One of the best-loved films and greatest musicals in history
Some movies just click and everything about them works. They create an experience unique to filmgoing, stimulating a viewer’s eyes, ears, mind, and heart all at once. The jubilant “The Sound of Music” is one of the rare films to accomplish this feat from start to finish. A more modern take on the escapist musicals of the past, this film brings a gloriously romanticized version of life to the screen, creating perhaps the best feel-good movie ever made. While each of the film’s elements are extraordinary on their own, together they form something so enchanted it's if the film was made with the flick of a magic wand. From the very start, as we soar over the Austrian Alps and hear Julie Andrews’ magnificent singing voice from a stunning mountaintop, it is clear we are in for one monumentally majestic experience.
“The Sound of Music” quickly became one of the biggest box-office successes in film history. Nominated for ten Academy Awards (winning five, including Best Picture), it saved a studio, and is among the few films to appear on five of the American Film Institute's (AFI) Greatest Film lists – as the 40th Greatest American Film of All-Time, the 4th Greatest Movie Musical, the 27th Greatest Love Story, the 41st Most Inspiring, and three of its songs made their list of the 100 Greatest Songs in American Films. I was mesmerized by this film as a very young kid when my mother took my sister and I to see it at a theater, and it has never lost an iota of its joyous and emotional impact. Even with a running of 174 minutes (there is an intermission and entr'acte), it keeps one glued to the screen the entire time. A crown jewel of movie musicals, this is certainly a classic the whole family can watch time and time again.
Based on actual events, “The Sound of Music” tells the story of "Maria", a young postulant at the Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, Austria in 1938, when the country’s on the brink of a Nazi takeover. Outspoken, adventurous, and addicted to singing, “Maria” isn’t well suited for a nun’s cloistered life. Realizing this, “Mother Abbess” sends her away to discover her true calling. She is to start as governess for the "von Trapp" family, which consists of "Captain Georg von Trapp" and his seven children. A widowed and retired Naval officer, the "Captain" runs his house with strict decorum and discipline. The free-spirited "Maria" is the children's twelfth governess, and as she defiantly opposes the "Captain's" rigid ways, a spark begins to ignite between the two, complicating things since the “Captain" is considering marriage to the wealthy widowed "Baroness Elsa von Schraeder", and “Maria” is looking to serve God. The film becomes a love story and tale about putting your fears and doubts aside to live the life you were born to live. “Maria” brings music back into the lives of the “von Trapp” family, and it is the sound of music that changes them all.
“The Sound of Music” unknowingly began in 1949, when the real Maria Augusta von Trapp published her autobiography "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers”. It was adapted into two West German films ("Die Trapp-Familie” and its sequel "Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika”) which were later dubbed into English (and edited together to make the 1961 film “The Trapp Family”). American director Vincent J. Donehue saw "Die Trapp-Familie” and thought it would make a great musical vehicle for his friend, Broadway star Mary Martin. Martin in turn presented it to legendary songwriting team Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who took the overall story and changed some details for dramatic purposes. The smash hit musical opened on Broadway in 1959 with Martin as “Maria”, and won five Tony Awards (including Best Musical) with nine nominations, and ran for nearly four years. Though audiences loved it, critically it was met with mixed reviews, the loudest criticism being that it was too sweet and sugary.
While seeing the Broadway show, Hollywood screenwriter Ernest Lehman thought it would make a great film. He and Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox then presented it to film director William Wyler. Wyler felt the Broadway show was too gooey for him, but Lehman convinced him to direct, and whipped out a script combining Trapp’s autobiography, the German film, the Broadway musical, and interviews he personally conducted with Maria von Trapp, removing much of the sugar. In 1960, Fox leased the film rights for a record $1.25 million and acquired the rights to the two German films. Contractually, they were not allowed to start production on the new film until the Broadway run ended, and in the meantime Wyler bowed out and Robert Wise replaced him as director and producer (Wise and Lehman had previously worked together on several films, including the Oscar-winning adaptation of the Broadway musical “West Side Story”).
