Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Great Waltz (MGM, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Great Waltz, an MGM production from 1938 that’s more or less a biopic of Johann Strauss, Jr. — though it comes with an odd disclaimer acknowledging that virtually nothing in the movie is factual and Strauss himself and the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef are the only characters in the film actually based on real people: “In Vienna in 1844 ‘nice people’ neither danced the waltz … nor kissed their wives in public … nor listened to new ideas … In 1845 came Johann Strauss II and his immortal melodies … We have dramatized the spirit rather than the facts of his life, because it is his spirit that has lived — in his music.” The movie is a weirdly mixed experience because MGM had three directors on it — French director Julien Duvivier gets sole screen credit but Josef von Sternberg (a real Austrian!) and Victor Fleming also worked on it (and the big ball scene probably helped Fleming get the job of replacing George Cukor on Gone With the Wind a year later; the two sequences are strikingly similar) — and two of those people (Duvivier and Sternberg) are among the most stylish filmmakers ever.

The film doesn’t look like an MGM musical, especially one pre-Arthur Freed; the settings are not only lavish but moodily photographed (cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg won an Academy Award for it) and the camera doesn’t just hold still for a few discreet cuts to project the stars’ performances: it dances and swoops around ballrooms, outdoor carriage rides and town squares in a waltz rhythm. The conceit of this film is that in 1844 Johann Strauss II (Fernand Gravet, whose last name is spelled “Gravey” on for some reason) is an unhappy worker in a Viennese bank who passes the time doodling waltz melodies on bank ledger paper — until he’s caught at it and fired. He doesn’t seem to have a home of his own — it’s established that his father is dead (actress Alma Kruger is credited as playing his mother but she has almost nothing to do) and installed him in the bank before he croaked so Strauss söhn would have an established career (one wouldn’t know from this movie that Strauss’s father was also a composer — or that his two brothers, Eduard and Josef, composed as well) — and to the extent he lives anywhere it appears to be at the home of baker Vogelhuber (Bert Roach), whose daughter Poldi (Luise Rainer, top-billed) is Strauss’s girlfriend. He sneaks home to the Vogelhubers’ to tell them he’s been fired, and he gets the idea of organizing an orchestra and rehearsing them until he can get them a job playing his music.

He lands the job at a local café and beer garden, and it looks like his first night is also going to be his last until the famous opera diva Carla Donner (Miliza Korjus) arrives and demands that he play more music, then invites him to the palace for a formal soirée. Though she doesn’t remain for even the length of one song, Carla’s appearance piques the curiosity of the hangers-on in the town square and the café owner throws open the windows until the people of Vienna hear the wonderful music and come down in droves, flocking into the café and filling its owner’s dance floor with happy waltzing couples. Strauss makes a contract with Julius Hofbauer (Hugh Herbert, of all people!) to publish his music — and as bored as he was at the bank, his business training stands him in good stead as he negotiates a contract for 1,000 gulden per waltz. (Didn’t anyone bother to tell the writing committee — Gottfried Reinhardt, Samuel Hoffenstein, Walter Reisch and Grand Hotel author Vicki Baum, uncredited — that the unit of currency in Austria at the time was the thaler, from which the American word “dollar” derived?) Meanwhile, at the court reception Carla scandalizes everyone by singing a waltz of Strauss’s (Oscar Hammerstein II worked on this film as lyricist, setting new English words to Strauss’s melodies), but the new music soon becomes popular.

She’s actually the mistress of Count Anton Hohenfried (Lionel Atwill, perfectly playing suave villainy as usual) but as she hangs around with Strauss the two start feeling a mutual attraction — especially when, in the film’s most famous scene, the two ride in a carriage through the Vienna woods and, with help from the coachman and various locals, human and otherwise, the two of them come up with the melody for Strauss’s classic “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” Carla wangles a commission from the court to have Strauss write an operetta in which she will star, and during rehearsals Poldi (ya remember Poldi? Actually you haven’t been given much of a chance to forget her, since the film has periodically cut to her, whining and pouting and simpering in that annoying series of affectations that constituted Luise Rainer’s entire “acting” style) feels so alienated she refuses to attend the premiere of her husband’s opera — until Count von Hohenfried comes to visit her, says that Carla is too tempestuous to make Strauss a good mate, and implores her to fight for her man and her marriage. Eventually she does so, and Strauss says goodbye to Carla on the bank of the Danube as she sails off on a boat trip they were originally supposed to take together — and Strauss is encouraged by the sights and sounds of the Danube to compose you-know-what. Strauss and Poldi are reconciled — and the film suddenly cuts to a sequence 43 years later.

