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Week 15: ‘Waltzes From Vienna’ – 1933

April 17, 2010

This is such an odd one it’s difficult to actually consider it a Hitchcock movie. Apparently he found himself without a project to work on and chose this ‘musical’ to keep himself active as a director. In the Francois Truffaut published interview he describes it as ‘the lowest ebb of my career’ and, like ‘Number Seventeen’, it is pretty shocking. In this case, however, the film is hampered by being based in a genre that is a shift out of whack from anything else he ever made. It’s often described as a ‘musical’ although it’s more a musical-biography based around the relationship of Johann Strauss the Elder and the Younger – and their battles both as composers and father and son.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the movie is this father/son relationship. The always dependable Edmund Gwenn (see ‘The Skin Game’ from 1931) delivers another strong performance as the elder Strauss, all arrogant artistic bluster and pride tempered ultimately by love and respect for his offspring.

He simultaneously wants his son (played by Esmond Knight) to succeed but is equally unwilling to give up his hard won composer-mantle. His contemptuous reading of the lyrics the Countess Helga von Stahl (mentor and patron to the Younger, played by Fay Compton) has written for his son sums up his disdain for anything new on the horizon, and the slowly more desperate clinging to his waning reputation.

There is a very interesting scene set in a bakery (Strauss the Younger works there in an attempt to woo Jessie Matthews’ Rasi, the bakery owner’s daughter and the main love interest) with the young composer watching the preparation of various bread-based products and being inspired to write his masterpiece. It is fairly abstract in comparison to the rest of the film but does work well (it feels like the kind of ‘composed’ sequence that Michael Powell would later strive for – the music dictating the visuals. Interesting that Esmond Knight would become a Powell and Pressburger staple in such productions as, amongst others, ‘Black Narcissus’, ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘Peeping Tom’). As more and more baking gadgets are employed, so the sequence grows in complexity as does his composition – it’s one of the best parts of the movie (the closing performance scene being the main other high watermark).

It’s rare in cinema that the writing of a song or poem or any creative art is shown at all convincingly – but in this case Hitchcock does it pretty well, avoiding too much of a fromage factor*.

Jessie Matthews is the name above the title (she was one of the biggest musical stars in Britain at the time) but is consistently marginalised from the action in a noticeable way. Background reading on the film notes how Matthews did not gel at all with her director and he actively sought ways to shoot that involved her not appearing onscreen. A bit childish no doubt, but it does illustrate the power of the director to oversee all processes and ultimately control a performance, or in this case an entire starring role. As well as Rasi being the main romantic interest, there are strong intimations that the Younger Strauss is involved with the much older Countess – her husband duffing him up at one point. as his wife sneaks out a back window. It feels quite daring to suggest this kind of ménage-a-trois, and quite entertaining. The Countess has to council the younger Rasi at one point to let her beau realise his ambitions and not limit him, and you do get the impression that when the young couple finally do go off together he’s in for a life of tedious nagging.

There are some clunky old attempts at humour, all pretty clumsily handled – cakes being dropped, a guy being splattered with a firehouse, Rasi being pulled back and forth by her two possible suitors and finally having her dress pulled off on a ladder, plate dropping hilarity in the later scenes etc. It all feels a bit strained and out of kilter, and ultimately not very funny. The whole thing is undeniably light and frivolous and certainly has a romantic feel to it that is attractive – but Hitch is not the man to oversee all of this and it feels like he’s wearing a suit a size or two too small.

Technically, the film feels like a leap forward – the sound recording a lot slicker than the crudeness of ‘Number Seventeen’ and ‘Rich and Strange’. It’s a complex film in its use of music (which drives the whole thing along) and the most impressive scenes are those that are driven by the sweeping and famous themes of the two composers. There are slick camera moves and very cinematic moments – Rasi running towards camera after having a tiff with Strauss pere, then a really great (and very Powell and Pressburger-ian) match cut to her entering the next room (@ 40 minutes) plus an impressive cut hidden by a camera move behind a tree @ 51 minutes, feeling like a precursor to similar edits in ‘Rope’ from 1948. In the later scenes, there are graceful and lovely camera moves around the orchestra that lure you into the romance of the whole enterprise.

The recital scene, with Daddy having his watch retimed to make him late for an evening soiree – thus giving Younger a chance to present his masterpiece of the ‘The Blue Danube’ – is actually very exciting: will the old guy get there in time to hear his son’s triumph and either go mad with anger or realize the beauty of this new composition? It is ‘the moment of your life’ says the Countess and Strauss the Younger seizes it and triumphs. The slow enthusiasm of the crowd, hearing this new compostion for the  first time, is nicely handled as they all gradually start to dance and enjoy the music. It has to be noted that Strauss the Younger is wearing a ludicrously large bow tie, I don’t know if this helps his conducting…

The final sequence, with the Elder signing an autograph and then qualifying it by adding ‘Senior’, is very poignant and you know that the father has accepted the son’s rising star.

However, it does feel like Hitchcock is trying to stamp some kind of personal style to the picture but fails due to the hindrance of its subject matter. ‘Waltzes From Vienna’ is a pretty weak film, fairly enjoyable with some good performances but one that if it had not been directed by him would have disappeared in the sands of time.

Miscellaneous notes

*A few examples of fairly good representations of art being created are Nick Nolte’s mad painting in Scorsese’s segment of the 1989 portmanteau picture ‘New York Stories’, Ed Harris slapping on the oils in his own ‘Pollock’ and, the best of all, Tony Hancock in Robert Day’s fantastic ‘The Rebel’ from 1961. Hancock portrays a frustrated city businessman who spends his spare time daubing the most appalling paintings and sculptures before being swept up into the Parisien art scene as a mistaken identity/visionary. If you have never seen ‘The Rebel’ check it out, it’s very funny and pokes a great deal of fun at the whole creative process and the value of Art. I also find the writing of ‘Light My Fire’ in Oliver Stone’s love it or hate it ‘The Doors’ very entertaining (in a I-can’t-believe-they-are-doing-this kind of way).