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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
I was prepared to find that Julien Duvivier, maestro of such astonishing French pictures as 'Pépé le Moko' and 'Carnet de bal', had sold out completely to Hollywood, but actually 'The Great Waltz' blew me away.
Yes, the story is utter hokum and bears only superficial similarity to the actual Johann Strauss II or the the Vienna of his time. Why is that a surprise to some? It's a given! Hollywood was always like that, now as ever. What Duvivier does manage to convey is the dream of Vienna, the illusory magic of the city that was the capital of musical Europe, and thereby of the world.
Duvivier made this amazing film with attention to every detail, the smallest character performance, even the extras have obviously been minutely directed. The film is always stylistically innovative, the editing fast-paced and often surprising, the style whirling, ecstatic, dynamic, and at all times slightly camp. There are so many show-stopping scenes in the film that I wouldn't even know where to start listing them. The script is wonderful, the dialogue consistently funny, interiors are luminous, the cinematography revolutionary and clearly related to what Rouben Mamoulian was doing in Hollywood in the early 1930's.
The actors? Absolutely great. Fernand Gravey does a fair job, but the two women shine above everything else. Polish coloratura soprano Miliza Korjus sings the Strauss songs in a way that admittedly sound rather corny and old-fashioned today, but as an actress, playing the opera diva that Strauss is two-timing his wife with, she is gorgeously wicked, one of the most glamourous beings even in the Hollywood of the 30's. But even she is overshadowed - by Luise Rainer who, in this picture, can do no wrong in a part that is very, very hard to make substantial. She is Strauss' long-suffering, unselfish wife, but there is absolutely no melodrama in her performance. The evolution of the chararacter that is Poldi Strauss is extremely well-calculated, and she remains the centre, the gravity of the picture. And when we think that now she has suffered long enough, she says, "Now is not a time to lie down, now is time to act!".
Forget all petty reservations and brace yourselves for a real treat, a film that time has all but forgotten, but a masterpiece none the less.
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