Alfred HitchcockAlma RevilleEsmond KnightEdmund Gwenn
Waltzes from Vienna
Medium: film
Year: 1934
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Guy Bolton, Heinz Reichert, Alma Reville
Country: UK
Keywords: historical
Actor: Esmond Knight, Jessie Matthews, Edmund Gwenn, Fay Compton, Frank Vosper, Robert Hale, Marcus Barron, Charles Heslop, Betty Huntley-Wright, Hindle Edgar, Sybil Grove, Bill Shine, Bertram Dench, B.M. Lewis, Cyril Smith
Format: 81 minutes
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 29 February 2012
It's Hitchcock's worst film, according to Hitchcock. It's a musical romantic comedy that he only made because no other movie project was available. He never made a musical film again and he later told Truffaut that this was the lowest ebb of his career.
To be honest, though, there's nothing wrong with it. It's just nothing much. It's an amiable confection of nothing. The story involves Johann Strauss (Edmund Gwenn) sending his son Johann Strauss (Esmond Knight) to work in a bakery, despite the fact that Knight really wants to be a composer like his father. There's a girl involved too. This is vaguely rooted in the historical facts, although to be precise Strauss the elder had wanted his son to be a banker. The two ended up being intense rivals, but originally it would seem that Strauss the elder simply wanted his son to be more financially secure. He once gave his son a vicious whipping for secretly practising the violin, saying he'd beat the music out of the boy.
The film doesn't have that kind of passion. Edmund Gwenn is good though, as always. I like Gwenn and Hitchcock clearly did too, given the number of films in which he used him. He's particularly memorable in The Skin Game. Here Gwenn brings gravity to a film that doesn't have much of its own and is always more watchable than his co-stars, despite being in a pretty decent cast.
Jessie Matthews ended up having the least distinguished career of the main leads, but she was Britain's number one musical star at the time and she's fine here, not to mention beautiful. She could sing, too, although oddly here she doesn't do that much. Esmond Knight had a solid career and incidentally that year became the father of an actress I'd have liked to see starring in far more films, Rosalind Knight. He was even in Doctor Who, playing Dom Issigri in The Space Pirates. Meanwhile Fay Compton plays Countess Helga von Stahl and would also go on to have a long and well-respected career, including Shakespeare, Dickens and Chekhov. Nothing wrong with that lot. They're doing their jobs.
The film doesn't offend. It just doesn't really add up to much either. Characters wander around gorgeous 19th century drawing rooms, dressed in costumes reminiscent of either Dickens or Austen. It looks pretty. Knight seems like a nice chap, but my heart wasn't bleeding for him. Admittedly the film begins with lots of pretty girls in their underwear, but unfortunately this is head-to-knee flannelling that would be sufficient for a winter hiking expedition. The film also begins clumsily, with a fake-looking shot of our characters travelling by horse and then a sequence that comes across as basically a string of weak gags, the last of which (Matthews's skirt) is slightly cruel.
Hitchcock manages a couple of amusing visual moments among the non-privileged classes, though. I enjoyed the scene of kissing servants relaying their masters' messages, while the rhythmical bread-throwing in the bakery is fun too.
There's much less music than there might have been. It's adapted from a 1931 West End musical with about a dozen songs and two orchestral pieces, but for the film they threw out three-quarters of the songs. That was the version that reached cinemas in 1934, but since then lost footage and video piracy mean that a lot of people today think this was a musical without songs. Check your copy's running time before you watch it.
Incidentally, Gwenn and Matthews are also both in a film I've wanted to watch for a long time, Friday the Thirteenth (1933). It sounds rather good, but of course the real reason is has to be watched is the title.
Overall, it passes the time agreeably enough, but there's no reason to go out of your way to watch it either. It wouldn't occur to you to call it the worst film of anyone's career, even when that career is Hitchcock's, but it sounds as if he hated the project from the beginning, made sure that no one else enjoyed the production process and then afterwards saw nothing good in the finished film. It lacks all the things he enjoyed most. There's no suspense or terror, no black wit and no real dramatic meat to grip the attention. Gwenn is good, but that's it. It's candyfloss, basically. That's the default setting for musicals. Hitchcock took a kind of revenge by proxy on the movie by torturing his cast during shooting, especially Jessie Matthews, and kept them working ghastly hours to stay on schedule.
It's likeable, but in no way memorable. Other early Hitchcocks have far more power or bite, e.g. The Skin Game, Rich and Strange. Personally I'd be reluctant to call this the worst of Hitchcock's films, but I'd have no trouble in believing it's the least of them. It's fine, though.