This film was a big gamble for Fox. With the 1948 government ruling that movie studios could no longer own their own movie theaters and TV's rapid poaching of movie audiences in the 1950s, the Hollywood studios were in decline, and by the early 1960s, Fox was in dire straits. In 1963, they put everything into their over-budget epic spectacle “Cleopatra” (the most expensive film ever made at the time), which turned out to be a major financial flop, nearly bankrupting the studio. Fox desperately needed a hit.
When the film “The Sound of Music” was first released on April 1, 1965, like its Broadway predecessor, it too faced mixed reviews with critics saying it was too sappy or overly sentimental, but audiences loved it and went to see it multiple times. It quickly gathered steam, grossing $20 million in its first ten months and kept playing in theaters until December of 1969. The biggest movie phenomenon since “Gone with the Wind”, it knocked that 1939 classic out of its record holding position as the highest grossing film of all time (a position “The Sound of Music” held for five years). This unexpected mega-blockbuster saved 20th Century Fox. While the Broadway version is not by any means the greatest of Rogers and Hammerstein’s shows, without a doubt, this is the best film version of any of their works. And not for one second does it feel like a movie version of a stage show. It is its own work of art.
It’s impossible to point to just one specific reason why this film was (and is) such a triumphant success. Again, it’s the magic that came from mixing many first-rate parts, one of which is its solid script by Ernest Lehman. It must have come naturally to this screenwriter to envision it with close-ups, edits, and all the big screen's sensibilities. With the permission of composer Richard Rogers, Lehman cut songs from the Broadway show, rearranged the placement of others, and requested two new ones, greatly improving the flow of the story from the Broadway version. That’s no surprise, since he was one of Hollywood’s preeminent screenwriters. Writing just over a dozen films, Lehman’s work was so consistently outstanding he is recognized as one of the most acclaimed and successful screenwriters in Hollywood history. His other screenplays include "Sabrina", "West Side Story", "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", "Hello, Dolly!", "The King and I”, “Sweet Smell of Success”, and Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”, a film already on this blog where you can read more about him.
Also critical to the glowing achievement of “The Sound of Music” is the work of its producer and director, Robert Wise. He chose the perfect cast, ideal camera angles, knockout visual compositions, inspired lighting, dynamic editing, and wisely (pun intended) chose to shoot much of the film on location in Austria – where the original story took place. His creativity showcases the city of Salzburg and surroundings in a way that infuses the film with a dreamlike quality. One such example is a simple shot of “Maria” singing in an open window on a bus while the closed window in front of her reflects the mountains and lake, inventively electrifying a simple shot. Whether set in the mountains or a room in the abbey, Wise eloquently incorporates the surrounding with a fine touch, never overpowering the story or characters, yet making for a ravishingly beautiful and unpretentious film.
While exteriors were shot on location, many of the film’s interiors were filmed on studio sets and Wise invisibly intermixes the two throughout the film. Shots outside the “von Trapp” home were filmed in Austria, while the interiors were filmed on a set in California. So when “Maria” shows up and talks with the “Butler” (who is standing in the doorway), shots facing her were filmed in Salzburg, while shots facing him were filmed weeks later in California. Costumes, actors’ positions, lighting, and tempo all had to match perfectly to look like one conversation at one location. The same is true with the lake at the back of the house, for there was no lake next to the house they used (shots which included the lake were filmed elsewhere). Ah, the magic of editing and the movies! Wise was one of film’s great craftsmen, and "The Sound of Music" reeks of his rich talents, earning him two Academy Awards, one as Best Director and a second for Best Picture (as producer) – a feat he accomplished four years prior with his 1961 classic “West Side Story”. You can read more about the life and career of the incomparable Robert Wise in my posts on “West Side Story”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Citizen Kane”.
