It would be all too easy to watch The Sound Of Music(1965) and to simply perceive Baroness Elsa Schrader(Eleanor Parker)as a wicked stepmother and the villainess of the piece. But if you pay closer attention to her, you will find she is actually anything but a villainess. I have long considered Baroness Elsa Schrader to be a very misunderstood character.
At first glance the Baroness does bring to mind the stereotype of the wicked stepmother as presented to us in films such as Snow White(1937),Cinderella(1950), and The Parent Trap(1961 and 1998) – women who are elegant and beautiful on the outside, but who conceal the fact that inwardly they are self-centred and harbour cold hearts riddled with callousness and cruelty.
That description actually couldn’t be further from the truth in regards to Baroness Elsa.She is actually a kind and decent lady. She is also quite lonely and wants to find lasting love. She is someone who always puts on a brave face in public and comes across as being happy and outgoing all of the time, only very rarely does she allow someone to see the vulnerability she hides.
When I first watched The Sound Of Music I was a very young girl, but despite being so young, even I could see at that age that Elsa wasn’t really a horrible person. She may well struggle to connect with the Von Trapp children, but I’ve always thought that to be because they are distant with her and she’s unsure how best to win them over. She does try to connect with them though.
She also seems genuinely moved and happy when Gretl presents her with some flowers and she gives her a cuddle. I know that she jokes with Max about sending the children to boarding school, but I’ve always considered that to be just a passing joke when he remarks that he doesn’t see her as a mother to that many children. Does any of this make her a wicked stepmother? No.
Elsa is also genuinely in love with Captain Georg Von Trapp and she has been his saviour and safe harbour for several years. He loves her in return.The Captain shunned the world for a long time after the tragic death of his wife. It was Elsa who rescued him from his despair.
As they take a stroll in his beautiful back garden, the Captain gazes tenderly at Elsa and tells her what she means to him. “Charming,witty,graceful. The perfect hostess. And, uh- You’re going to hate me for this – in a way, saviour. I would be an ungrateful wretch if I didn’t tell you at least once that it was you who brought some meaning back into my life.”
The Captain does indeed love Elsa, but as the film goes on he listens to his heart and realises he is actually in love with Maria. If Elsa does a bad thing in the film, it is when she conspires to break up Maria and the Captain by pressuring Maria to leave her job as governess at the Von Trapp home.
Although my heart breaks for Maria at this moment it also breaks for Elsa. You see it is Elsa who picks up on the love developing between Maria and Georg, and she not only picks up on it, but she does so even before Georg and Maria themselves really understand what they’re starting to feel for one another.
Elsa is understandably confused and hurt by this development. She does what any woman would do when she detects something developing between her man and another woman – she does everything in her power to nip it in the bud before it has a chance to fully bloom. Is she unkind and harsh forcing Maria to believe the Captain’s attentions are a mere passing interest and meaningless? Absolutely. Does this make her a villainess? Not at all, she is simply a scared woman trying to keep her man.
I love the ball scene where she sees the Captain and Maria dancing. As the dance comes to end, Elsa walks over to the couple – who are being watched by all the children, who are absolutely delighted to see these two falling for one another – and says “That was beautifully done. What a lovely couple you make.” As she says that, Liesl and Friedrich, the two eldest Von Trapp children,share a knowing look with one another. They know that she knows what’s going on.
I always get a good giggle out of the wonderfully bitchy exchange between Elsa and Georg which follows that scene. As they walk back into the party, Elsa says “all that needless worrying, Georg. You thought you wouldn’t find a friend at the party.” To which he replies “Bit chilly out tonight, isn’t it?” Elsa then replies “Oh, I don’t know. Seemed rather warm to me.” 🤣👍
If you still doubt she isn’t a villainess, then you need look no further than the scene where she willingly gives up her beloved Georg to Maria. She spares him from having to break up with her. She also makes it clear that she knows where his heart truly lies and that she has accepted that. Their farewell scene on the balcony is so touching and beautiful.
The way Eleanor performs in that final scene is just heartbreaking. Elsa gives up the man she loves because it is the right thing to do morally. She also retains her dignity and self respect through the classy way she ends the relationship. I hope she found herself a good man who loved her very much and treated her like a queen for the rest of her life.
I think we have Eleanor to thank for being able to convey all of this subtext and character depth to us, often through expressions and body language alone. In the enjoyable and extremely underrated The Trapp Family(1956), an earlier German film telling the same story, the Captain’s girlfriend is very much an obvious and unlikable villainess. It is a credit to Eleanor that her portrayal of Elsa made the character much more complex, relatable and very human.
The Sound Of Music was the film which first introduced me to Eleanor Parker. I became a fan of hers instantly, something which was confirmed for certain when I watched Scaramouche(1952) next. She was such a superb actress. She had that rare gift to be able to elevate even a small and not well developed character into someone we don’t forget. She gave a lot of depth to the characters she played. Baroness Elsa Schrader remains one of Eleanor’s finest screen moments.