Program Notes: The Great Waltz (1938)

The Great Waltz is terrible history.

But if you’re a lover of classical music – heck, even if you aren’t – it’s a pretty stupendous experience, a prime example of a vintage MGM musical with melodies that will be swirling around in your head for days after a viewing.

The subject is Johann Strauss, the composer who in mid-19th century Vienna took the lowly waltz out of the dance halls and through his memorable tunes elevated and popularized the form until it found a home even on the opera stage.

Film Screening:
The Great Waltz (1938)
Saturday, Sep. 7 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

The film’s plot is pure hokum, a romantic triangle with plenty of opportunity for musical interludes.

But the execution – from French director Julien Duvivier, cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg (who would win the Oscar for his work here), an unseen army of superb MGM designers and technicians, and especially from the opera star Miliza Korjus in her only major film role – is deliriously, fantastically diverting.

If a classical music fan were to drop LSD, this is what he would hallucinate.

The film chronicles the rise of Johann Strauss (French actor Fernand Gravet) from struggling bank clerk to king of Vienna’s musical aristocracy. Along the way he marries his sweetheart, the gentle and unassuming Poldi (Luise Rainer), but falls prey to the beauty and charm of the glamorous operatic star Carla Donner (Korjus). In the last act Poldi makes a desperate play to regain her husband’s affections and – this being a Hollywood movie made during the heyday of the Production Code – succeeds in winning back her man.

Although she spends less time on screen than her co-stars, the German-born Rainer was given top billing. This is understandable, since she had a huge public profile, having come off two consecutive Oscar wins (for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and The Good Earth in ‘37).

But The Great Waltz absolutely belongs to Korjus (already known as the “Berlin Nightingale” and dubbed “Gorgeous Korjus” by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer). She’s gorgeous, all right (imagine Mae West minus the bulldog affectations), but it’s her voice that will knock your socks off. She hits notes here that will set the window panes to rattling...I’m not much of a fan of coloratura sopranos, but Korjus could change that.

Director Duvivier, who made only a handful of American films, gives the film a giddy sweep that is intoxicating. A highlight is the sequence in which Strauss and his paramour, Donner, have escaped the revolutionary upheaval in Vienna by taking a carriage deep into the countryside. In a masterfully choreographed passage, they encounter shepherds blowing on pipes, bird calls, and other sounds which magically coalesce into the familiar strains of “Tales from the Vienna Woods.”

It’s Hollywood fantasy at its most sublime.

The Great Waltz was a huge success but, ironically, the principals involved found only limited success in Hollywood.

Director Duvivier (1896-1967) returned to Europe, and while his French films (Pépé le Moko, Un Carnet de Bal) continue to attract attention, his American productions – with the exception of The Great Waltz – are largely forgotten.

Gravet (1905-1970) had a 60-year career in movies and television both in America and Europe. But The Great Waltz was one of his few leading roles. Mostly he was a hard-working character actor. Face it: his two female costars run circles around him.

Rainer subsequently made four more American films, none of which were successful. She returned to Europe and studied medicine, though she never practiced. Over the years she has taken the occasional stage and TV role (The Love Boat, Combat!). Now 103 years old, she resides in London.

Korjus (1909-’80) might have had a terrific movie career. But shortly after making The Great Waltz she was seriously injured in a car accident. Doctors were able to save her mangled leg, but her acting career was derailed. Still, she continued to make recordings, and many opera fans place her among a handful of the greatest sopranos of all time.

Other films in the series “Cinematic Intermezzo”

September is Classical Music Month. This film series offers title that explore the other long-haired music.

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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