The songs in “The Sound of Music” are yet another indispensable element. The majority of the film’s songs were taken from the Broadway show, written by one of the most popular and influential musical writing teams in theater history – composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist-dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II. The songs are moving, exhilarating, inspirational, and oh, so catchy. Virtually all became classics, such as “Maria”, “Climb Ev'ry Mountain", "So Long, Farewell", "Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, and “Edelweiss”, and three made AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Songs in American Movies – "The Sound of Music" (#10), "My Favorite Things" (#64), and "Do Re Mi" (#88). In fact, “The Sound of Music" contains the most hit songs in any single Rogers and Hammerstein show, which is saying a lot considering how many classic shows they wrote.
Sadly, Hammerstein died less than a year after the Broadway show's opening, before this film was even conceived. So when Lehman requested additional songs for the film, Rogers alone composed the music and lyrics for the two new songs (“I Have Confidence” and “Something Good”). The film's Grammy Award nominated soundtrack became the longest-running Billboard Top-10 album in history (109 weeks), and in 2015, Billboard named it the second greatest album of all time.
Both Rogers and Hammerstein had very successful careers before joining forces. Richard Rogers famously teamed with lyricist Lorenz Hart from 1919 until Hart's death in 1943, writing 28 stage musicals together (including "The Boys from Syracuse" and "Pal Joey") and over 500 songs (such as "The Lady is a Tramp” and "My Funny Valentine"). Rogers was the first person to become an EGOT (winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards). Before teaming with Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein worked with many composers, most famously with Jerome Kern writing "Show Boat". In his career, Hammerstein wrote well over 800 songs, many of which have become standards, such as "Ol' Man River”, and "I Won't Dance".
Rogers and Hammerstein’s collaboration began with their groundbreaking 1943 musical “Oklahoma!”, which revolutionized musicals, using songs and dance to forward plot and define characters. This native New York songwriting duo wrote ten Broadway musicals, songs for the 1945 movie musical “State Fair”, and songs for the 1957 TV musical adaptation of “Cinderella”. Their other Broadway masterpieces include "Carousel", "South Pacific", and "The King and I”, and a sampling of their enormous hit songs (outside of “The Sound of Music”) include "Some Enchanted Evening”, "People Will Say We're in Love", "Getting to Know You”, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'", and "You'll Never Walk Alone”. Six of their Broadway shows were adapted into films, and their work together earned thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Oscars, two Grammy Awards, and two Pulitzer Prizes. Their final collaboration was for the song "Edelweiss" for "The Sound of Music". Oscar Hammerstein II died in 1960 at the age of 65, and Richard Rodgers died in 1979 at the age of 77.
Another key figure making “The Sound of Music” a filmic masterpiece is the talented Julie Andrews, who plays the spirited “Maria”. Her confident, disarmingly genuine performance pushes aside all schmaltz, creating a stirring performance of a woman struggling to find her way. Andrews' innate likability, warmth, and sublime singing are so infectious they spread to everything and everyone she touches, including the viewer. How can one not be lifted by her opening rendition of “The Sound of Music”, moved by her in the scene and song with the “Captain” by the glass gazebo, or enthralled by how she comforts the children during a thunderstorm with “My Favorite Things”? Andrews is a colossal talent and gives no less than an iconic performance. She'd won a Best Actress Academy Award the previous year for her film debut in "Mary Poppins", and earned a second Best Actress Oscar nomination for "The Sound of Music".
Andrews was Wise and Lehman’s first choice to play “Maria”, but being a stage star, no one had seen her in a film. She had completed filming “Mary Poppins” and “The Americanization of Emily”, but neither was finished. Wise and Lehman went to Walt Disney studios to look at footage from “Mary Poppins”, and immediately after offered her the role of "Maria". She accepted, with the question of how they would make the film less saccharine than the show. With that, Wise knew then he’d made the right choice for the part. As in “Mary Poppins”, Andrews played a nanny, and though she played other types of women in her career, these two roles were so unforgettable that it was hard for her to shake off the wholesome, sweet, singing nanny image (it took flashing her breasts in the 1981 black comedy "S.O.B." to put an end to that image once and for all). You can read more about the life and career of Julie Andrews in my post on “Mary Poppins”. Please check it out.
