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EMPEROR WALTZ, THE(director/writer: Billy Wilder; screenwriter: Charles Brackett; cinematographer: George Barnes; editor: Doane Harrison; music: Victor Young; cast: Bing Crosby (Virgil Smith), Joan Fontaine (Johanna von Stoltzenburg-Stoltzenburg), Roland Culver (Baron Holenia), Lucile Watson (Princess Bitotska), Richard Haydn (Emperor Franz-Josef), Harold Vermilyea (Chamberlain), Sig Ruman (Dr. Zwieback); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Charles Brackett; Paramount; 1948)
“Lackluster and hardly interesting.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Austrian-born Jewish Billy Wilder (“Five Graves to Cairo”/”A Foreign Affair”/”Avanti!”) fled the Nazi threat in 1933 and became a U.S. citizen in 1939. This is his only try at a musical comedy (there are few musical numbers, with only the one Bing yodels in called “Friendly Mountains” being memorable; the others worth noting are “I Kiss Your Hand, Madame” and “The Kiss in Your Eyes”). Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett come up with a sentimental stinker. It aims to comment on the different values between the New and Old World, as one is crudely materialistic and the other more stable because of its respect for the traditions. Wilder clearly favors the aggressive and American democratic New World way over the stuffy old-fashioned Old World monarchy way of rigid class lines.

Bing Crosby is Virgil H. Smith, a straw hat wearing pushy crooning American phonograph salesman with a fox terrier named Buttons who is visiting the Austria of pre-WW I to sell the newly invented record players. The traveling salesman’s mutt gets into fight with Scheherezade, the pedigree French poodle of Countess Johanna von Stoltzenburg-Stoltzenburg (Joan Fontaine), while he’s trying to peddle his wares at the court of Emperor Franz-Josef (Richard Haydn). Virgil is aggressive because he believes if you get the head man to bite at the new product the others will follow like sheep. The dog owners next meet by accident when Virgil trespasses on the Alps where the emperor is on a hunting vacation and the countess and her bankrupt snobbish dissolute father, Baron Holenia (Roland Culver), have a lucrative economic deal with the emperor for their pedigree black dogs to breed. Little did they know that Buttons and Scheherezade were to hit it off, a precursor metaphor to their human owners.

With Yank ingenuity common man Virgil overcomes Hapsburg arrogance to begin a romance with the blueblood “ice queen,” despite all odds being against him he melts her heart. It relies on charm and Bing’s star power to get over the enormous hurdle of how slight the story is and how hopeless is its nostalgia for an Old World that no longer exists (the film was released shortly after fascist Austria was defeated).

To keep you distracted from any sense of reality, there’s lush Technicolor, gorgeous costumes, Tyrolean men decked out in lederhosen, landscapes painted over in bright dyes and hills looking more verdant than even those in the tourist brochures (filmed at Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada), Strauss played as an end all in dance and a romance of opposites that’s meant to have you rooting for the aristocracy to succumb to the charms of its lessers. Lackluster and hardly interesting, Wilder can’t get past dishing out the corn to make any kind of sensible statement about such a familiar Hollywood love story and though there are a few bright spots, the film moves along at a ponderous pace.

Sig Ruman does a good job as the emperor’s vet, who treats his bashful dogs to Freudian styled analyses.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”