Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Waltzes from Vienna

WALTZES FROM VIENNA         C         
aka:  Strauss’ Great Waltz  
Great Britain  (80 mi)  1934  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Coming on the heels of two flops, Hitchcock was ready for any work just to have something to do, calling it the “lowest ebb” in his career, where he was receiving no constructive criticism and was displeased with his own work, especially on this film, calling WALTZES FROM VIENNA and Champagne (1928)  the two worst films he ever made.  In the case of Champagne he was wrong, as it features hilarious slapstick comedy routines that don’t exist anywhere else in the Hitchcock catalogue, while he’s dead on with this film, which is a real old-fashioned costume drama that was already out of date at the time it was being made, pulled out of mothballs in this cheaply made musical without any music, though the blunders of this film apparently taught Hitchcock to appreciate the value of a good musical score, which was something he emphasized in his later work.  Anxious to finish off his contract with British International Pictures, Alfred Hitchcock agreed to make this schmaltzy light-hearted comedy set in 19th century Vienna that spends much of its time indulging in the sweets from the pastry section of a confectionery shop, making every stereotypical reference it can about the snobbishness of the highbrow, upper crust elite, who bear titles and wear elaborate costumes with wigs, calling themselves Princes and Countesses in a congratulatory aura of pompous self-importance.  Had Groucho Marx appeared, we might have looked forward to some snide and satirical references to the haughtiness of it all, but this one takes itself much too seriously, despite the overwrought attempts at lowbrow humor that dot the film.  Opening on a horse-drawn fire carriage racing at breakneck speed only to run into a slow moving street parade playing Johann Strauss’s “Radetzky March” Johann Strauss Sr. "Radetzky March" performed by Vienna ... (YouTube, 7:07, with Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra), where nobody budges to allow them through, turning into a slow motion version of really old slapstick comedy, like the kind they used in the silent era of the teens.  By the time they arrive to the café/bakery where the fire is taking place, the building has been evacuated but the inside tables and place settings are being rearranged on the sidewalk, as if nothing has happened, while also immune to it all, caught up in the rapture of love, Johann Strauss Jr. (Esmond Knight) and Rasi the baker’s daughter (Jessie Matthews) are upstairs having a music lesson in a small studio above the bakery where the younger Strauss is dedicating another piece of music to her.  The baker’s assistant, Leopold (Hindle Edgar), however, arrives through the window and insists upon carrying her down a ladder to safety, even though the fire has been put out by this time, apparently a minor detail.  Nonetheless, he insists, tearing her dress along the way, an artificially contrived noble gesture gone wrong.  This bumbleheaded farce of mis-direction, however, dictates the tone of the film.   

The real dilemma here is told in parallel stories, the budding musical talent of young Johann is told right alongside his head over heels love affair for Rasi, while his father (Edmund Gwenn), the elder Johann Strauss’s utter contempt for the idea that any of his sons would follow in his footsteps and enter the music business is matched by Rasi’s refusal to accept any suitor that refuses to work in her father’s bakery.  So while Rasi is flattered that Johann’s music is dedicated to her, she has no interest in hearing it.  She could care less whether the young man has any musical talent, as all she wants is a man to follow in her own father’s footsteps and run his bakery.  Despite Johann’s obvious musical interest and aptitude, it is ignored not only by his father but by his beloved who insists that he wear a baker’s cap and work in the shop getting his hand’s dirty like a real working man.  Of course, Johann never looks more ridiculously out of place, showing no aptitude whatsoever for a baker’s life, as his mind is always wandering to music.  It is this image of a young Johann slaving away in the bakery shop that becomes a turning point in the film, as in his head while he sees and hears all the bakery machinery grinding away, it becomes music to his ears, all swaying to the rhythm of a waltz that would eventually become the epic Blue Danube Waltz 2001: A Space Odyssey-Strauss - YouTube (5:34) that is iconically featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), basically coopting the music for time immemorial.  In comparison, of course, this Hitchcock confectionery daydream is a piece of lightweight fluff that will have little impact on anybody’s life.  Nonetheless, we hear stands of the music straining to be heard, where the people that matter most in the young composer’s life have no interest whatsoever—case closed.  Enter Countess Helga von Stahl (Fay Compton), surely a rival for the heart (and pocketbook) of Groucho’s legendary foil, Margaret Dumont, where her title suggests access to power and money, taking an interest in the young Johann, believing the obvious, that the man is obsessed with music that was meant for the public to hear, knowing instantly that he’s wasting his life with that selfish little tart who has no idea what she’s depriving the world. 

On a similar note, Johann’s father has no idea what lurks in his son’s heart and imagination, but is too busy handling his own business matters, rehearsing his orchestra relentlessly while schmoozing with the aristocratic moneybrokers that might make precious donations to his cause.  The heartless manner in which the father refuses to even consider playing his son’s Blue Danube Waltz only further condemns him to that hellhole of a bakery.  The film gets bogged down in jealous asides, where Rasi can’t bear the thought of anyone else taking an interest in her man, or attempting to persuade him to come out from slaving away in that underground lair of a bakery where he’s little more than a lackey under her hypnotic mind control, while the Prince (Frank Vosper), husband of the Countess, whose dreams consist of continually winning pistol duals, is warned of his wife’s special interest in this young musician.  The Countess is then forced to conspire and outwit not only her husband, but the elder Strauss in the protection of her musical protégé, convinced that his future would be an instant success if the public could only hear his music, where it might come down to a musical battle royale pitting one Viennese waltz king against the other.  But instead it becomes the elder Strauss with control over the orchestra pitted against young Rasi who doesn’t want Junior anywhere near the orchestra pit, becoming a battle of selfish wills, each one more detestable than the other.  Like the fire engine stalled in the opening scene that eventually manages to get through, it’s only a matter of time before the waltz is heard, even if the Countess has to lead the interference through deceptive means.  The waltz is instantly adored by the public, as the elder Strauss was inadvertently detained elsewhere, but sees the success of his misjudged son, initially thinking the crowd is calling for him to take the stand, but the adulation is for the young maestro whose career was to become an overnight success.  While the arrogance of the wealthy is served on a platter by Hitchcock’s stinging rebuke, but nothing is more contemptible than the shrill note of vain mirror adoration from the completely self-absorbed Jessie Matthews as Rasi, who was not liked by Hitchcock on the set, and the wretchedness of her performance proves that, as she comes to represent the shallow blindness of the thoroughly outclassed and manipulated working class.   While this may have been the low point in Hitchcock’s career, where his 20’s silent films appear to be more accomplished than his early 30’s talkies, thankfully that’s all about to change, as his films in the latter half of the decade would only punctuate his greatness.     

Note – no Hitchcock cameos. 

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