Archive for Johann Strauss II

Waltz and All

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by dcairns

‘When I mentioned to Hitchcock that I’d never seen WALTZES FROM VIENNA, he said, “That’s a good girl. Don’t.”‘

~ Charlotte Chandler, It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.


It’s tempting to regard WALTZES FROM VIENNA, directed by Hitchcock after his relationship with producer John Maxwell at British International Pictures had gone into a decline. According to John Russell Taylor’s authorised bio, Hitch, Maxwell had passed on a screenplay called Bulldog Drummond’s Baby, which Hitchcock had developed with BLACKMAIL’s original author Charles Bennett, with the words, “It’s a masterpiece of cinematics, dear boy, but I’d rather have the £10,000.” The screenplay would be revamped, losing the familiar character of Drummond, and become THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the film which sparked Hitch’s renaissance.


Meanwhile, the only offer on the table was a musical-comedy life of Strauss the younger, produced by an independent but umbrellaed by the sizable Gaumont-British. Hitch would always dismiss the film in later years, and was heard to vocally denounce it even while it was in production: “I hate this sort of stuff. Melodrama is the only thing I can do,” a remark overheard and recorded by the film’s star, Esmond Knight.

Yet as Charles Barr points out, melodrama is exactly what WFV is, in the literal sense of being a musical drama. It introduces the idea of a musical leitmotif woven into the story (in this case, the writing of The Blue Danube) which became a favourite Hitchcock device, deployed in both versions of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, as well as THE LADY VANISHES and REAR WINDOW, a film which can be viewed as the story of the composition of its own theme song.

In addition to the composition story, there’s romance, with Knight’s Strauss torn between romance with baker’s daughter Jessie Matthews, who wants him to get a straight job, and an affair with countess Fay Compton, who wishes to nurture his talent and also to cheat on her husband. A further layer of complication is added by Strauss’s fraught relationship with his father, Edmund Gwenn, who feels threatened by his son’s talent.


Cries and Vosper.

Does any of the film work? Yes, any of it does. But certainly not all of it. The early parts of the film attempt Lubitschian comedy, and despite Hitch’s well-known puckish sense of humour, much of this falls flat. Frank Vosper as the cuckolded husband gets the only laughs, with some beautifully timed physical playing. There’s a heaviness to the story and characterisation that tends to crush the attempts at gaiety. Esmond Knight would be blinded in the war and make a heroic come-back as a character player (riding a donkey through a forest in BLACK NARCISSUS, he declined the use of a stunt double: “The donkey doesn’t want to run into a tree any more than I do!”) but he’s not quite a light comedian yet. Jessie Matthews certainly could be, but her contemporary musicals kept her informal, to counterbalance her highly coached vocal delivery. Here, the costumes and pomp seem to stiffen her, and she gets little comedy to play and surprisingly little to sing. Fay Compton, so moving and natural in Welles’s OTHELLO, years later, is somewhat floaty and somnambular as the Countess, who ought to be a bit flightier, one would have thought.

The pleasure of the film is in little flourishes concocted by Hitchcock, like the naive but fun scene where Strauss conceives his waltz by watching the work in a bakery, and a couple of bold jump-cuts:


In this one, Hitch achieves an impossible rack-focus into a close-up on the fleeing Jessie Matthews, by the expedient of cutting sharply from blurred to focused.

In another scene change, Hitch tracks in on a rolled-up score clutched by one character, then cuts directly to an identically composed shot of a matching score held in the same way by someone else — then he tracks back, mirroring the earlier track in.


Hitchcock was without his usual cinematographer, John Cox, on this movie, which may have added to his sense of alienation from the project. Cox wouldn’t return to the fold until THE LADY VANISHES, but Hitch would soon forge a productive collaboration with cameraman Bernard Knowles.

My favourite moment was the ending, which is not intended as a glib dig: I genuinely like the ending. After a rousing performance of his new composition (Hitch’s low-budget version is like a rough sketch for Duvivier’s delirious THE GREAT WALTZ, with both filmmakers cutting to the beat to create visual music), Strauss’s personal problems are wrapped up with a certain amount of effort and contrivance, but Hitchcock leaves the oedipal drama unresolved until the last moment.

Strauss the elder walks disconsolately through the beergarden, scene of his son’s triumph, as the lights are turned out one by one around him. A little girl asks for his autograph. He signs it, “Strauss”, then calls her back and amends it. “Strauss Snr.” He walks on, reconciled to his place, and his son’s place, in history. Not only is it a good piece of Hitchcockian (and Lubitschian) indirect storytelling, it unleashes the wealth of sweetness which Gwenn possesses as an actor, and which his director will not allow him to use fully until THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, twenty years later.


Waltz, Darling

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on September 8, 2008 by dcairns

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.