Bright Lights Film Journal

WALTZES FROM VIENNA (Alfred Hitchcock 1934)

Notwithstanding the absence of spy plots, murders, or homicidal maniacs, WALTZES FROM VIENNA is very much a film by Alfred Hitchcock. It was co-scripted by his wife, Alma Reville. It displays the same kind of parent-child issues that we find in many of Hitchcock’s more *serious* films.

Superficially, WALTZES is a film of its time, a Lubitschian period comedy with costumes and music. And no one – with the significant exception of Rouben Mamoulian (LOVE ME TONIGHT) – could do this fusty genre better than Lubitsch himself. Regardless, Hitchcock’s film is better than its reputation suggests. (Hitch would periodically disparage the movie). It is filled with inventive touches, visual and musical. Not to mention some Lubitschian naughty bits.

There is also a heightened awareness of class, something one finds in most of Lubitsch’s costume films, but also personal to Hitchcock. The main character, Johann Strauss II (Esmond Knight) is the son of a composer and concertmaster (Edmund Gwenn as Johann Strauss I), and he is engaged to a baker’s daughter (Jessie Matthews), but all of them are clearly defined as middle class, subservient to and in awe of the aristocracy represented by Fay Compton’s Countess. Hitchcock, the son of a successful greengrocer, considered himself middle class.

The film’s most Hitchcockian aspect is its use of music. Numerous Hitchcock films incorporate music into their plotlines – the sustained organ note in SECRET AGENT, the drummer with the twitching eye in YOUNG AND INNOCENT, the whistled tune that is really a spy code in THE LADY VANISHES, the Merry Widow Waltz that is the killer’s signature in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, the carousel tune in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, and so on, up to Hitchcock’s most music-oriented film, the 1956 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, which is constructed around the performance of an orchestral concert piece (“The Storm Cloud Cantata”) and the voice of a singer played by Doris Day. Her voice, a metaphor for the individual expression stifled by hubby Jimmy Stewart, saves the day twice.

As it turns out, WALTZES FROM VIENNA (made immediately before the original 1934 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) foreshadows the ’56 version of MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH in several respects. The leading ladies in both films are popular singing stars – it might be fair to say that Doris Day was to ‘50s America as Jessie Matthews was to ‘30s Great Britain. Both, of course, get to perform musical numbers. There are Hitchcockian doubles in both films – THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH has its parallel “good” and “bad” couples, while in WALTZES, J. Strauss II has to deal with two amorous women, the Countess and the baker’s daughter, linked by parallel cutting, and two disapproving fathers, his fiancee’s father and his own father, neither of whom wants him to become a composer. The principal set piece in both films is a concert performance, with camera movements and cutting timed to the beat of the music. In WALTZES, the concert piece is the first performance of Strauss II’s “Blue Danube Waltz,” marking the moment in time when Strauss II eclipses his famous father. In MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the concert piece, played in its entirety, leads to the attempted assassination of a father figure, the Prime Minister of an Eastern European country.

WALTZES FROM VIENNA can be viewed on-line here: