Let’s face it: a cheery, outspoken, child-friendly, music-loving, positive-thinking, curtains-into-clothes-making nun-governess named Maria would steal the heart of anyone. In this case, that’s the Family Von Trapp—a widowed sea captain and his seven children who are based in Salzburg, Austria.
So even before she makes her Sound of Music entrance, Maria’s rival, the Baroness Elsa von Schraeder (played by the enchanting Eleanor Parker), has the odds stacked against her. Still, this villainous vixen arguably upstaged Maria at every turn. It was impossible not to be seduced by her tart snark. Fifty-five years later, it’s safe to say she’s one of the most beguiling bitches who ever graced the silver screen.
What we know about the Baroness before she emerges: she’s noble, she’s rich, the Captain likes to escape to Vienna to visit her, even though there isn’t a clearly defined future between them. The children want to meet her because she has future stepmom potential. Does she live up to the hype? Or will there be a prickly pine cone placed on her seat at the dinner table?
The audience gets their first glimpse of the Baroness when she’s in a convertible with her cohort Max and Captain Von Trapp, and she’s already exuding elegance: a periwinkle scarf wrapped around her head, topped with a pillbox hat to hold down a perfectly coiffed updo (a stark contrast to Maria’s cropped hair). She’s about to meet the Captain’s seven children for the first time, but little does she know she’s already seen them dangling from the trees they drove by earlier. This is after the children roamed about Salzburg all day dressed in nothing but some old drapes (a.k.a. play clothes that Maria miraculously sewed the night before).
Of course the initial introduction between the Baroness, Maria, and the children ends up being a delightful disaster. A canoe Maria and the kids are rowing tips over and everyone gets drenched in Austrian pond water. But the Baroness takes it all in stride and hides her giggles. She purrs out an old-school “How do you do?” while smoking with a cigarette holder. Meanwhile, her whole look screams fantastisch: a skirt suit with a polka dot blouse and some classic pearls. This fierce Frau means business.
Perhaps she should have also been wondering “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” with the nuns in an earlier scene, because Maria has unwittingly charmed the Captain during her short time as governess. In spite of the Baroness’s best efforts to remind him he has a luxe, quick-witted, decadent diva who’d jump at the chance to be his life partner, the Captain continues inching toward his children’s nanny, known endearingly as “a flibbertigibbet” or “a clown” back at the Abbey. The Baroness’s attempts to dazzle the Captain with a fancy party backfire—who invited that Nazi Herr Zeller?—despite her glimmering ball gown and dainty tiara; she’s noble, after all, and demands to be treated like royalty.
As the Captain’s love for Maria becomes heartbreakingly apparent, the Baroness takes the classy route: Like any self-respecting woman, she makes a clean break, destined for a better love life in Vienna. “Fond as I am of you… I really don’t think you’re the right man for me,” she tells the Captain. “You’re much too independent. And I need someone who needs me desperately… or at least needs my money desperately.”
After the Baroness says her teary-eyed version of “So Long, Farewell” to the Captain, the audience is deprived of her well-timed zingers (“Why didn’t you tell me to bring along my harmonica?”) and her passive-aggressive spite: “My dear, is there anything you can’t do?” she asks Maria, to which the latter replies, “Well, I’m not sure I’ll make a very good nun.” Never skipping a beat, the Baroness presses on: “If you have any problems, I’ll be happy to help.”
Despite being a principal cast member who never actually sings or contributes musically to a feature called, well, The Sound of Music, the Baroness remains pitch-perfect after fifty-five years. Bitch-perfect, if you will. FL