The film’s conceit early on is that all this romantic intrigue was happening on the eve of the 1848 revolutions that swept through Europe (but produced surprisingly little lasting change — optimists about the current status of Egypt take note!) and in which Strauss was involved, writing a march for the revolutionaries and nearly getting both himself and Carla arrested; the revolution ends with Franz Josef (Henry Hull) taking over as emperor of Austria-Hungary and promising a reform government and a constitution; 43 years later, however, he’s an old man (with the famous huge muttonchop whiskers that adorn just about every representation of the real Franz Josef and have come to symbolize just how out of touch he was with the problems of his country and his people) and he summons Strauss to the palace for a gala reception at which a huge choir comprised of as many extras as MGM could hire for one of their big-budget prestige films sings him “The Blue Danube” as he and Poldi, in all the best age makeup MGM’s department could come up with, bask in the affection of the crowd and proclaim that they did it all for Vienna; indeed, the final song is a choral version of a Hammerstein adaptation of a Strauss waltz called “I’m in Love with Vienna.”

The Great Waltz
is a frustrating movie because all the stylish direction is applied to a pretty silly plot line and a surprisingly weak cast; though the film is full of wonderful supporting actors (including Sig Ruman as the banker who fires Strauss early on, Herman Bing as the café owner and Al Shean, half of Gallagher and Shean and also uncle of the Marx Brothers, as a cellist in Strauss’s first orchestra) the film could have used stronger leads. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the role of Strauss was originally planned for Nelson Eddy (which probably meant they intended for Strauss to do a lot more singing than he does in the film — as it is two singers, Earl Covert and Ralph Leon, doubled for Gravet the rare sequences in which Strauss sings) and they also considered Francis Lederer, Brian Aherne, Clifton Webb and Fredric March — but the person the film really cried out for was Cary Grant: Strauss is depicted as a naturally insouciant man whose personal charm carries over into his music and is what makes it popular, and Grant could have done that with ease while Gravet looks too much like an animated mannequin, complete with way too much brilliantine that makes his hair reflect the camera lights.

As for Luise Rainer, I’m glad she’s survived to 101 but that still doesn’t make her a great actress; the writers evidently decided that the most impressive part of her acting in The Great Ziegfeld had been the famous “telephone scene” in which, on receiving the news that Ziegfeld has married someone else, she fights back the tears as she calls him and wishes him well — so, even though virtually all this film takes place well before the telephone was invented, the script gives her scene after scene of her talking to Strauss and pleading for his continued love as she skirts the thin edge of tears; it was annoying enough in The Great Ziegfeld but here scene after scene like this really gets oppressive, especially since she has to play them to Gravet in person and he’s uninclined to react at all. With such weak leads it’s not surprising that Korjus steals the film (she got an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, but it was the only film she made in the U.S.; afterwards she went back to Europe and resumed her operatic career); she’s got charisma and screen presence to burn, as well as a glorious coloratura voice (even though, oddly considering her European reputation, she lacks a real trill).

The Great Waltz is one of those movies that triumphs over weak casting in the leads because the music (even given some rather gloppy rearrangements by Dimitri Tiomkin instead of just using Strauss’s finely honed orchestrations) is so much fun and the film is wonderfully paced and cut to a waltz rhythm — and judging from the scenes showing “Tales of the Vienna Woods” and “The Blue Danube” coming to life in Strauss’s head from the scenes around him, it seems likely that at least some of the writers or directors of this film had seen Abel Gance’s masterly biopic of Beethoven two years earlier and seized on his uncanny anticipations of music videos as the way to dramatize the otherwise rather dull-looking act of composition on screen. Incidentally, screenwriter Gottfried Reinhardt was the son of Max Reinhardt, the great German stage director who was forced to flee when the Nazis took over (he worked in the U.S. on Kurt Weill’s The Eternal Road, a pageant of Jewish history that was apparently overproduced but, judging from the excerpts recently released on CD by Naxos, has a lot going for it; and he also signed with Warner Bros. to film his celebrated stage production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) — and the father of Stephen Reinhardt, the controversial Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge who’s currently hearing the case on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 (and whose wife, Ramona Ripston, recently retired after 30 years of running the L.A. branch of the American Civil Liberties Union).