Wise also sought out actor Christopher Plummer to play “Captain von Trapp”, feeling Plummer would bring a darker edge than was in the Broadway show. Plummer also felt the character was dull and one dimensional, and was reluctant to play him. He relented, but worked closely with Lehman to make considerable changes to the "Captain" – injecting humor, humanity, and adding scenes such as when the “Captain” questions his children about picking berries. It worked, and the “Captain” comes across as a man hardened by loss, cautious to step back into life. Though “The Sound of Music” turned Plummer into an international star, he was never happy with the role or film, and didn’t shy away from saying so publicly (once notoriously calling the film “The Sound of Mucus”). But after nearly four decades, he acknowledged it was well-made and that he was proud to be part of it. Plummer worked on his singing voice for the role but couldn’t quite pass as a professional singer, so his singing was dubbed by Bill Lee.
Canadian born Christopher Plummer was a prolific actor who worked on stage, TV, film, and radio for seventy years. He pursued an acting career right out of high school, appearing in plays as a teenager at theater and repertory companies (including one alongside budding actor William Shatner). While also working on radio plays, he began appearing on television in 1953. Plummer came to New York for his Broadway debut in 1954's "The Starcross Story", followed by several more Broadway shows. His first film was the 1958 film "Stage Struck", followed by a starring role in his second, "Wind Across the Everglades" that same year. He continued working on television and the New York, Paris, and British stages, earning many awards and nominations, becoming a highly respected and successful theater actor. Eight years after his second film, came his third, the 1964 epic "The Fall of the Roman Empire", immediately followed by "The Sound of Music". Though a versatile actor, Plummer became known for his eloquent speaking voice and for portraying authority figures of regal demeanor, sometimes amoral and often charming. Plummer accrued over 200 film and TV credits alone, and some of his other films include "The Man Who Would Be King", "A Beautiful Mind", "Knives Out”, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", "Inside Daisy Clover", "Oedipus the King", and as the voice of "Charles Muntz" in Disney/Pixar’s animated film “Up”. He earned three Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominations, his first for "The Last Station" in 2009, his second (which he won) for "Beginners" in 2010, and a third for "All the Money in the World" in 2017 at 88 years old (making him, as of this writing, the oldest nominee in an Oscar acting category).
Along with his Oscar win and nominations, Plummer earned countless international awards including two Tony Awards (out of seven nominations), two Emmy Awards (out of seven nominations), life achievement honors that include the Companion of the Order of Canada (C.C.), Queen Elizabeth II Silver, Golden, and Diamond Jubilee Medals for Canada, 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, and being invested as Companion of the Order of Canada. He was married three times, including to actress Tammy Grimes and Elaine Taylor. He and Grimes had one child, actress Amanda Plummer. Christopher Plummer died in 2021 at the age of 91.
Helping balance things out with a little bite and a lot of glamour is Eleanor Parker as “Baroness Elsa von Schraeder”, an elegant but conniving wealthy widow whose eyes are set on the “Captain". She’s in direct contrast to “Maria”, talking about yachts and fountain pens, and looking like she stepped out of Vogue magazine while deliciously spewing cutting remarks. But again, her character is astutely portrayed, and in her scene on the balcony with the “Captain”, we even get a glimpse at this lonely woman’s pain. Wise had previously directed Parker in the 1950 drama "Three Secrets", and thought she would be the right person to play the "Baroness". Once again, he was right.
Ohio born Eleanor Parker began acting in school plays, soon moving to California to pursue a film career. While appearing at the Pasadena Playhouse, she was spotted by a talent scout on her eighteenth birthday and landed a contract with Warner Brothers. Her film debut was in the 1942 short film "Soldiers in White", followed by some small roles, then landing a breakthrough role opposite John Garfield and Paul Henreid in 1944's "Between Two Worlds". She was soon starring in films opposite such luminaries as Dennis Morgan, Errol Flynn, and Humphrey Bogart. In 1950, she starred in the film noir, "Caged", winning the Best Actress Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival and earning her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination. After "Three Secrets" with Wise, she left Warner Brothers, and briefly went to Paramount where she appeared in "Detective Story" opposite Kirk Douglas (earning her a second Best Actress Oscar nomination), before moving to MGM. She earned a third and final Oscar nomination for 1955's "Interrupted Melody”. Parker worked almost exclusively in television beginning in 1960, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for her appearance on a 1962 episode of "The Eleventh Hour”. She appeared in 80 films and TV shows, and is best remembered today for "The Sound of Music". Among her other films are "The Naked Jungle", "Scaramouche", "The Man with the Golden Arm", "Hollywood Canteen", "Lizzie", and "Pride of the Marines". She was married four times. Eleanor Parker died in 2013 at the age of 91.
