d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 80 mins.
"I don't ever remember saying to myself, 'You're finished; your career is at its lowest ebb.' And yet outwardly, to other people I was." - Alfred Hitchcock to François Truffaut, on Waltzes from Vienna
Well, I don't know if I'd go that far.
There is something anachronistically intriguing about Waltzes from Vienna, a 1934 "musical" Hitchcock took on because he had nothing else lined up. In fact, there is little about the film that resembles a musical; characters don't break out into the song and there isn't much dancing. In many respects, it plays out like a fictional biopic about Johann Strauss. And although Hitchcock himself was not at all interested in the material (reportedly throwing up his hands at one point and storming off the set, resigned to the fact that all he could do was melodrama), there is something ineffably cheery in the faces and performances of the cast. The whole production feels a bit off (blatantly un-Hitchcockian), but that doesn't negate how occasionally effervescent its joys can be.
The film is the story of a young Strauss (Esmond Knight) composing his greatest musical achievement, The Blue Danube. Of course, as all musicals would have it, Strauss's brilliant composition materializes out of accidents and coincidences and comes out nearly fully formed, avoiding that depressing and realistic portrayal of weeks spent laboring at the piano. This is not to say young Strauss doesn't struggle; he struggles with other musicians, including his father (Edmund Gwenn, in a surprising role), who finds the Blue Danube "absolute rubbish," and he struggles in love, where his sweetheart Rasi (Jessie Matthews) grows jealous after he composes for a baroness.
Let there be no mistake about one fact: Hitchcock certainly had the skill and precision to stage a musical. Waltzes in Vienna is a nicely assembled film, with some tight editing and a splendid and seamless blurring of images and musical together. There is a rather silly scene set in a bakery where Strauss notices that the workers' rhythm of baking, kneading, and distributing items helps him compose the rhythm to the Blue Danube, but as silly as it is, it is undoubtedly well done. The sets are stylish and the entire film is quite polished (despite a budget so small there was no original music, only Strauss compositions). Although the film is nowhere near as entertaining as the famously lavish musical productions from an American studio like MGM, Waltzes in Vienna is a clear demonstration that, if he wanted to, Hitchcock certainly could have grown into multiple genres once he arrived in America. (A somewhat related question: What would a Hitchcock film with Fred Astaire and Gingers Rodgers have been like? Does it confound the mind to imagine how he would have subverted them?)
Hitchcock's forays into genres outside the thriller and the melodrama are generally lackluster because he could never muster enough energy to care. Although Waltzes in Vienna is no exceptional to this universal truth, it is not as bad as other productions he carried no interest in. There is nothing Hitchcockian in the least about it, but all the Hitchcock skill is there, particularly in its finely tuned its diegetic elements. Don't let the big man fool you, though; it isn't the out-and-out disaster he makes it out to be. (As W.K. Everson notes, "There is too much vintage Hitchcock in the film for his claims of disinterest and frustration to hold water completely.") That the film has such low expectations revolving around it and seems to survive nonetheless is perhaps the best thing you can say about it.
06 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 80 mins.