Friday, November 18, 2011

THE GREAT WALTZ (MGM 1938) Warner Archive Collection

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer used to be the studio with 'more stars than there are in heaven' - a magnificent assembly line for creating celluloid magic of the most incomprehensible scope and with blistering regularity throughout the golden age of Hollywood. The Cartier of movie making MGM remained an empire to be reckoned with for nearly three decades, so mythical and sublime that today it seems quite impossible it should ever have existed at all. The proof, alas, remains in MGM's myriad of celluloid treasures - the only tangible assets that survived the brutal strip down and wrecking ball mentality of the 1970s that effectively reduced MGM to the figurehead of a roaring lion. These films are the heirs and testament to MGM's greatness: so many and so beloved as they continue to resonate their untarnished magnificence long after the legends that created them are no more.

I may be gushing here. In point of fact, I am - unabashedly and sentimentally as some of MGM's best loved movies. Julien Duvivier's The Great Waltz (1938) doesn't quite fall into this latter category but that certainly does not stop the film from trying to win our hearts. Given MGM's penchant for star power, this film's one saleable asset is Luise Rainer, hot off her back to back Best Actress Oscar wins for The Good Earth (1935) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Flanking the great lady are two new finds; Fernand Gravey and Miliza Korjus. Both ought to have become big stars in their own right after this movie. Neither did. In fact, The Great Waltz marked Ms. Korjus' debut and swan song in American movies.

The screenplay by Gottfried Reinhardt, Samuel Hoffenstein and Walter Reisch is a very loose fitting biography of Vienna's waltz king, Johann Strauss II. In reconstituting Strauss' life and times as a pseudo-musical, the writers are blessed with a back catalogue of the great man's music. Whenever they paint themselves into a narrative corner the lilting strains of that immortal music interrupt in a memorable, swirling vignette breathtakingly realized by cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg.

Plot wise: it's 1845 and Johann Strauss II (Fernand Gravey) - 'Schani' to his friends - is a discharged bank teller who forms his own orchestra from a pack of unemployed and otherwise cast off musicians who are hungry for their chance to make good. Otto Dommeyer (Herman Bing) gives Johann and his boys a venue to play their music, but the debut is a bust. That is, until Dommeyer opens the windows to his establishment, allowing the rest of Vienna to hear Strauss' orchestra perform. The concert draws the whole of Vienna to Dommeyer's restaurant, including operatic prima donna, Carla Donner (Miliza Korjus).

She unabashedly flirts with the young maestro, encouraging him to perform that very evening at the home of Count Anton Hohenfried (Lionel Atwill). Strauss' fiancée, Poldi Vogelhuber (Luise Rainer) is encouraging, but at the same time harbours a deep seeded insecurity that all of Strauss's new found success will go to his head. She has good cause for concern. Carla exposes Strauss's music to the upwardly mobile masses, then pursues him romantically, even though she makes no apologies for also pursuing a lustful dalliance with Anton.

Johann is at first put off by Carla's divided affections. He returns to Poldi and proposes marriage. For some time afterward the two are content. But Carla has fallen under the spell of Johann's music. She will not give him or it up for anything. When Johann is commissioned to write an opera for Carla his wildest dreams are realized. But Poldi has found them out. She sacrifices her great love for her husband and Carla and Johann make plans to run away together to Budapest. Too late Johann realizes he has made a fateful mistake. The fire and music he shares with Carla is not equal to the enduring romantic love of his ever faithful wife. Johann sends Carla to Budapest alone and returns to Poldi.

The last few moments in the film are dedicated to Strauss's legacy. In their waning years the Strausses are summoned to the palace by Emperor Franz Josef (Henry Hull) and Johann is celebrated as a much beloved and iconic figure in the Viennese tradition. Curiously enough, although Strauss is touched by this epic assemblage of well wishers, at one point in the concluding medley of his works he thinks he hears and sees Carla Donner singing above the crowd - proof that his memories of her have not faded with the passing years.

The Great Waltz is extravagant escapism, supremely entertaining if totally untrue. Dimitri Tiomkin's re-orchestrations of Strauss's immortal music are particularly adept at 'contemporizing' the schmaltz out of the many waltzes and marches that fill our ear throughout the film. Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics manage to yield a few pop tunes, including They'll Come A Time - trilled to artistic perfection by Miliza Korjus.

The curiosity and even greater disappointment is that Korjus - who radiates brilliance in song as well as acting style - never made it in films afterward. But what a one hit wonder she is - superb, enchanting and in perfect pitch. Fernand Gravey had a lucrative film career in France afterward, but faded from memory too quickly with American audiences to be fully appreciated. It is a credit to MGM that they had the foresight to recognize both of these talents for this gargantuan and sumptuously mounted screen spectacle. Whenever anyone says "boy, they sure don't make movies like they used to" The Great Waltz is likely just the sort of film they are referring to.

Warner Home Video makes The Great Waltz available as part of their MOD 'Archive Collection' in a fairly impressive transfer. No attempt has been made to clean up age related artifacts from the image. It is speckled and scratched (sometimes severely) throughout. But Warner has remastered the elements. The gray scale is very nicely balanced. The image is crisp without becoming digitally enhanced, allowing for an impressive amount of fine detail to shine through. Contrast levels are very nicely balanced with pristine whites and very solid blacks. The audio is mono as originally recorded and infrequently suffers from hiss and pop. The only extra is a badly worn theatrical trailer. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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