Another fantastic casting choice by Wise was that of Peggy Wood as the “Reverend Mother Abbess”. True to a Hollywood movie fantasy, “Mother Abbess” has all the sympathy, understanding, and support one could ever want from an ideal mother, nun or not, and Wood excels at making her feel like an actual person. She not only comforts “Maria” and the other nuns, but all of us, offering strength, empathy, and the inspirational song “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Though Woods was a talented soprano herself, at this late point in her life she felt the song was too difficult, so her singing voice was dubbed by Margery McKay. “The Sound of Music” was Wood’s final film, and for it she earned her only Academy Award nomination (Best Supporting Actress). Like everyone in the film, she is best remembered for this film.
New York born Peggy Wood studied singing in France, and made her stage debut at eight years old in the chorus of "Naughty Marietta". She debuted on Broadway in 1911 in "The Three Romeos", which began a steady and fruitful stage career in New York and London (in musicals, comedies and dramas), lasting for decades. She sporadically appeared in films, starting opposite Will Rogers in the 1919 silent film "Almost a Husband”. That same year she helped found the stage actor's union Actors' Equity Association. Wood began working on television in 1948, where she appeared extensively through the 1960s, finding major success starring as matriarch "Marta Hansen" in the very popular 1949 TV series "Mama" (which ran until 1957), earning her two Emmy Award nominations. She appeared in fourteen films (never in a starring role) and twelve TV shows, and her other films include "Andy Hardy", a bit part in 1937's "A Star is Born", "Magnificent Doll", and "The Story of Ruth". “The Sound of Music” was her last film, and her final acting appearance was on an episode of the TV series "Turtle's Progress" in 1979. She was married and widowed twice. Peggy Wood died in 1978 at the age of 86.
The actors playing the “von Trapp” children are all wonderful, and most of them had little or no prior experience in front of a movie camera. Since there’s so many of them, I’ll mention only one who might appear familiar to classic TV watchers, and that's Angela Cartwright who plays “Brigitta”, the middle daughter (first seen reading a book while her brothers and sisters are lined up to be introduced to “Maria”). In addition to “The Sound of Music”, she is best known as "Penny Robinson" in the classic sci-fi original TV series "Lost in Space”.
Shortly after her birth in England, Angela Cartwright moved to the US with her family, and made her first film appearance at the age of three opposite Paul Newman in the 1956 film "Somebody Up There Likes Me” (directed by Wise and written by Lehman). In 1957, she was cast as Danny Thomas' step daughter "Linda Williams" on the classic TV series "The Danny Thomas Show" which ran until 1964. After that came “The Sound of Music”, followed by “Lost in Space” (which ran from 1965 until 1968). She reprised the role of “Linda Williams” in the 1970 TV series "Make Room for Granddaddy", which ran for two seasons. Primarily a TV actress, to date Cartwright has appeared in six films, others being "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” and as a reporter in the 1998 film version of "Lost in Space". She also made an appearance in a 2019 episode of the "Lost in Space" TV series, and as of this writing, her final appearance was as a guest in a 2021 episode of "Idol Chat". She's been married to the same man since 1976, and has two children, Becca Gullion and Jesse Gullion, both actors. Her older sister is actress Veronica Cartwright, who I wrote about in my post on "The Birds". As of the writing of this blog, Angela Cartwright is 69 years old.
