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DVD: Waltzes from Vienna / Strauss’ Great Waltz (1934)
Film:  Good    
DVD Transfer:  Very Good  
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Universal France
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2 (PAL)

February 5, 2013



Genre: Musical / Romance  
Wafer-thin musical romance about Johann Strauss the younger, and the evolution of his signature waltz "The Blue Danube."  



Directed by:

Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by: Guy Bolton, Alma Reville (script); Heinz Reichert, Ernst Marischka (musical play)
Music by: Johann Strauss the Elder , Johann Strauss the Younger
Produced by: Tom Arnold (Thomas Charles Arnold)

Jessie Matthews, Edmund Gwenn, Fay Compton, Esmond Knight, Frank Vosper, Robert Hale, Charles Heslop, and Hindle Edgar.

Film Length: 77 mins.
Process / Ratio: 1.33:1
Black & White
Anamorphic: No
Languages:  English Dolby Mono, French Dolby Mono
Subtitles:  French
Special Features :  


Comments :  


Alfred Hitchcock’s strangest career diversion remains somewhat shrouded in mystery as to why Britain’s Master of Suspense would take on a film version of a stage musical featuring an utterly banal script with just a scant handful of genuine music sequences (namely a pair of vocal pieces and brief symphonic bits co-arranged on the stage by Erich Wolfgang Korngold). Add mediocre performances, a low budget set, and a terribly clichéd storyline, and the whole project feels like a mortgage movie to cover personal expenses, a personal dare, or a favour to guarantee the production of personal projects.

As far removed from Hitchcock’s suspense work can be, there are still visual, editorial, and humorous quirks typical of the director’s sensibilities, not to mention some risqué material which perhaps spices the film up a little at a time when Hollywood was implementing its evil Production Code.

The basic story is a compact dramatization of the younger Johann Strauss’ (Esmond Knight) big chance to step away from life as a violinist in Strauss the elder’s (Edmund Gwenn) symphony and prove his own talent with the debut of his most daring work, “The Blue Danube” - probably the most popular waltz ever written (due, to some measure, by its use in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Dramatic tension is crudely devised by having the Strauss junior lack confidence and entertain working in the bakery of girlfriend Rasi’s (Jessie Matthews) father, while Rasi herself vacillates between loving / hating / wanting / spurning junior because of a perceived interest from his wealthy benefactor, Countess Helga von Stahl (Fay Compton).

For the finale, a plot is unleashed to delay senior so junior can premiere his waltz to a hungry crowd of upscale music lovers and win accolades, re-solidify Rasi’s interest, and make senior see junior as a composer in his own right, since music tastes are wont to shift with each successive, fickle generation.

It is a wholly atypical Hitchcock project, and yet the director reportedly told Francois Truffaut the film helped him grasp the dramatic use of music. Although he directed Britain’s first sound film, Blackmail, in 1929, and made 8 films prior to Waltzes from Vienna, none of the films could boast full-length scores, and even his later work relied on sparing music cues; the director had yet to find the right composer, and in 1934 he was still trying to figure out the right balance of sound effects, dialogue, and score before moving to Hollywood in 1940 where a formal Hitchcock film (The Birds excepted) would include a rich, feature-length score.

The musical experimentation within Waltzes – thematically and editorially – lies in the evolution of “The Blue Danube” composition, and Hitchcock applies his mania for montage in several sequences where disparate ideas converge to form parts of the piece, with the full orchestral performance being the payoff for both Strauss junior and the audience. Sequences in the Count and Countess’ bedroom (showing the genesis of the lyrics) lead to the bakery (where melody, lyrics, and rhythm converge), and a two-person rendition with lyrics eventually blossoms into the instrumental piece in the denouement, which Hitchcock captures in meticulously constructed shots and edits. Movement of instruments is followed by shots of increasingly enthused, swaying listeners, until a lone couple breaks out from the mass and commits their enthusiasm to dance, which the rest soon follow.

As dull and predictable as Waltzes’ first two-third are, the film is filled with little pot shots at snotty rich folks – perhaps a sign of Hitchcock’s quiet contempt for the upper class characters he’s supposed to be celebrating. Featuring nasal accents, the film has short comedic vignettes with blue collar men (of which Strauss junior marginally qualifies) doing little bits of business that often foil the needs of the wealthy.

A co-worker, in love with Risa, carries the snotty girl down a ladder during a fire evacuation in the film’s opening sequence, and he shows little worry when her dress is torn, revealing her unmentionables, with her crack shielded by a ridiculously long and wide red bow.

At the climactic “Danube” performance, the jealous admirer gets increasingly drunk, and each of his attempts to convey the address of Strauss junior’s apartment to pushy rich folks is delayed by guzzling beer, a mouth packed with pastry, and the mishandling of fine china (which, in his final screen moment, ends not only with the crashing of dishes, but a loud burp that just rides the edge of the next cutaway).

Hitchcock’s low humour also manifests itself in an early scene where Strauss junior breaks into a fashion studio, and the fannies of underwear-clad models fill the lower screen. In a later scene, Risa attempts to get the attention of Strauss senior, but she only manages to excite the front row of violinists, each of whom grin and grind their respective bows with a little too much glee.

Perhaps the best bit of Hitchcock’s visual gaggery happens in the opening fire sequence. A worried street crowd gaze up a smoke-filled window, and Hitchcock slowly reveals a fireman puffing on a pipe who tells the group ‘all in fine now.’

Waltzes is a genuine curio in the director’s C.V. but there’s a somewhat perverse interest for fans wanting to single out his signature material. Once Hitchcock has dispensed with the big music number (the “Danube” sequence), he applies heavy gravitas when lovers, partners, and would-be lovers converge at Strauss junior’s apartment: the montages come straight out of a suspense film, as does a burst of violence and struggle, not to mention the lighting and dramatic shading on the ever so slightly expressionistic set design. In the hands of a musical film director, the finale would be light in tone, if not choreographed as pure farce, but Hitchcock had no desire to indulge in the kind of farcical montages he’d already established in the first act; instead, he went for the danger factor until a character does a quick switcheroo with another, which diffuses a potential for violence.

Waltzes existed as a French-dubbed version before a recent English language print was released on DVD by Universal France (paired with the director’s 1927 silent Downhill), but the film has since fallen into public domain, and is accessible at archive.org. The French DVD has reportedly removable French subtitles, and the transfer is surprisingly clean – taken from a really nice print sporting a BBFC certificate as header.

After bumping around with a few semi-successful suspense films and this oddity, Hitchcock would finally begin his rush of classic British sound thrillers. 1934 would yield The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), followed by The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). After the ill-fated Jamaica Inn (1939) for producer Erich Pommer, Hitchcock accepted a deal with David O. Selznick, and struck gold in America with Rebecca (1940).

Co-star Edmund Gwenn would similarly head to the U.S., and appear in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940) and The Trouble with Harry (1955), ending his career in the 1957 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Father and Son."


© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

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