Waltzes from Vienna (1934): Hitchcock’s Operetta in Context of his Overall Career

Hitchcock directed Waltzes from Vienna, a British film sometimes known as Strauss’ Great Waltz, and serving as part of a cycle of operetta films made in the 1930s.

Waltzes from Vienna
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Theatrical release poster

The film tells the story of how “The Blue Danube” was composed and performed.

It is based on the stage musical, Waltzes from Vienna, which premiered in Vienna in October 1930. With a libretto by A. M. Willner, Heinz Reichert and Ernst Marischka, the stage production contains music by Johann Strauss I and Johann Strauss II, arranged by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Julius Bittner into musical numbers. Hitchcock, however, did not include these numbers in his film.

He also changed the end of the story. In the stage musical, Resi, the baker’s daughter, decides that her father’s apprentice Leopold will make more suitable husband than the composer, Schani (Johann Strauss II). By contrast, Hitchcock’s film ends with Resi and Schani declaring their love for each other.

According to Hitchcock: “Waltzes from Vienna gave me many opportunities for working out ideas in the relation of film and music. Naturally every cut in the film was worked out on the script before shooting began. But more than that, the musical cuts were worked out too.”

Hitchcock told François Truffaut that this film was the lowest ebb of his career. He only agreed to make it because he had no other film projects that year, and he wanted to stay working. He never made another film based on a musical.

That said, film scholars of later generations found merits in this unusual Hitchcock film. They point to Waltzes from Vienna as the foundation for new ideas that would appear in his more highly regarded films.

Waltz as Musical Device

Jack Sullivan and David Schroeder suggest that Hitchcock used this film to explore the potential of the waltz, which he would employ as a musical device that carried sinister meaning or dangerous situations in films like The Lodger (1927), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), and Torn Curtain (1966).

Schroeder suggests that Waltzes from Vienna taught Hitchcock that “gradually building towards a familiar tune, from a murky beginning to the melody known to everyone, has little dramatic effect.” This experiment may have influenced the use of the unfamiliar “Lisa” tune out of nothing in Rear Window (1954).

Films about Public Performances

In “Family Plots: Hitchcock and Melodrama,” Richard Ness positions Waltzes from Vienna as the beginning of a series of films dealing with public performances, including the Royal Albert Hall scenes in the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), and the ballet performance in Torn Curtain (1966).

Maurice Yacowar comments on the innovative representation of female character in Resi: In this film for perhaps the first time Hitchcock gives the women the powers of will and mind. All the men are lapdogs, save for the bull-headed senior Strauss, and even his vanity renders him putty in the hands of the ladies”.

Waltzes from Vienna set the stage for Julien Duvivier’s Strauss biopic, The Great Waltz (1938), which maintains the character of the baker’s daughter from the original stage musical while focusing on Johann Strauss II’s revolutionary style and the creation of his popular operetta, Die Fledermaus.

Narrative Structure:

The tale begins with the sound of a fire brigade horn and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, as the firemen race towards a fire at Ebezeder’s Café. Upstairs, Resi and Schani are oblivious to the danger, engaged in love duet that concludes with Schani telling Resi that he has dedicated his newest song to her.

Schani’s music attracts the attention of the Countess Helga von Stahl, who is shopping in the dressmaker’s store next door.

Schani and Resi’s romantic interlude is interrupted by Leopold, a baker in Resi’s father’s café who is in love with Resi, as he awkwardly climbs up the ladder to save her. Schani and Leopold argue over who will save Resi from the fire. Leopold eventually wins and hauls Resi over his shoulder and down the ladder, causing her to lose her skirt. Resi races to the dressmaker’s shop to get away from the laughter of the onlookers.

Schani retrieves Resi’s skirt and then stumbles into the dressmaker’s in search of Resi, where he meets the Countess. When the Countess learns that Schani is aspiring musician, she proposes he set some of her verses to music.

As the Countess offers Schani her card, Resi enters the room and becomes suspicious of the Countess’s intentions. A romantic triangle is set up.

The next scene sets up the conflict between Schani and his father. At orchestra rehearsal, in which Schani plays second violin under his father’s baton, Schani gets in trouble when he insults his father’s music. The elder Strauss overhears and demands that Schani perform one of his own compositions for the members of the orchestra. Strauss Sr. then ridicules his son’s waltz, telling him he could never have a career as a composer, which incites Schani to quit the orchestra.

