Esmond Knight, Jessie Matthews, and Edmund Gwenn

WEEK 15: Waltzes From Vienna (1934)

1930-39

Hello, and welcome back to Weekly Hitch. This is a film studies style blog where I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in chronological order and then I write about them, usually in a meandering and unfocussed way that I then later find irritating, but all the same at least I’m not out doing crimes or whatever.

This week, my 15th (!) week on the project, we dance our way in to a movie that Hitchcock described as “the lowest ebb” of his career – and also one of the films that stands out as the most atypical for the director. It’s a musical-operetta-comedy-period-biopic about Johann Strauss, and it’s called Waltzes From Vienna.

The Film:

Both charmingly light and fun, and – in my opinion – a horribly mistreated and unfairly ignored early effort by Hitch, Waltzes From Vienna is definitely a very unHitchcockian affair – but I’m glad I found it.

The band plays on...

The band plays on…

The movie begins on the streets of Vienna, where a fire has broken out in a cafe. Upstairs from the cafe, we meet Rasi and Schani (the nickname for Johann Strauss Junior). Rasi is the cafe owner’s daughter, and Schani is her music teacher – and of course, they’re in love. They sing a cute song together, unaware of the fire burning below them – to that their music can be heard by… the Countess Helga von Stahl (played by Fay Compton), who is dress shopping next door.

The countess is very impressed by the music and asks the name of the musician. Soon, Rasi and Schani (played, respectively by the adorable Jessie Matthews and a very handsome Esmond Knight) are rescued from the fire, but Rasi has lost her skirt and has to go to the dress shop to get a replacement – where she and Schani meet the countess. Rasi is suspicious of the woman, but she likes Schani’s music, and Schani longs to prove himself as a composer.

See, as it happens, Schani is the son of Johann Strauss Senior (who would go on be less famous than his son, but was very well known in his time). The younger Strauss, plays second-fiddle (literally) in his father’s orchestra and his father doesn’t think he has any great potential at all – even though Schani dreams of being a composer. The countess suggests that if Schani were to compose a piece of music set to her poetry, that she could then trick his father into conducting it and giving him a shot at proving himself.

Strauss the senior.

Strauss the senior.

With the plot and love triangle in place, we then meet the countess’s husband – the silly and quick-tempered Price Gustav (played by Frank Vosper) – who is the jealous type, and we then meet Schani’s father – the elder Strauss (played by Hitchcock favourite Edmund Gwenn – last seen in The Skin Game), who catches his son saying something snarky about his father’s composition, and then quits the orchestra after an argument with his father.

Later on, as Schani struggles to compose a waltz for the countess’s lyrics – which, we learn is about the Danube River and how blue it is – he goes to visit Rasi and her father. Her father only wants Rasi to marry a sensible man with a future, like a baker perhaps in his cafe – so Schani takes a tour of the bakery with the intention to work there and please his lady… but soon the rhythm of the bakery and the pace of the bakers inspire him to compose, and the song “The Blue Danube Waltz” begins to take shape.

Unfortunately for romance’s sake, Schani had promised to dedicate the song to Rasi – even though tradition dictates that he must dedicate it to his patron, the countess! Soon the love triangle comes to a head, with Rasi discovering that the song she thought was hers will belong to another woman, and that her man Schani might go the same way.

Love on the rocks!

Love on the rocks!

Rasi and Schani argue about whether he should go on being a musician or not – and he chooses music. meanwhile, the countess plots to trick Schani’s father into being late for a ball at which he’s supposed to play, giving the younger Strauss a chance to play the Blue Danube Waltz for the fanciest people in Vienna. In the end, the performance is a hit, Rasi comes back and the pair are reunited, Johann Strauss junior becomes a household name,  The Blue Danube Waltz becomes one of the most famous songs in the world, and in a final shot – the elder Strauss is asked for an autograph by a young girl and signs Johann Strauss – Senior, in acknowledgement of his son’s talent. A happy ending for all!

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The Result:

So what do we make of all that non-Hitchcockian whimsy? I don’t care what Hitchcock said, it’s fantastic.

