January 24, 2021
Waltzes From Vienna – UK, 1934
In the annals of history, I do not believe you’ll find reference to a young woman named Resi Ebezeder, and for some, that may come as a surprise. After all, here is a young woman whose demands almost changed the course of music history – according to Alfred Hitchcock’s Waltzes From Vienna, that is. In the film, which is based on a popular stage musical that was first performed in 1930, Resi (Jessie Matthews) is the girlfriend of Johan Strauss II (Esmond Knight), and as much as she loves him, she has no desire to play second fiddle to his musical ambitions. In other words, it’s either her or his music, an ultimatum which sadly removes much of the film’s drama.
Not having seen the stage version of the story, I am in no position to judge what is unique to Hitchcock’s version. However, if I had to guess, I would assume that the film’s opening scene is the brainchild of the film’s screenwriters, Guy Bolton and Alma Reville. In that scene, we first meet Resi during a singing lesson with Johan, whom she lovingly refers to as “Schani” throughout the film. (Full disclosure: I thought she was saying “Johnny.”) It is clear that Resi thoroughly enjoys singing, as well as thinking the world of her man’s sweet serenades, all of which are tellingly dedicated to her. If only they were published, he muses aloud. Their activities do not go unnoticed. In the apartment across the street, a group of scantily-clad clothing models watch from a window, and from the ground below, her father scowls disapprovingly, not just at the idea of her daughter being in love with a musician, but also at the old adage love is stronger than flames.
Through a series of bad jokes and poorly thought out scenarios, young Johan winds up in the apartment across the street, where he meets Countess Helga von Stahl (Fay Compton), another character not-so-curiously absent from the history books. Helga, having heard Johan playing, is convinced that he’s the right person to put music to her words. Now normally when two artists are brought together, the product of their coloration is nothing short of a masterpiece. However, ask yourself this questions: When was the last time you heard Strauss’s The Blue Danube performed with lyrics? I’m guessing the answer to that question is never. And there’s a reason for this. Can you imagine the space-docking scene in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey including the lyrics “Danube so blue so blue, so bright and blue”? After the piece’s debut, the real Strauss is said to have deemed it a failure because the audience had only demanded that to hear to once more. Maybe that was all the sappiness they could stomach.
It is unsurprising then that credit for the horrible lyrics is given to a fictitious character and that what is performed at the end of the film is the instrumental version, despite the fact that the Countess’s entire motivation is to hear her words sung during a performance by the senior Strauss. I suppose her sacrifice could be intended as a sign of her love for the younger Strauss’s gifts – and perhaps for the artist himself. Thus, the film is a love triangle, pitting a woman who wants Strauss to sacrifice his art for love against another woman who is willing to sacrifice her love for Strauss’s art. However, this is a rather gross simplification, for the Countess is in fact married, rendering any potential pairing of the two as adulterous and therefore morally questionable. In other words, Strauss has to choose Resi, regardless of her nagging, pushiness, moodiness, and envy because the other option makes him a crowd-displeasing home-wrecker.
Waltzes From Vienna was Hitchcock’s twenty-first film, coming just before such better known films as The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, and in his later interviews with Francois Truffaut, he described the film as the lowest point in his career, further explaining that he had only made the film because he had no other projects in the works. This may be true, but does that excuse the sheer laziness of the finished product? Like many of Hitchcock’s lesser-regarded efforts, Waltzes From Vienna includes numerous ill-advised efforts at humor, from its opening scene involving the fire at Resi’s family café to eccentric characters like the Countess’s husband, Prince Gustav (Frank Vosper), who duels for his wife’s honor in his sleep and even keeps track of his dreamland victories. Despite its countless efforts, only a joke about why Resi’s father was over fifty when she was born elicited a chuckle from me.
Usually when you look at the early films of acknowledged masters, you can see hints of the filmmakers they would become. Some people have looked at Waltzes and observed that it was the first time Hitchcock used a musical performance as part of a film’s climax. However, there’s a difference between what he does here and what he does in such films as The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window. In the latter films, the performances are integral to the finale, a culmination of the action that preceded them. Here the music is simply performed, and since we know it goes on to become Strauss’s most popular piece, the reception is never in doubt.
Also not in doubt is the reaction of Strauss Senior (Edmund Gwenn), who arrives mid-performance to find his orchestra playing his son’s work. (Just how they learned it is anyone’s guess.) However, Hitchcock even gets this moment wrong. Strauss, who has been portrayed as arrogant, caustic, and insulting throughout the film, should be moved by his son’s creation, yet Hitchcock has him continue to disparage his son even after hearing his music and witnessing the crowd’s enthusiastic response. So, instead of seeing a father and son reconcile, we get a final attempt at romance, one in which Resi accepts that her man is a musician. Interestingly, the stage version of the story had her choose to marry one of the bakers employed by her father, reasoning that he would provide her the normalcy that she was looking for in life. Logical, but certainly not what studio executives thought would satisfy audiences. And so, we get a compromised ending, and while they may be disappointing, it is perfectly in keeping with the action that preceded it. How else could such a lethargically-made film end other than in the most unoriginal way possible? (on DVD)