Monday, March 30, 2015

The Red Danube (MGM, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a rather odd movie two nights ago: The Red Danube, produced by MGM in 1949 and set mostly in Vienna during the Allied occupation after World War II, when Austria — like Germany — was divided into four zones, each run by one of the great powers that had ended up on the winning side in the war: the U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The premise of the film, based on a novel called Vespers in Vienna by Bruce Marshall and adapted by Gina Kaus, Arthur Wimperis and an uncredited Carey Wilson, centers around the agreement between the occupying powers that any one of their citizens in another power’s occupying zone would be returned to their own zone on request — or rather, demand, since the intrigue of the film centers around Russian Col. Piniev (Louis Calhern, essentially playing seriously the sinister foreign leader he spoofed so memorably in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup) attempting to grab every Soviet citizen he can identify from the British zone and the growing awareness of the British commander, Col. Michael S. “Hooky” Nicobar (Walter Pidgeon, top-billed), that if he yields to these demands he’s essentially sentencing everyone he “repatriates” to a slave-labor camp or a one-way ticket to the gulag in Siberia. The film actually begins in Rome, where we’re quickly introduced to Nicobar (the risibility of the names Bruce Marshall gave these characters really gets tiresome after a while) and his two key staff members, ladies’ man Major John “Twinko” McPhimister (Peter Lawford at the height of his boyish good looks and charm) and secretary Audrey Quail (Angela Lansbury, wasted at MGM as she usually was after her early roles in Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray), and some grim bits of humor as all the Italians they meet try to convince them that they were really believers in democracy and secretly hated Mussolini all the time he was in power. Among them is an Italian countess (played by Audrey Young, later Mrs. Billy Wilder) who’s Twinko’s latest squeeze. The trio get transferred to Vienna (to a brief snatch of the inevitable “The Blue Danube” on the soundtrack — earlier in Rome we’d heard a not-bad jazz version of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” in the background as Twinko romances his countess) and it’s not until 40 minutes into this 119-minute movie that anything like a plot emerges. Nicobar, much to his dismay, finds that the only billet available for himself and his staff to stay is a convent, run by a mother superior named Auxilia (Ethel Barrymore, who more than usual looks like one of her brothers in drag), and they get to do a lot of boring arguing not only about the war but also about God, whom Nicobar hasn’t believe in since World War I cost him not only his left arm (though undoubtedly Pidgeon’s real left arm was merely pinned behind him under his jacket, he’s reasonably convincing as an amputee — even though I couldn’t help but joke, “So that’s why he wanted to go to Altair-4! He thought the Krell technology would help him grow a new arm!”) but also the life of his son, an airman who was shot down over Germany just one day after he had written his dad saying that the experiences of the war had led him and the other members of his unit to convert to Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular.

What’s amazing is that, except for one scene in which Nicobar takes delivery of a group of old, sick, decrepit refugees on a train — they’re Soviet citizens but the Soviets have sent them back and dumped them on the British because they’re too weak to be useful as slave laborers — there isn’t any real attempt to dramatize why so many people who are technically Soviet nationals would so desperately want not to go back there. We’re told that a lot of the people involved are ethnic Germans, part of a pre-war enclave of Germans in Russia but technically citizens of the Soviet Union since they were born on Russian soil, and early on in the movie one of them, Professor Serge Bruloff (Konstantin Shayne), shoots himself rather than go back after extracting a promise from Nicobar to protect Bruloff’s wife, Helena Nagard (played by Konstantin Shayne’s real-life wife Tamara, who played Al Jolson’s mother in The Jolson Story) from deportation — though in the event Helena is deported, then returned on that train from hell. Apparently the filmmakers, including director George Sidney (who got quite a lot of plum assignments from the influence of his father, MGM executive L. K. Sidney, and usually was an uninteresting hack filmmaker but here, with Charlie Rosher as his cinematographer, actually gets in a few semi-noir compositions, with dark shadows and oblique angles, though the script was just too banal to allow for any moral complexities to go along with the visual fireworks), had been looking at Josef von Sternberg for inspiration, since there are similar (but much more moving) sequences in his films The Last Command and Shanghai Express. The main intrigue has to do with Maria Buhlen (Janet Leigh, before she learned how to act), a dancer in the chorus of the Vienna State Opera — their theatre had been bombed by the Allies in 1945 and at the time this movie was made still hadn’t been rebuilt (it wouldn’t reopen until 1955), but the opera itself was staging performances in whatever makeshift venues they could find — who turns out really to be former Moscow Ballet star Olga Alexandrova, hiding out in the chorus because she knows that if she’s ever returned to the Soviet Union she’ll be put on trial for “subversive activities” (a phrase that sits oddly on the lips of Russians when we’re used to hearing it from McCarthyite Americans in the same era!) and given some sort of Fate Worse than Death.

Twinko falls genuinely in love with Maria, a.k.a. Olga, and the combination of the power of their love and the dedication of Mother Auxilia to protecting her and the others who have come to the convent for sanctuary leads Nicobar first to lobby the United Nations to demand a change in the policy requiring the wartime allies to repatriate each other’s nationals, then to defy a direct order from his superior (identified in the character list only as “The General” and played by Batman’s butler, Alan Napier), demanding the immediate repatriation of Maria and ordering him to turn her over to Russian Col. Piniev. Nicobar’s resistance is futile, it turns out, because he’s immediately relieved of his command and arrested, and his replacement, Col. Humphrey “Blinker” Omicron (Francis L. Sullivan), turns Maria over to the Russians — only before they can take her she hurls herself out of a convenient window, thereby becoming the second person we’ve seen to commit suicide rather than go back to the U.S. The Red Danube is one of those frustrating bad movies with a good movie in it struggling to get to freedom against the Col. Pinievs in the MGM executive office shoe-horning it into the usual formulae; it reflects the influence of then-MGM production head Dore Schary — a New Deal liberal at a time when New Deal liberalism had become decidedly passé, with a penchant for inserting social commentary into films, which wouldn’t have been a problem except he did it so ham-handedly, with characters going on and on and on about their political, social, economic and religious beliefs. (One wag said when Schary was finally fired in 1956 that he had “sold MGM’s birthright for a pot of message.”) It doesn’t help that just after The Red Danube a British film crew went into the real occupied Vienna (The Red Danube’s final credit proclaims it was “Filmed in Hollywood, U.S.A.,” though there was quite obviously a lot of second-unit work in Rome and Vienna — including one intriguing side trip on which Nicobar, disgused as a general since he “inadvertently” took one’s coat, takes Mother Auxilia to Rome and we see a nice stock shot of the Pope addressing the multitudes in the courtyard of Vatican City) and made a masterpiece, The Third Man, whose plot was straightforward thriller with no political or religious connotations but which nonetheless did a far better job than The Red Danube of portraying an occupied city as a hotbed of amorality and greed. The Red Danube is that most frustrating sort of bad movie, one that had the seeds of a good movie in it but which fell so far short in the execution it’s little more than a ponderous two-hour bore.