Friday, September 6, 2013

Julien Duvivier | The Great Waltz

swept up!
by Douglas Messerli
Gottfried Reinhardt (story), Samuel Hoffenstein and Walter Reisch, screenplay, based on a story by Vicky Baum), Julien Duvivier (director, with uncredited direction by Victor Fleming and Josef von Sternberg) The Great Waltz / 1938

I must begin this review of Julien Duvivier’s The Great Waltz—a vaguely biographical film based on the life of Johann Strauss II—by confessing that I do not generally enjoy the music of Strauss. The kitschy, sweeping waltzes, with their seemingly endless choruses of arpeggios, represents the kind of Austria—a country who writers, composers, and artists I do very much admire in the 20th century—I can hardly abide, and this movie not only features those arpeggios but reifies the corny stereotypes of pasty-punching, meerschaum-smoking, hitchy-kitschy dances such as the Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka. The reams of golden curls of the opera singer Carla Donner’s (Miliza Korjus) hairdo, makes me cringe, along with her never-ending trills, which send me into paroxysms that can only make me wonder how the handsome Fernand Gravet as Strauss could have ever fallen in love with her, let alone allowed himself to travel with her all night in the Vienna Woods, where together they created, through a literalness of musical composition—replete with shepherd’s horns, the clomping of the horse, and echoes of the wind—that only reiterates just how unoriginal his musical vision was.

       Oh, well, the movie, nonetheless, does have its marvelous moments, including the modest love of Strauss by his wife, Poldi Vogelhuber (beautifully played by Louise Rainer)—even the evil Donner admits, “You probably deserve him more than I do, but he’s going with me.”—her spirited father and mother, and the whole orchestra of eccentric music lovers willing to play for free who Strauss brings together in order to promote his new, as yet unaccepted compositions. His first venue in a large drinking establishment utterly fails, before the sudden appearance of Donner and friends, along with the establishment’s owners, who simply by opening the windows for all of Vienna to hear, sweep them up into the restaurant in a polka and waltz-dancing frenzy that is what myths are made of. Even I might have been drawn into such a large cast call of Hollywood dancers And I could only lay down my defenses in the utterly silly joy of the masses of Vienna coming to the rally of local music—not so very different, after all, than Jean Renoir’s embracement of the can-can in his far more witty and cinematically interesting French CanCan.

       Strauss, we are made to believe, was a kind of revolutionary (in Austria, it appears, anyone who did anything out of the norm was a revolutionary) in his advocacy of this popular form, as, invited to a grant aristocratic ball the composer, along with his willing ally Donner, dares to play a waltz! The scenes are hysterically funny, as the wealthy audience, first appalled, is gradually seduced by the orchestral cascades, and ultimately—in an elegant scene, allegedly directed by Josef von Sternberg—are, as were the ordinary Vienna folk, swept up into its rhythms. It’s absolutely lovely to think that such music might have had that—or any such effect.

        When the revolution actually comes to be, Strauss, we are told, has composed the rebel’s march, accidentally involving the aloof Donner into the riff-raff of his friends, and trying to protect her, including from Kaiser Franz Josef—who will ultimately be seen as the solution to the rebellion. Finally forced to recognize the stupidity of his dalliance with Donner, “Schani” Strauss returns to his loyal wife, and, after an opera or two (presumably including the operetta, Die Fledermaus) is invited to play before Franz Josef himself. So has the rebel become the representative of the bourgeoisie. Don’t all artists want that?

      In short, The Great Waltz is even a greater fantasy about art and those who must (particularly in this case) briefly suffer the slings and arrows of the conservative world out of which they have risen.  

       In the end, I guess, what makes Duvivier’s film so much fun is that it so completely embraces the kitsch world out of which Strauss’ music has come, that, as Americans who have taken a shine to nearly every popular-cultural stich that has come our way, we cannot but be caught up in its refrains: Da-de-da, da-de-da-da-de-da-da-de-da.. Da-de-da dot-dot-dot-dot…well you know the rest!

      As bad as this movie may be, and even might have been, it is inexplicably charming nonetheless. Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg even won the Academy Award of 1938!

Los Angeles, September 5, 2013

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