Waltzes From Vienna is fun and charming, the music of Strauss is infectious and catchy, the performances are – for the most part – engaging and well done, and Hitchcock, no matter what he might have later said, directs the movie wonderfully.

Poster for Waltzes From Vienna

Poster for Waltzes From Vienna

The film covers so much fertile ground, story-wise and musically, that it seems Hitch was really spoiled for choice when it came to choosing focus. The tension between the younger Strauss and his vain and unsupportive father is dramatic, the romance between Strauss and the young Rasi is enjoyable (though she doesn’t come off all that likeable always), and the way Hitch tells the story of the Blue Danube’s creation is pretty marvellous.

The movie was based on a popular stage production at the time, and so the story was well-trodden enough to avoid any of the strange plot holes and troubles that Hitch sometimes would get in with lesser material, and to be honest – the whole movie just sparkles in a really vibrant and light way that Hitchcock would, perhaps, never recapture – or even try.

Classic Holywood-style shot.

Classic Holywood-style shot.

And then there’s the technical aspect of things. This is the best looking and best produced sound-era film that Hitchcock has yet made, and by far his best directed film since The Manxman. For the first time since the 1920’s we get to see Hitch’s camera moving freely, new sound technology result’s in proper overdubbing, the editing is brilliant, the composition of shots is back to his former perfection – there’s even a wiping-transition that really impresses. The movie is so much a return to form, that I seriously breathed a sigh of relief.

One thing worth noting is that this film is a musical – and Hitchcock embraced the filming of the music with an eagerness and vibrancy that makes me doubt just how much of a low-ebb he really thought he was in. At once point he brilliantly shows the younger Strauss finding inspiration in the rhythm of the bakery, the tossing of bread, the dropping of buns, the sounds of a dough kneader – and in so doing he starts to compose.

This cohesive use of music and the sounds of everyday life, this visual storytelling combined with emotion and character to all convey a much larger idea… at this time, it was honest revolutionary. The only other film I’ve seen from this era that used sound and music so invasively was 1932’s Love Me Tonight – a musical so revered that it would be called ‘the greatest musical ever made’. Hitch may have been inspired by the earlier film, or perhaps not – but regardless – his use of similar techniques actually surpasses Love Me Tonight‘s as an integral part of the story and element of character.

As for the down-side of things, I could see people – perhaps – being bored by the simplicity of the story. Those people probably haven’t had to watch the last four or five Hitchcock movies though, and don’t understand how technically and wonderfully complete this movie is compared to some of them.

Esmond Knight, Jessie Matthews, and Edmund Gwenn

Esmond Knight, Jessie Matthews, and Edmund Gwenn

Some might point out that some performances are over-the-top, or that the leading man, Esmond Knight, lacks the charisma to carry off the role, and while there are some rough edges on his performance – and yes, leading lady (and the top-billed star of the film) Jessie Mathews is misused as the sometimes shrewish and jealous Rasi – the performances are really fine, especially when compared to earlier Hitchcock actors like the fake princess in Rich And Strange, or the cockney Ben from Number 17.

Finally, others could argue that this film barely counts as a Hitchcock picture because there’s no murder or thrills – but honestly – this is the funnest and most enjoyable film Hitch has made since 1929’s Blackmail. It’s clever, brilliantly shot, masterfully edited with lovely matched cuts and wipes, and full of great uses of music. And while this may not be very Hitchcockian picture – as we know from the past 15 weeks “Hitchcockian pictures” don’t really exist yet – however, that’s one fact which will change very soon.

The Production:

In 1933, Alfred Hitchcock was unemployed. His contract at BIP had been terminated, his last film was an unqualified disaster, and his stature as Britain’s best director had been in question for some time. Hitch and his future, were in serious peril. Hitchcock needed a job.

Tom Arnold was a theatre impresario – a producer of plays and musicals and all sorts of other things (ice shows, circuses, rodeos, you name it), and in 1933 he decided that he wanted a film version of his highly successful London musical Waltzes From Vienna. There had been a string of operetta films made in England and America at the time, and the story of the two Strauss men and the creation of the famous waltz seemed a perfect project.