There are three actors with smaller roles in “The Sound of Music” who I’ve written about in prior posts, one being Anna Lee who plays “Sister Margaretta”, the nun who likes and defends “Maria”. One of the two nuns we first see walking with the “Reverend Mother”, when they realize “Maria” is missing and are trying to figure out where she might be, “Sister Margaretta” offers, “Have you tried the barn? You know how much she loves animals”. She is also the first of two nuns to tell the “Reverend Mother” that she sinned (towards the end of the film). Wise knew Lee and offered her for the role. An actress whose film career began in England in 1932 and continued in Hollywood in 1941, by this point she was appearing in supporting character parts. Anna Lee was part of director John Ford’s stock company of actors, and appeared in eight of his films, including the Oscar-winning “How Green is My Valley”, and you can read more about her life and career in my post on classic.
If you’ve been watching the films on here, someone else you’ve seen before is Norma Varden who plays “Frau Schmidt”, housekeeper to the “von Trapp” family. She has a wonderful interaction with “Maria” when she brings her cloth with which to make clothes. Varden was another actress Wise previously worked with, in the first feature film he directed on his own, 1944's "Mademoiselle Fifi". He thought she was exactly right for this part and offered her the role. And with her aristocratic and dignified manner, she is perfect. Varden's successful Hollywood career consisted of mostly small parts such as this one in many, many classics. This is the third film (so far) in which she appears on this blog, and you can read a bit more about Norma Varden in my two previous posts, "Casablanca" and "Strangers on a Train". Just click on each film title for more.
The third actor who’s previously appeared on this blog is Marni Nixon who plays “Sister Sophia”. She is one of the three nuns whom the “Reverend Mother” asks what they think of “Maria” (leading them into the song “Maria”) and “Sister Sophia” answers by saying “Oh, I love her very dearly. But… she always seems to be in trouble, doesn’t she?”. Hollywood's best known ghost singer, Nixon provided singing voices for movie stars such as Deborah Kerr in “The King and I”, and Natalie Wood (and a bit for Rita Moreno) in “West Side Story”. Wise thought it would be great to put Nixon onscreen for a change, casting her as a gesture of thanks for all her unseen work. Her casting initially caused a bit of nervousness on the set because she had dubbed the singing voice for Audrey Hepburn in the film version of “My Fair Lady”, a role Andrews created and conquered Broadway with, and many thought was robbed of the role when Hepburn was cast instead. There were worries Andrews would be resentful that Nixon got to sing in the film, but as soon as the two first met on set, the gracious Andrews extended her hand and said, “Marni, I’m such a fan of yours”. And that was that. Smooth sailing all the way. You can read more about the life and career of Marni Nixon in my post on “West Side Story”.
In addition to winning Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards, "The Sound of Music" also won Best Sound (James Corcoran and Fred Hynes), Best Editing (William Reynolds), and Best Musical Score (Irwin Kostal). Along with nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, the film also earned Oscar nominations for Best Color Cinematography (Ted D. McCord), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Boris Leven, Walter M. Scott, and Ruby R. Levitt), and Best Costume Design (Dorothy Jeakins).
Though a director can steer a film in the right direction, the end result is never guaranteed. But when it works it works, and this week’s classic performs on every level. One of the greatest and most popular films of all-time, and one that always makes me cry, enjoy “The Sound of Music”!
This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
In case you're interested, here are a few facts about the actual von Trapp family that were altered for the film:
There were ten von Trapp children (not seven).
Mother Abbess sent Maria to tutor one of the von Trapp daughters, who was recovering from scarlet fever (she was not a governess).
It was a priest who taught the already musical family sacred music and served as their musical director. He fled Austria with them, also emigrating to the United States.
They did win a Salzburg Music Festival, but not the night they left Austria.
The family did not flee by foot over the mountains but left by train to Italy, then went to London, and then to the US. They told people they were going to America to sing.
In the US, the von Trapps first settled in and just outside Philadelphia before buying farmland in Vermont, where they eventually built and opened the Trapp Family Lodge. They had a very successful music career in the US, touring and making several recordings before disbanding in 1957.