by David Fairweather
“BY Gosh, by Jing, by Strauss is the thing!” sang an enthusiastic gentleman in Mr. Cochrane’s last revue. He would have had a high old time watching The Great Waltz, M-G-M’s spectacular “musical” dealing – how accurately I should not care to say – with the life and loves of Johann Strauss.
The film is an odd mixture of brilliant and mediocre. The lovely photography, the swirling, lilting music and some of the direction belong to the former category. The story, characterisation, and most of the acting belong to the latter. However, as soon as you become bored with the private affairs of the great composer you are whirled into the midst of one of his lovely melodies, sung and danced by the entire population of Vienna, all blissfully unaware of the Nazification to come.
The story, if I may be forgiven, tells how Johann Strauss marries Poldi Vogelhuber, starry-eyed daughter of a pastrycook, how he falls temporarily under the spell of Carla Donna [sic], a metallic and predatory opera singer who furthers his career and nearly runs away with him to Budapest; and how he ends up, as an indomitable patriarch looking twice as old as Gran Whiteoaks, receiving the homage of the Emperor Franz Joseph and the waltz-conscious citizens of Vienna.
Many of the most popular Strauss compositions are included in the score. “Tales from the Vienna Woods” is conceived as Johann drives in an open carriage through the woods with the voluptuous Carla, an enchanting setting for a brilliantly devised sequence. “The Blue Danube” comes to him on the deserted quayside, after Carla has achieved a “noble renunciation” act very foreign to her nature as previously depicted.
Fernand Gravet, as Strauss, suggests that composers should be heard and not seen. Luise Rainer, having a shadowy, unsubstantial part, overdoes the drooping lily to the point of acute irritation. Miliza Korjus sings and acts with brio, panache and every conceivable weapon in the artillery of a Continental diva.
The picture is directed by Julien Duvivier, who made Carnet de Bal, and although the medium of musical romance gives him few opportunities, there are many touches of his individual genius.