it wants to do. No better is that on display than in the film’s opening moments, where an innocent nature walk reveals Maria’s entire character — and perhaps, her purpose as well.
That’s how to make an entrance.
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