My second favourite scene from Julien Duvivier’s THE GREAT WALTZ. My favourite scene — more on that later — alas isn’t on YouTube and I can’t load it myself since my aging VHS tape would crumble if I attempted to attach it to the black plastic YouTube emerging from the back of my computer and suck it up onto the interweb. The movie would tear at the scenes, with characters peeling from backgrounds, leaving only gesticulating white outlines, and wind up in the wrong sequences, conversing at cross-purposes with younger versions of themselves. The mighty Blue Danube, celebrated by Strauss in music and Duvivier in image, would burst it’s very banks and come crashing into the biergartens and concert halls, lapping and crashing against closeups, and sweeping over insert shots of batons and sheet music. Features from Luise Reiner’s face – lips, and eyelids – would detach and ooze across the jowls of Hugh Herbert, then melt through the Vienna woods, outsized and terrifying, like rampaging oysters from some Japanese kaiju movie.
So I won’t be doing THAT.
In the sequence I’m thinking of, the grand, splashy production values of the above scene, and the dynamic, monumental compositions, are both in evidence, but subservient to a dynamism that would give Max Ophuls motion sickness. Young Strauss waltzes round the biergarten with an operatic lovely trilling her coloratura full in his face (if she did that to me I would DROP HER and walk away) while the camera chases them at breakneck speed and from a high angle. Then into a midshot, in which the spinning couple gyre and gimble round as if rotating on a see-saw, while rear-projected scenery spins and tilts wantonly behind them, out of synch with their movements and producing a nauseating sense of glee.
(Duvivier uses rear projection AS rear projection, hallucinatory artifice that exposes the mechanism of cinema and creates an oneric phantom-world for his characters to march, dance or stumble through. The nearest comparison might be Oliver Stone’s process shots in NATURAL BORN KILLERS, but I hesitate to mention that because Duvivier is by no means a mind-numbed buffoon. You can see Duvivier doing this at the end of PEPE LE MOKO — and when Hollywood made their shot-for-shot remake, ALGIERS, they had Charles Boyer staggering in front of exactly the same background footage as Jean Gabin in the original.)
THE GREAT WALTZ doesn’t avoid altogether the potential cheese-traps of the biopic (you know, lines like “Brahms, meet Liszt!”), in fact it dives headfirst into them and remains that way, legs kicking in air, body submerged in kugelkäse. And Duvivier didn’t make the whole film — MGM brought in Victor Fleming and Josef Von Sternberg to shoot bits. Sternberg, the great individualist, perverse as ever, prided himself on making his contribution as anonymous as possible, and nobody seems to know who was responsible for what.
Some scenes seem like propoganda protesting against the Anschluss, although the annexation of Austrai and the release of the film seem awfully close together. But I guess the writing was on the wall.
So it’s not a masterpiece, it’s schmaltzy hokum. But Duvivier does subvert the studio’s idea of class somewhat, making every element tinged with camp, and compensating for limp and hackneyed dramatic values with overblown, exuberant visual and aural ones. The spirit of Ken Russell yet to come.