Friday, July 26, 2013

Waltzes From Vienna (1934)

Beefing on Hitchcock
Waltzes From Vienna

The story of a young Johann Strauss and his endeavour to write The Blue Danube. Living in the shadow of his father, the elder Johann Strauss, the younger Strauss sets out to prove his talent and love of music. Having his confidence shattered publicly by his self-righteous father, "Schani" (as the younger Strauss is known) is commissioned to write a new march by a beautiful alluring Countess Helga von Stahl... much to the chagrin of his young fiance Rasi. Rasi becomes increasingly jealous of the Countess, and Schani's allegiances are torn between respect for his father, his love for his fiance, and his love and desire for his music. Things become even more complicated when the Countess conspires to make the young Strauss finally prove himself and gain the respect she knows he should have.

Hitchcock's one and only musical film, Waltzes From Vienna stands out from the catalog in so many ways. His first film after his departure from British International Pictures, the difference is obvious. Gone are the cheap sets and poor, stifled cinematography; in come the elaborate, gigantic sets with sweeping, grandiose camera work. This is the first film that immediately just "felt" like a Hitchcock film.

What I find rather sad is that Hitchcock called the film "the lowest ebb" of his career, and only made the movie because he had no other projects. Maybe because of that, or the fact that it relied so heavily on music, it often gets overlooked. In fact, I had to download a copy online to really obtain it. Luckily, the quality is near pristine... but there really should be a lot more recognition of this picture.

Hitchcock's sense of humour and personality makes its way almost immediately into the film; the opening scene following a wedding cake around a crowd, as the man carrying it scrambles to find somewhere to set it. This typical brand of quick, dry humour that Hitchcock fans are familiar with extends through the entire film, allowing it to be classified essentially as a "romantic comedy."

The story of Strauss writing The Blue Danube actually acts as somewhat of a "macguffin" to the ever-present love triangle. What really got me thinking was that the actual love triangle wasn't really between Strauss, his fiance and the Countess... but in fact between Strauss, his fiance and his art: his love of music. The Countess, who had only mild romantic feelings towards Strauss, acted merely as representing his love of music and goal of becoming a great composer. She was his path to fame, and both she and Strauss knew it. The one person who didn't quite realize this was the fiance, Rasi, who simply did not trust or understand the real intentions of the Countess.

As for casting, everyone was fabulous, including of course Edmund Gwenn, who appeared in 3 other Hitchcock films... but to me, the real stand-out performance came from Jessie Matthews, who played Rasi. She was just absolutely adorable and despite the character's ignorance and arrogance, I still just couldn't help but love it whenever she became indignantly jealous.

There was, of course, a happy ending... and I found myself uttering the words "absolutely wonderful" as the movie came to a close. To hear that Hitchcock himself was so down on this film is quite disheartening really, because it very quickly catapulted up into the stock of my personal favourites. I would love for Criterion to get their hands on this picture, and maybe someday the rest of the world will be more aware of this rare gem by one of the most famous directors of all time.

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