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Louis B. Mayer loved operettas, the more schmaltz the better, as they say. He continued to produce them throughout the 1930s as vehicles for his popular star Jeanette MacDonald. It must be said that European divas like Gitta Alpar were enormously popular. Her German, Czech and Hungarian films are still being shown overseas.
MGM's "fanciful biography" of Johann Strauss is a visually exciting hybrid between the musical bio and operetta. Dimitri Tiomkin reworked The Waltz King's biggest hits into a series of exciting Hollywood-style musical numbers. Oscar Hammerstein II wrote lyrics for some of the tunes as well. An opening card tells us that The Great Waltz isn't historically accurate, but an expression of the spirit of the composer's music. In other words, it's fantasy time, plain and simple.
Bank clerk Johann Strauss II (Fernand Gravet of La ronde) is fired for writing waltzes on the job. His ever-faithful sweetheart Poldi Vogelhuber (Luise Rainer), a baker's daughter, suggests that her "Schani" just get all of his friends who play instruments together and
Forget schmaltz and forget Nelson Eddy's rosy cheeks... The Great Waltz is definitely one of the better musicals of the 1930s and perhaps the most visually exciting one outside the realm of Busby Berkeley. The key would seem to be the excellent French director Julien Duvivier, the maker of superior silent dramas (Poil du carotte, Au bonheur des dames) and uncompromised talkies like Maria Chapdelaine and La Bandera. The international hit Pépé le Moko earned Duvivier an MGM contract, where he immediately made his mark with this killer show. Duvivier has a magic touch with his actresses. Luise Rainer's "little woman" endures ordeals of humiliation with a trembling smile, and never wears out her welcome. And what under any other MGM director might be truly dull dialogue scenes, come sharply to life with the impressive Miliza Korjus, a classically-trained Polish singing star. Korjus' Carla Donner is a grinning, haughty, self-assured mantrap. Carla refuses to act in a predictable manner. Liberated by her talent and good looks, she has Lionel Atwill's Count eating out of her hand. She doesn't mind when the folks at a country inn assume that she's Strauss's wife. The energetic Korjus blasts out the high notes like nothing human, all the while smiling and dancing in a way that makes her look like the secret of life itself. This may be your great grandfather's idea of sex appeal, but Korjus has it and under Duvivier's direction it still has plenty of oomph.
The French director knows how to employ the MGM production machine to its best advantage. The many musical numbers never fail to express the excitement of the music and the swelling emotions of the characters. Forget coverage -- Duvivier's crane-mounted camera sweeps and swoops across large sets without a gratuitous or show-off angle in sight. Strauss and Carla's big dance together is a mad spinning race in an outdoor beer garden. It concludes with incredible angles of the spinning pair filmed on a turntable, backed by a mad whirling rear projection. 1
Duvivier injects an unrestrained, "go for it" European sense of cutting into the sometimes-stuffy MGM "heritage of quality". Late in the film Poldi races in a desperate bid to reclaim her husband before he runs off with his paramour Carla. When she reaches the opera house, a quick succession of cuts, each wider than the next, reveals her standing at the back of the enormous hall. The overpowering space, plus the mocking Carla singing to her from the stage, makes Poldi's mission seem hopeless. MGM's optical department appears to have created the opera space with mattes and models -- in a similar scene, hats thrown aloft disappear in mid-air behind a matte painting of the upper galleries of the hall.
The show's frequent musical numbers never become repetitive. The Blue Danube Waltz, which to our experience is now "wedded" to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, plays out over washer-women rushing to do their laundry at the banks of the river. The section most frequently excerpted in musical clips is the absurd yet delightful coach ride where Strauss and Carla, with help from some shepherds, a coachman and a horse's hooves, compose Tales from the Vienna Woods in a matter of minutes. The lovers "improvise" the melody from cues that come from tweeting birds and the horns of various shepherds. They end up standing in the coach, singing like inspired maniacs. It's both silly and irresistible -- would you rather see Strauss in his pajamas, bent over a piano, struggling to make the melody work?
I hope I haven't oversold the unusually visual and vibrant The Great Waltz, which still remains a musical operetta from the 1930s. It has more than its share of cornball humor through comic Hugh Herbert and Schani's "neighborhood" friends. Leonid Kinskey is a happy dolt while Curt Bois makes faces when he sees that Strauss is double-timing Poldi. Yes, you will be asked to believe that Strauss'es patriotic marches were the deciding factor in the revolution of 1848. For one song Oscar Hammerstein II supplies "cute" lyrics for the oddball musicians to sing. But the central competition between Luise Rainer's passive Poldi and Miliza Korjus' aggressive Carla is something to see. Fernand Gravet? He leads the band and is barely tasked to make up his mind about the women in his life. In MGM musical biographies, possessing great talent gives one the right to be insensitive and selfish!
The Great Waltz probably elicited 101 obscene jokes from the cynical Billy Wilder, but it still transports us into its Viennese fantasy. It has MGM's resources plus the input of a truly talented and creative director. It's seldom singled out, but musical fans that see it are in for a special treat.
The Warner Archive Collection's Remastered Edition DVD-R of The Great Waltz looks and sounds terrific, with a sharp image and very clear sound. In the no-frills world of MOD discs we aren't offered much background on the show, but that's what books about classic Hollywood musicals are for. The disc comes with an original trailer.
This reviewer attended exactly one Golden-Age Hollywood party, at the Hollywood Hills home of director-associate professor David Bradley, on New Year's Day 1976 or 1977. That's where I spoke with Ray Harryhausen and cameraman Karl Struss and saw Bradley's collection of old-time movie keepsakes -- a metal Nautilus model from the 1929 Maurice Tourneur Mysterious Island was on display on his back porch! Also there was Miliza Korjus, looking small and wrinkled 40 years after The Great Waltz but still pink and smiling. I didn't have the faintest idea who she was, but we shook her hand. David Bradley was a big friend of Hollywood old-timers like Fritz Lang and John Alton. I only got the one invitation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Great Waltz rates:
1. The infrequent expressionist flourishes that sneak into older big-studio films are always exciting. I'd like to edit a montage with some of these waltz shots, perhaps intercut with scenes on the spinning carousel from Strangers on a Train and Lana Turner screaming in a spinning car from The Bad and the Beautiful. I don't know what it would mean but the effect would have to be exhilarating.
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T'was Ever Thus.