It's a hit! (the song, not the movie)

It’s a hit! (the song, not the movie)

Hitchcock took the job on, seemingly just out of desperation, but in an interview published in the winter of 1933, Hitch talks with seeming enthusiasm about the prospect of exploring some new ideas about music and film. He talks about using music to enhance emotion and being able to really control the feelings and mood of the audience. He appeared to be doing what he always did with a challenge – he was rising to it, and confident that he was fully capable of exceeding expectations.

Star Jessie Mathews spoke very poorly about Hitch in later years, as did a couple other actors – noting that Hitchcock seemed to have no appreciation for musical theatre or operettas (probably true) – and Hitch’s resentment of playing second-fiddle to Britain’s most popular musical actress (Matthews at this time) led him to treat her with little respect. This was probably true – Hitch hated not being the centre of attention, and he hated even more dealing with people who had an expertise that he lacked. But, after all, I never said we were dealing with a saint here.

Ladies night at the waltz...

Ladies night at the waltz…

Cinematographer, Glen MacWilliams, was a veteran of films – having got his start in 1918 and would continue working until the mid-sixties. MacWilliams was Jessie Matthews favoured cameraman – and had been assigned to Hitchcock at her demand. However, by all evidence, it seems Hitch didn’t find too much to fault in the cameraman since the two would work together again on 1944’s Lifeboat.

By the time Hitch was half-way through filming, it seems that the low budget and cast issues and general malaise Hitchcock was feeling about the project had led him to basically give it up for lost. “I hate this sort of thing!” Hitch was reported as yelling out after one particularly hard day, “I’m only good at melodrama.”

Which is where cameraman MacWilliams comes back into play. On that day, MacWilliams had a visitor in the form of producer Michael Balcon – Hitchcock’s former boss. MacWilliams reunited the two men… and what happened next would shape and influence film history for rest of time. But more on that next week.

The Legacy:

Disregarded by Hitchcock, and forgotten by critics and fans, Waltzes From Vienna is a sad little orphan in the legacy of the master, but as I’ve tried to make clear – it’s an orphan I think people should revisit.

Lavish costumes and sets!

Lavish costumes and sets!

Hitch would hardly ever do period pieces again (save for, I think, Under Capricorn, and maybe another one that I can’t think of) and he definitely never did another musical, so Waltzes offers us such a unique opportunity to see the kind of filmmaker Hitch might have been in a different world. He loved humour, and he loved innovation – and to be honest – there was no genre more prime for innovation and humour than the musicals of the 30’s. In another time, another place, this might have been his strongest film – luckily it’s not, but it’s still very good.

But where, oh where, does this odd duck fit into the Hitchcock we would come to know? It’s a tough question – but I think there are still things to be gleaned from the work. Firstly, there’s music. With Waltzes From Vienna, Hitch had his first real chance to experiment and play with music, and with the development of a theme as it relates to his story – and he does it admirably.

Music and film - together at last.

Music and film – together at last.

In Rear Window – much later on – Hitch would use the slow development of the song ‘Laura’ to punctuate and develop the themes of loneliness and isolation within the film, and he uses the creation of the ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ to similar effect here.

And then there’s Hitchcock’s obsession with public performance. Time and time again, in movie after movie, Hitch’s obsession with the use of public performance as a proving ground and crucible for a hero is evident – and a lot of that may stem from this film. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Young And Innocent, Strangers On A Train, Stage Fright… and many more, I’m sure – the concept of performance, and the exposing of your vulnerability through public scrutiny is a big part of a Hitchcockian climax. And in Waltzes From Vienna we see the first example of that in definite terms.

Production still.

Production still from Waltzes From Vienna.

All in all, Watzes is obviously not a typical and simple Hitchcock film – but it would be wrong to dismiss it, and Hitchcock was wrong to disown it. It’s fun and sweet and innovative, and while it’s not his best work, it’s the best he had done in years. I hope more people seek it out and give it a look – because it’s worth another shot.

Be sure to come back next week for The Man Who Knew Too Much, and a whole new chapter in Hitchcock’s life – as “The Master of Suspense!” Until then.

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