Waltz, Darling

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.

13 Responses to “Waltz, Darling”

  1. I see more Ken in Flesh and Fantasy than The Great Waltz

  2. That’s true. But the combination of camp, kitsch, monumentalism, the operatic, classical composers, violent camera movement…the comparison is there to be made with The Great Waltz. Of course, TGW is dedicated to the MGM ideals of “taste” and “class” both of which are extremely vulgar without knowing it. Whereas Ken is gloriously, knowingly vulgar.

  3. I feel giddy just watching that clip!

    Talking about rear projection as hallucinatory artifice exposing the mechanisms of cinema how about the gloriously fake back projections from the 60s version of The Killers (especially during the similarly giddy go-karting sequence!). On “creating an oneric phantom-world for his characters to march, dance or stumble through” how about Sunrise with the main characters walking as a neon lit city appears around them?

    I know this isn’t the main thrust of your post but that image from The Devils is another one of my absolute favourites. One of the best ‘walks’ in cinema, though I don’t know what others might feature on that list (apart from the various Elephant films and Bela Tarr, obviously!)

  4. Jeanne Moreau in La Notte surely.

  5. Don’t let’s forget Jayne Mansfield crossing the street in “The Girl Can’t Help It.”

    For some reason, too, I think of ‘Tippi’ Hedron (gotta remember those quoatation marks) in the train station at the start of “Marnie.”

  6. Love that scene.

    Peckinpah said “I want to do a walk thing,” and that lead to The Wild Bunch’s slomo march to death.

    The walk into the marshes at the start of Sunrise is another great walk, with two moons in the sky, and the camera before, beside and behind the guy.

  7. The Great Waltz is enjoyable as all hell, and you do a great job of conveying its bizarre charms. Also love the discussion of Duvivier and rear-projection, so perceptive as always. I mentioned this movie briefly in my Luise Rainer post a long while ago. It’s just a graf, but I’m fond of that two-parter (as indeed I got very fond of Luise in the course of writing it) so I will take the liberty of giving you the links, here and here. I had encountered that Anschluss theory in an IMDB user posting and was mightily amused but darn near convinced. If you ever want to elaborate on that yourself, I am all ears.

    But, despite the great clip chosen, how can you not mention the scene where Fernand Gravet and Miliza Korjus compose Tales from the Vienna Woods during a carriage ride? The best part, truly, “compensating for limp and hackneyed dramatic values with overblown, exuberant visual and aural ones” in your inspired phrasing. Any guesses as to who shot that one? In any event, now I have to go look up whatever happened to Korjus.

  8. Thanks for the links, I’m sure I missed your Luise Rainer rundown. Time somebody paid her some serious attention.

    The Anschluss connection feels inescapable to me watching the film (it’s also slightly odd to imagine Austria as a poor, conquered nation, when so many Austrians welcomed the Nazis with open arms. The Germans used to say “The average Austrian makes a poor Nazi but a very good anti-semite.”) but the timing isn’t quite right.

    The Vienna Woods kitschfest is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_W3Q2KpiqbU

    It seems that only a few little bits were the work of Fleming and Duvivier, but nobody seems to know which. This seems like a setpiece inherent to the plot, so I’m betting on Duvivier. The travelling shots of countryside seem like his taste, even if the concept is pure MGM.

    Maybe I was afraid showing it would ruin Duvivier’s reputation, such as it is? ;)

  9. David, that link seems to go to your favorite waltz/soprano scene, which now that I re-viewed it is all you say. This is the carriage scene which as I remember is just before your waltz:

  10. Whoops, you’re quite right. I knew it was on Youtube, I must have just picked the wrong bit.

    All that stuff and they still don’t have MY favourite bit!

  11. Ah, that put a spring in my step! Which was odd, since I was sitting down.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: