In 1845 Vienna, Johann Strauß II - Schani to his friends - would rather write and perform waltzes than anything else, this at a time when a waltz is not considered proper society music. ... See full summary »
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Robert Z. Leonard
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In 1845 Vienna, Johann Strauß II - Schani to his friends - would rather write and perform waltzes than anything else, this at a time when a waltz is not considered proper society music. After he is fired from his clerical bank job because of his preoccupation with composing, he decides to follow his passion and form an orchestra. After some famed opera singers, including Carla Donner, hear his music, they expose Schani's music to the masses, to royalty and to music publisher Julius Hofbauer. As such, Schani becomes the toast of Vienna. With his new found musical fame, Schani's life, which includes his work in the European Revolutions, changes. He becomes torn for his love for his loving and faithful wife Poldi Vogelhuber and his more emotionally passionate but somewhat destructive love for Carla Donner, who herself is involved with Count Anton Hohenfried. Written by
The Best MacDonald-Eddy Musical That Jeanette And Nelson Never Made.
If there is a genre in which even die-hard contemporary fans of old movies seldom care to delve, it is the once-popular musical operetta. I have steeled myself to watch several Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy movies, and have occasionally been pleasantly surprised, as in my first viewing of ROSE MARIE. I recently caught THE GREAT WALTZ on TCM as part of a festival of Luise Rainer movies, and despite myself I was won over by the skill of the director as well as the opulence of the production.
Miss Rainer's charms elude me. She was pretty and not a bad actress by any means and yet the clammy, self-congratulatory air of masochism and eye-brimming sadness of each of her performances is hard to take. Even when you have to admit that she isn't bad in a given scene, she is insufferable, sometimes almost unwatchable. And she had her most cringing, masochistic and melodramatic role in this picture as the long-suffering wife of a faithless Strauss as played by a puffy Fernand Gravey.
It is Gravey and Miliza Korjus that are the real stars of the film, and this is curious to a modern viewer since neither had the classic good looks of movie stars of the period. What they did have was a stars' confidence and because of the considerable imagination of Julien Duvivier, you believe them as a romantic couple and as stars intoxicated with their own love and talent.
But what is impressive about THE GREAT WALTZ is the way Duvivier transforms potentially dull and static numbers into surreal flights of fantasy. He isn't afraid to be delirious or silly so a few set-pieces unexpectedly catch your attention, make you laugh and then impress you with their theatricality and verve. Such is the orgasmic waltz sequence that takes place in and around a bandstand in the Vienna Woods in which Korjus decisively seduces Gravey. It is Duvivier's attention to detail that makes it: the way Korjus jackknifes to the ground in Gravey's arms and removes her organdy picture hat, the gorgeous line of trees hung with Japanese lanterns on a moonlit set, the way she staggers and tumbles onto the grass after her trilling climax, inviting greater liberties (despite the all-girl orchestra looking on), all of these images make the scene breathless, ludicrous, memorable.
And just because we have blessedly forgotten Strauss's dreary wife, Duvivier concocts a spectacular scene for Rainer too: publicly confronted by her husband's faithlessness, she hurriedly dresses in silks and crinolines determined to kill herself or someone else on the night of his opera debut. Sweeping out of their huge house and down their long staircase to the strains of a waltz, sweeping into a baroque opera house and up an even longer set of steps, she stops, awestruck while several jump cuts reveal the enormity and grandeur of the theatre, the rapt audience and the triumph of her rival, who defiantly swirls into a lavish stage waltz. In contrast, Rainer's smiling-through-tears routine afterward seems an anti-climax, though it is an admirable piece of showmanship and hugely entertaining despite a shrill note of barely controlled hysteria she has cultivated throughout the sequence. Or maybe because of it. Rainer's few strengths as an actress are utterly linked to her considerable weaknesses.
So I'm now not surprised to learn of this film's great success at the time, though I do wonder why the Mac-Eddy productions never got as creative a craftsman as Duvivier to plan and film their pictures. If he had they might be more widely admired today beyond the group of fast-ageing fans who first loved them in the '30s. But maybe nothing can revive interest in this most unfashionable of movie genres.
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