Waltzes from Vienna: Hitchcock’s Operatic Musical, Career’s Lowest Point?

Alfred Hitchcock himself considered Waltzes from Vienna to be the lowest point of his career, and he might have been right.

Put in context, it was a step down: This movie was made after such striking pictures as The Lodger and Murder!

Waltzes from Vienna

Theatrical release poster

It’s hard to tell what motivated him to undertake a film that was out of his league and out of his interest. Was he eager to conclude his contract with British International Pictures? Was he intrigued by the music (which he will use in future films)?

No matter: Looked upon on its own terms, “Waltzes from Vienna” is a schmaltzy musical biopic about “the Waltz King” Joseph Strauss and his son Joseph Jr.

“Waltzes from Vienna” was part of the cycle of Operetta films made in the U.S. and Britain during the 1930s. The film tells the story of the writing and performance of The Blue Danube.

Edmund Gwenn stars as the elder Strauss, with Esmond Knight as his talented progeny. The little drama that the narrative has resides in the intense rivalry between the two Strausses. The conflict is later sort of resolved by the inaugural performance of Joseph Junior’s “The Blue Danube.”

Displeased with his work in this film, Hitchcock at one point threw up his hands and confessed to his actors “I hate this sort of stuff.” Hitchcock regarded “Waltzes in Vienna” and his silent feature “Champagne” as his worst films, and never essayed anything like them again. There is not a single biopicture in his large and diverse output, let alone a musical movie, even if score features prominently in most of its work.

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 wanted to stay working. He never again made a musical film.

Even so, each and every Hitchcock movie has some redeeming qualities and “Waltzes from Vienna” is no exception. Among other things, “Waltzes from Vienna” is one of the shortest films (79 minutes) in Hitchcock’s canon.

Intertextuality and Impact

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

Schroeder also suggests that Waltzes from Vienna taught Hitchcock how to “gradually build towards a familiar tune, from a murky beginning to the melody known to everyone, will have little dramatic effect,” an experiment manifest in creatin the unfamiliar “Lisa” tune out of nothing in Rear Window (1954).

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 Hitchcock’s innovative representation of a female character in Resi, suggesting that for 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.

Waltzes from Vienna set the stage for Julien Duvivier’s Oscar-nominated 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 inclinations and his popular operetta, Die Fledermaus.

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)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Guy Bolton, Alma Reville, based on Walzer aus Wien by Alfred Maria Willner, Heinz Reichert, 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
Country UK