Excited by his newfound freedom and the commission from the Countess, Schani visits Resi at her father’s bakery to tell her his news. Resi initially berates Schani and informs him that, if he wants to marry her, he will have to give up music and take over the bakery. However, when she reads the Countess’s lyrics, she is drawn into the music, singing the opening of The Blue Danube waltz to Schani.

They are interrupted when Resi’s father arrives to give Schani a tour of the bakery. As Schani and Ebezeder walk into the basement, a memorable and unusual scene of musical composition begins. While Schani looks around, the tune that Resi sang begins to evolve. Two men throwing bread back and forth inspire the second phrase of the melody; a man tossing croissants into a box creates the offbeat rhythm of the waltz. The rhythm of the dough mixing machine provides Schani with the second theme of the first waltz. As he tells the begrudging Leopold to go faster, this second theme turns into the beginning of the second large section of piece. Schani runs upstairs, exclaiming to Resi that he has finished the composition. He then rushes off to tell the Countess that he has composed the perfect waltz to accompany her verses.

The next scene opens with Schani playing the final measures of the waltz to the Countess. After he finishes, she kisses him and then apologizes profusely, explaining that she was overwhelmed by his wonderful music. Schani then plays the second section of the waltz while her hand rests possessively on his shoulder, which, through a dissolve, becomes Resi’s hand.

After thanking Resi for coming up with the phrase, Schani dedicates the song to her. As the scene fades away, the page with Schani’s dedication to Resi flips up to reveal another page with the same title, but now dedicated to the Countess.

The duplicitous dedication is discovered when Resi hears Schani and the Countess playing the waltz for the publisher, Anton Drexler. Schani runs after Resi to explain and they reconcile when Schani tells her that he will give up his music to work in the bakery.

However, Schani is miserable in his new job and he fights with Resi when he receives an invitation from the Countess to attend St. Stephen’s Festival. Resi tells Schani that, if he attends, it will end of their relationship. Meanwhile, the Countess plots a ruse that will cause Strauss Sr. to be late for the festival so that Schani can take his father’s place to conduct his new waltz.

As Schani conducts The Blue Danube at the festival, all of the film’s conflicts come to a climax. The Countess detains the elder Strauss by asking the dancers at the festival to play to his ego, requesting that he play his waltzes over and over for their pleasure in a back room. Strauss Sr. finally arrives to find that his son has taken his place, performing for an enthusiastic audience. Meanwhile, Resi laments that Schani betrayed her by coming to the festival at the Countess’s command.
Following the performance, the elder Strauss angrily tells his son that he had not authorized the performance, as the Countess had led him to believe. Schani leaves the festival in confusion and the Countess follows him home where they share another kiss. However, the romantic moment is interrupted by the Count, who, upon learning where the Countess had gone, left the party in a rage. Resi arrives in time to sneak in the back and replace the Countess, who then walks back up the front stairs to surprise her husband, as the crowd outside hums The Blue Danube Waltz.

Cast

Esmond Knight as Johann “Schani” Strauss, the Younger
Jessie Matthews as Resi Ebezeder
Edmund Gwenn as Johann Strauss, the Elder
Fay Compton as Countess Helga von Stahl
Frank Vosper as Prince Gustav
Robert Hale as Ebezeder
Marcus Barron as Anton Drexler
Charles Heslop as Valet
Betty Huntley-Wright as Lady’s Maid
Hindle Edgar as Leopold (uncredited)
Sybil Grove as Mme. Fouchett (uncredited)
Bill Shine as Carl (uncredited)
Bertram Dench as Engine driver (uncredited)
B. M. Lewis as Domeyer (uncredited)
John Singer as Boy (uncredited)
Cyril Smith as Secretary (uncredited)

Credits:

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Guy Bolton and Alma Reville
Based on Walzer aus Wien by Alfred Maria Willner by Heinz Reichert and Ernst Marischka
Produced by Tom Arnold
Cinematography Glen MacWilliams
Music by Hubert Bath, Julius Bittner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold,
Louis Levy

Production companies: Gaumont British, Tom Arnold Films

Distributed by Gaumont British

Release date: March 1934

Running time: 80 minutes