Last night, I watched The Great Waltz, which I had TiVo’d earlier off of TCM (and when did “to TiVo” become a verb, I wonder?). Actually, I didn’t watch the whole movie as much as fast forward from one musical sequence to another (there’s another new verb). The movie, made in 1938, is a totally fictionalized account of the life of Waltz king Johann Strauss II (composer of Tales of the Vienna Woods, The Blue Danube, etc.). Because the music is Strauss, it is wonderful, especially in the early part of the movie when the filmmakers show Strauss going from obscurity to fame in one wild night as the citizens of Vienna get a chance to hear his music.
Aside from the music, the script is pure 1930s shlock with Strauss choosing between the love a good woman (played a really radiant German Jewish Luise Rainer) and the love of a sparkling opera star (played by a slightly wooden and horsey opera singer Miliza Korjus, who was born in Poland and raised in Russia). As for Korjus, while she may have been a much regarded opera star, she’s one who continuously lives in the high “D” over high “C” range and it gets painful and monotonous. Despite my love for Strauss, I tend to skip past anything that has too much of her singing.
As for the movie, it is as much an homage to Vienna as it is to Strauss. The Viennese are shown as hostile to tyranny, warm, kind and art-loving — which is indeed the reputation they enjoyed in the mid-1840s, when this movie was set. Indeed, they enjoyed it all through the 19th and into the early 20th Century. However, in 1938, when this movie came out, Vienna had welcomed with open arms the arch-tyrant Hitler. It embraced fascist totalitarianism, and quickly moved to stamp out any art or culture that was not German. And the Viennese were as vicious as the Germans (if not more so) when it came to stamping out their Jewish population. There was no warmth and kindness here.
For that reason, the movie is especially poignant because, knowingly or not, the filmmakers managed to make it a monument to a dead culture. That’s not the only touching part of the movie, though. As I noted above, Rainer was German Jewish, and Korjus was Polish, though raised in Russia. The part of Strauss was played by the Belgian Fernand Gravey. Nor were these the only internationally born cast members. The credits also boast Lionel Atwill, born in England; Curt Bois, born in Germany; Leonid Kinskey, born in Russia; Greta Meyer, born in Germany; and Herman Bing, born in Germany. Although some of these cast members came to Hollywood as part of their career trajectory, others such as Rainer or Kinskey came their as refugees from either the Nazis or the Communists. And there they all gathered, to make a loving musical to a dead era, before Nazis and Communists came along to turn high culture into a death cult.
As much as anything, this movie is reminder not to confuse culture and beauty with goodness.
Just to give you a sense of the movie, here is is George Houston singing “I’m in Love With Vienna” on the night Strauss made it big:
And here, because it’s very imaginative, is the way in which those Hollywood filmmakers envisioned Strauss composing Tales of the Vienna Woods.