There is more to Billy Wilder’s The Emperor Waltz than meets the eye: a frothy comedy of manners on the surface which hides some more deeply felt and blunt observations on the venality of social class consciousness.
The Production: 3.5/5
Those who have denigrated Billy Wilder’s The Emperor Waltz as nothing but a frothy light operetta filmed lavishly in Technicolor really aren’t paying much attention. Produced just after the end of the horrific World War II which had seen the wholesale extermination of six million of his fellow Jews for being racially impure, it’s not surprising that Wilder took this opportunity to comment on that folly disguised as an off-the-cuff comedy with music with the cinema’s most popular and affable leading man Bing Crosby as his spokesman to scoff at such bigotry. Yes, it’s possible to watch The Emperor Waltz and think it’s merely a frivolous musical, but you’d be missing the celebrated writer-director’s point completely.
In 1901 Vienna, American gramophone salesman Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby) is determined to get Emperor Franz-Josef’s (Richard Haydn) endorsement of his product so he can blanket the region with the amazing new invention. But the Emperor has more pressing matters on his aged mind. He wants his prized but aging poodle to sire a royal litter, and the female dog he’s chosen as the mother-to-be, a stately black poodle named Scheherazade, belongs to his niece Johanna (Joan Fontaine). Scheherazade, however, has other ideas, her heart belonging to Virgil’s fox terrier Buttons who represents his company’s logo (“His Master’s Voice”). In trying to work out things between their canines, Virgil and Johanna likewise fall in love, but she’s convinced their coming from different worlds would spell doom to any potential relationship while he’s cocksure they can make a go of it back in America.
By focusing their disdain of the superiority-of-class question first pinpointed on the dogs’ pedigrees (or lack thereof) and later extending it to the difference between the brash American and the exalted (though penniless) European Countess, screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett can heap their scorn to their hearts’ content and yet soft-pedal it with the lilting Strauss waltzes, the glorious Oscar-nominated costumes, and the gorgeous location photography (with Canada substituting for Austria). Though we don’t have our first song from our star until almost half an hour into the movie, with Wilder’s deft direction, Oscar-winning cinematographer George Barnes captures the charm of the Tyrolean Alps in “Friendly Mountains” with lots of locals dancing and yodeling while der Bingle later warbles two lovely ballads “I Kiss Your Hand, Madame” and “A Kiss in Your Eyes,” each of which melts to increasing degrees the icy snobbishness of Countess Johanna as her contempt begins to turn to love (all paralleled by their dogs’ similar loathing-to-loving scenario). It’s not strictly a musical (there were almost as many songs in both of Wilder’s satirical comedies A Foreign Affair and Some Like It Hot as we have here), and Wilder certainly shows no interest in the genre itself, never venturing throughout his lengthy career to anything resembling a real musical (he even filmed the stage musical Irma La Douce without its songs as a straight satirical comedy). The resolution of the various class-related conflicts (and with a clear implication pointing to the extermination of “undesirables”) may come too easily and too predictably much to Wilder’s fans’ antipathy, but the movie went wildly over budget, and a happy ending was probably a necessity for the film to make back its $4 million costs (which it did with a tiny profit).
Bing Crosby once again plays a brash American loose in a foreign locale (but the Wilder-Brackett dialogue for him seems a bit 1940s anachronistically hep rather than more turn-of-the-century om-pah-pah), but there’s no denying he’s never been in better voice with his mellow tone and breezy manner (one must never forget that at this time, he was the number one movie star at the box-office, number one on radio, and number one on the Hit Parade, a true triple threat star that we’ve never seen the like of again). Joan Fontaine looks lovely and wears the Edith Head gowns beautifully, but she and Crosby don’t have much of a spark to their coupling, and neither one seems to have enjoyed playing with the other. Almost unrecognizable is Richard Haydn in a canny performance as Emperor Franz-Josef. Hidden behind billowing white mutton chops, he gives the best performance in the movie (and astonishing to note that in the same year, he played the prissy fussbudget Mr. Applegate in Sitting Pretty). Lucile Watson narrates the film (it’s told mostly in flashback) as the haughty Princess Bitotska who has her eye on the rather desperate father of Johanna, Baron Holenia played strictly by Roland Culver. Sig Ruman has several amusing moments as the veterinarian Dr. Zwieback.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharp when it needs to be and softer in glamour close-ups of the stars, there are no problems with clarity or detail in the imagery. Paramount Technicolor always seemed very warm and inviting, and there is no difference here: beautifully hued with the unmistakable richness in colors that three-strip Technicolor provided. There are occasional bits of dust, dirt, and debris (and one moment that appeared to be a slight tear in the lower left corner), but it’s generally a most pleasing picture offered here. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix offers a rich, distinct auditory experience that will greatly pleasure fans of this film. Fidelity is sure and true with dialogue and song lyrics well-recorded and mixed deftly with the music under Victor Young’s supervision and the sound effects (the echoes in that early song are most impressive as Bing harmonizes with himself). There are no problems with hiss, crackle, flutter, or pops on the soundtrack.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Audio Commentary: Billy Wilder biographer Joseph McBride offers a thoughtful commentary on the film, a movie that no one associated with it seems to have liked in the final analysis. McBride offers a fine case for its renewed appreciation.
Billy Wilder Interview (2:49, SD): film historian Volker Schlöndorff gets a few words from the Oscar-winning writer-producer-director on The Emperor Waltz.
Trailers: Road to Morocco, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, The Lost Weekend, Five Graves to Cairo, A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution, Irma La Douce, One, Two, Three, The Fortune Cookie, Thoroughly Modern Millie.
There is more to Billy Wilder’s The Emperor Waltz than meets the eye: a frothy comedy of manners on the surface which hides some more deeply felt and blunt observations on the venality of social class consciousness. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray release offers a lovely picture and solid sound for fans of the stars, the director, or the genre.
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