Waltzes from Vienna: Hitchcock ill at ease with musical comedy of Johann Strauss II

Alfred Hitchcock, “Waltzes from Vienna” (1934)

What’s this? – a musical comedy about Johann Strauss II and his waltz “The Blue Danube” by Alfred Hitchcock? The Master of Suspense made this film during his lean early-1930’s period when he had more failures than successes working in different film genres and was seriously doubting his ability as a director. Some of that self-doubt is apparent in the movie itself: it revolves around  Johann Strauss II (Esmond Knight) aka Schani who’s torn between his love for a young woman Rasi (Jessie Matthews) and his desire to write and conduct music. The young woman demands that he give up his music and follow her in her father’s tearoom / bakery business which the young man loathes and has no aptitude for. Add to that mix the young man’s father (Edmund Gwenn) who disdains his son’s efforts at writing music as he secretly fears being upstaged. If that’s not enough headache for you, there’s a wily Countess (Fay Compton) who has designs on the young man under the pretence of encouraging him in his musical ambitions. Poor Schani, wanting to please everyone at once and to follow his true path, can’t make up his mind between the women and their demands, and the love triangle of Schani, Rasi and the Countess provides the background and structure against which Schani casually coughs out his signature work.

At least Hitchcock preserved some semblance of reality in this slapstick farce: since the emphasis is on how Schani created his major work, the ever-present love triangle is allowed to continue indefinitely and the coda is suitably ambiguous if unsatisfactory for musical comedy audiences at the time. Other Hitchcock touches are present insofar as the director was able to sneak them in: a character falls down a staircase for laughs and early in the film Schani stumbles through a dress shop and meets several young ladies in various states of undress. Though Matthews only sings one song – the movie was supposed to be a showcase for her singing talent – her character is a spirited filly determined to wrest Schani away from the Countess even if her own jealousy destroys him. The Countess Helga von Stahl herself, married to buffoonish Prince Gustav (Frank Vosper) who features in the film for laughs, seems a benevolent mentor and patron but her gracious and refined approach masks her passion for Schani. Here are two women who are doubles of each other, neither of them a complete angel or devil but a mixture of the two and having the power to crush Schani in some way: a clever Hitchcockian device to insert into an otherwise lightweight comedy though the 1930’s parameters of the genre and the plot being a ficititious soap opera about a real person don’t permit the conflict to play out fully in the movie. The only assurance viewers have is that whichever woman Schani chooses beyond the confines of the movie, he will lose an essential part of himself and the woman will be dissatisfied with the husk that remains. Matthews and Compton play their respective roles as twins well but in different ways; in acting skill, Compton wins out over Matthews as the languid Hitchcockian-blonde lady who nurses unfulfilled desires.

Knight and Matthews lack spark in their scenes together and Knight seems wooden in a role that calls for hesitancy, indecisiveness and maybe not a little stiffness. As for the support, Gwenn is a dark, almost malevolent figure (something of Hitchcock’s fear of male-dominated authority comes into the character) while other male-authority figures that appear are comics who treat Schani disdainfully: Prince Gustav, otherwise an out-and-out clown, treats Schani as a hat-stand almost violently and Rasi’s dad never accepts his potential son-in-law as heir to his business. The message is clear: as an artist, Schani will always be an outsider at whichever level of society he tries to enter. Interestingly, only women can allow him that access.

The slapstick seems forced and predictable and viewers may get the impression that Hitchcock was uncomfortable using it. The real value the film offers lies in its technical proficiency: “Waltzes …” just about revels in deep focus shots, long panning shots – there’s one outstanding left-to-right panning shot of a festival in the last third of the movie – and a shot featuring a zoom effect used on the Countess as she wraps up her copy of Schani’s “The Blue Danube” score; the shot quiickly morphs into a shot of Rasi wrapping her copy of the score, emphasising Rasi and the Countess as polarised twins. Close-ups of Rasi that stress her fresh-faced beauty are frequent and in the festival scenes, there are many close-ups of the musicians playing their instruments and of the instruments themselves that stress repetition and harmonisation. The voyeuristc camera gets a good workout: in one scene, the camera glides slowly from left to right around a candelabra, then gradually traces a semi-circle and draws close to Schani at the piano and the Countess behind him performing a song. The sets are minimal due to a low budget but are unintnentionally effective as their spareness throws the focus onto the actors.

“Waltzes …” might have worked better if the plot had included some (if not a complete) resolution of the love triangle rather than leaving it open and continuous, and wit and situation comedy substituted for slapstick and farce. There are dark elements in the love triangle and Schani’s relationship with his father that could have been teased up more. The stingy budget allocated to the move meant that only one song and various repetitions of “The Blue Danube” appear and this detracts from the movie in many ways: songs in musicals often express a character’s feelings and motivations and these are where darker psychological aspects to Rasi and the Countess could have been worked in. Fear, jealousy, father-son relationships and the destructive power of romantic love become significant themes under Hitchcock’s direction and could have been potential sources of tension and suspense that might add substance to the fluffy plot.

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