Plummer’s death Friday hit me, as a father, particularly hard, as I consider Plummer’s Captain von Trapp as a grandfatherly figure while I struggle to find my own way as a dad. Through many holiday or TCM viewings of the film, he was a steady presence that we saw evolve. Watching when younger, we identify with the kids and spend the first half in fear of the father. Now watching with my own daughter, I focus more on his love for his children and his frustration of not knowing how to properly show it.
When we first meet Captain von Trapp, he runs his household with strict military discipline and is clueless of how to raise his five girls and two boys. Even when the free-spirited Maria arrives from the convent to serve as governess for the kids, von Trapp initially wholeheartedly opposes her fun, warm, nurturing methods.
Like when first sending my daughter to PreK or summer camps or even play dates, and I’m quietly nervous to see her reactions when she learns outside influences may not necessarily be aligned with the guidelines she sees at home. Captain von Trapp is convinced his discipline is the proper method to ensure their success. He believes raising children with fear, dressing them formally and ordering their attention with a whistle is how to raise successful young men and women.
The audience may have seen him as harsh at first, but Plummer humanized the character as only looking out for his children’s best interest.
When governess Maria brings a mirror to his practices, he initially claims to not care to hear her opinion about the children, though he does eventually listen. He learned and accepted new methods and behaviors, identifying his own shortcomings. And that is just what I, as a father, realize I’m doing, too. We may not all have a troublemaking governess in our lives, but I have found the countless discussions at the playground with other dads and moms provide ample opportunities for introspection and reassessing my parental decisions in our own home.
Though Plummer’s character appears cold and strict at first, the real act that melts him and softens his demeanor is hearing his children sing. And when he joins them in singing, shocking them all, it’s a beautiful reminder of the importance of play and of learning again that even at this age, the importance to find fun again. We are, in fact, not too old to join in coloring pictures, make up funny stories or helping turn cardboard boxes into secret forts.
Plummer’s character gradually accepts insights and criticism of what he is doing. He brings love and playfulness to the surface. He didn’t love his children any more or any less, but he found new ways to show that love.
He learns to embrace their youth rather than race them to adulthood. With Maria’s help, he finds they need to learn to act like kids rather than learn how to behave as grown ups. In the famous grand party held at Captain von Trapp’s villa, as his children are singing “So Long, Farewell,” he encapsulates the pull felt by fathers everywhere as his eldest, Liesl, is trying to mature too quickly.
“I’d like to stay and taste my first champagne. Yes?” Liesl sings to her father.
“No,” is Plummer’s character’s reply, said with a wry smile that fathers everywhere have tried to emulate. That smooth delivery, along with the joy, pride and teasing wrapped in that expression, is something so many dads can relate to: We want to share that sort of moment with our daughters, with the prayer they don’t grow up too quickly.
I can’t compare with Plummer’s delivery, but my daughter has heard this impersonation hundreds of times, whether in response to requests to stay up late, watch a PG-13 movie or to get a dog.
Well before Plummer’s Captain von Trapp escapes across the Alps with his family, his priorities have shifted. He no longer has a country, a villa, or wealthy socialite baroness as a fiancee, but he is much richer for having learned to show his love for his children and welcome their love back.
Plummer may have only been playing a part, but he provided a role model for millions of us who aspire to work toward the same thing.
Bill McQuillen is an executive vice president and managing director for Burson Cohn & Wolfe. In addition to doting on his 7-year-old, he watches a lot of classic movies. He is reachable on Twitter @bmcquillen.