Strauss Invents 'The Great Waltz' On Film
To learn about the lives of the great composers, the movies are usually not a good place to start. From “Lisztomania” and “The Music Lovers,” to “Copying Beethoven” and “Amadeus,” the movies have been largely getting it wrong when it comes to music history. So if by watching “The Great Waltz” (1938) you’re looking to learn a little more about the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II, you’d do better to head to Wikipedia.
Yes, there is a man in this movie named Strauss, who writes waltzes. Yes, the film takes place in Vienna. But that’s just about where the similarities end. MGM acknowledged this at the outset with a title card that opens the movie, reading in part, “We have dramatized the spirit rather than the facts of his life, because it is his spirit that has lived--in his music.”
Fernand Gravet, relatively unknown to American audiences, stars as Johann Strauss, a frustrated musician and composer who quits his day job within the first five minutes of the film to fulfill his artistic dream. His sweetheart, Poldi (Luise Rainer), stands by while the wily soprano, Carla (real-life Estonian soprano Miliza Korjus), schemes to steal Strauss for her own.
Strauss falls under Carla’s spell while Vienna falls under Strauss’s. The public delights to his new sound, and Strauss becomes the people’s voice of the 1848 revolutionary movement. There’s some truth to that, as Strauss and his father differed over the politics of the revolution.
However, Carla eventually realizes that she cannot have Strauss all to herself, and she relinquishes him to his loving wife, Poldi.
I really enjoyed Miliza Korjus in this film. She looks a little like Mae West, and she’s always grinning and looking out of the corner of her eyes, as if hiding some devious plan in the ruffles of her dress. She was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role.
The film’s other nominations included Best Editing, and Best Cinematography. “The Great Waltz” won for the latter--the film is filled with swirling dancers, high overhead camera angles, and cleverly framed shots. And with the exception of some speckles during the first and last 10 minutes of the movie, this DVD from the made-to-order Warner Archive collection showcases the splendid black-and-white image well.
The most famous scene in the film is of course musical in nature, and is fun to watch. Johann and Carla find themselves on a carriage ride through the forest outside Vienna, and a collection of random birdsongs, horse trotting, hunting horns, and other sounds catches Strauss’s ear. Seizing inspiration, he composes “Tales from the Vienna Woods” on the spot. Oh, if only it were so easy in real life!
“The Great Waltz” is based on a stage musical that was first performed in Vienna in 1930. For this film version, lyrics for many of the Strauss waltzes have been written by Oscar Hammerstein II. They’re not as elegant as his later Broadway triumphs, but it’s kind of a kick to hear Strauss’s waltzes sung in English, and music lovers will enjoy hearing Dimitri Tiomkin's arrangements.
One final note about the film’s authenticity: at one point, a character remarks of another, “There’s a true musician for you--he doesn’t even care about money!” Now, in my personal and professional life, I have known many musicians, and I can assure you, they enjoy being paid!