Sunday, September 12, 2021

Tonight's Movie: The Emperor Waltz (1948) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948), starring Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine, was released on Blu-ray last month by Kino Lorber.

Musical meets romantic comedy in this film directed by Billy Wilder, based on a screenplay he cowrote with Charles Brackett.

I first saw this film at the Vagabond Theater in the late '70s. The main impression which stuck with me over the years since then was the beautiful Technicolor; that aspect, as photographed by George Barnes, continues to be one of the film's best attributes. The sumptuous color makes watching the film a pleasure, despite the rather weak story.

The movie is frankly a fairly oddball entertainment, with much of the plot focused on the mating of a poodle who rejects an arranged "marriage" with a purebred mate in favor of having puppies with a cute little mutt.  

The dogs' story is an allegory for the relationship between their owners, Countess Johanna (Fontaine) and traveling salesman Virgil (Crosby). American Virgil has traveled to pre-WWI Austria hoping that Emperor Franz Josef (Richard Haydn) will endorse the gramophone he's selling. Although Virgil and Johanna initially clash, they're soon in love, but the emperor, who believes such a union is doomed to fail due to class differences, stands in their way.

The romances of humans and dogs are quite a long-drawn-out affair, with relatively little story to occupy the film's 106 minutes. The movie needed both a tighter running time and more music to really work as a lighthearted musical.

I previously owned the film on DVD and thought I'd probably watched it with my children at some point, but it was so unfamiliar I'm thinking perhaps I hadn't watched it since my first viewing in my teens. The longer it went on, the more puzzled I was by the storyline. Some of it is downright demented, such as a scene where a veterinarian (Sig Ruman) subjects one of the dogs to psychoanalysis. The attempt at comedy in that sequence is so broad that it misfires badly.

The overall movie is mildly entertaining thanks to the lead actors, but there's really not much to it. I suppose Wilder was trying for a lighter-than-air bauble in the style of Ernst Lubitsch, who had died a few months before the film was released, but it doesn't quite get there. It's simply a pleasant diversion, albeit beautiful to look at -- I loved Fontaine's Edith Head wardrobe -- and occasionally graced by Crosby's voice. I say occasionally as, as hinted above, the movie sadly does not make nearly as much use of his vocal talent as it could have.

Crosby and Fontaine are both fine in the lead roles, though like the film itself, there's nothing especially noteworthy about their performances.  

Haydn is unrecognizable under heavy makeup as the emperor. The supporting cast also includes Roland Culver and Lucile Watson.

All this said, I'm quite interested to listen to the commentary track by Joseph McBride. Given that McBride wrote both HOW DID LUBITSCH DO IT? and the upcoming BILLY WILDER: DANCING ON THE EDGE, there surely couldn't be a film historian more suited to the task, and I look forward to learning much more about the film thanks to his commentary in the near future.

Additional disc extras are a featurette in which Wilder discusses the film, plus a gallery of trailers for 10 additional films available from Kino Lorber.

The color fades slightly in a scene late in the film, but given how good most of the disc looks, I assume there was an unavoidable issue. For the most part this film is delightful to look at, with a strong soundtrack showing off Crosby's voice to the fullest.

Though the movie doesn't entirely work, it's agreeable company, what I think of as a pleasant film to have on the TV on a Sunday afternoon.  Fans of the filmmakers will appreciate the chance to see the movie looking its best, and the inclusion of the McBride commentary is a definite plus for those considering whether to add this film to their Blu-ray collection.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Anonymous Stefano said...

The luscious Technicolor is the only aspect of the film I can recall. I saw a beautiful 35mm print at the New Beverly some years ago, but the story didn't grip and past the midpoint I started dozing off. Until, while sitting in the back row, a mouse or rat scurried up the curtain right behind my head. That woke me up!

The previous feature that night was Wilder's "Five Graves to Cairo", which is quite entertaining.

7:19 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I like the picture, and it was one of the few Billy Wilder efforts not designed to either criticize or denigrate Americans and their way of life. An aside: Joan was unhappy during the shoot, felt she was treated poorly by Bing.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I am sharing this old post of mine on the movie because it says everything I would have said in a comment.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Stefano, that color really makes an impression, doesn't it? Sorry it wasn't quite enough to keep you with the movie until the animal "company" startled you awake. I recently saw FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO for the first time and enjoyed it.

Barrylane, glad to know you like it. I'm sorry to hear about Joan being unhappy. She and Bing struck me as kind of an unusual combination. I found a charming photo of them playing cards on the set during the shoot; it's too bad to hear that perhaps things were not as rosy as they looked in that photo.

Best wishes,

12:17 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Caftan Woman, your comment was apparently "hung up in moderation," glad to find it this morning! I loved revisiting your review (which I had read close to a decade ago!) and found it very fair. You hit some of the issues I had while also capturing the movie's good points. I recommend reading the review at the link above to anyone else visiting this post and considering buying or watching the film.

Thanks again!

Best wishes,

11:22 AM  

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