Bing Crosby Croons on the Road to Vienna



A shadowy intruder approaches a stately castle, making his way to a quite closed window.  The view ain’t bad- through the glass, we witness an altogether different kind of movie going on inside.  A palatial soirée, straight out of Tolstoy.  Counts and countesses, lords and ladies- whoever these high falutin’ folks are- spin and whirl in proper high-class formation.  This being the emperor’s castle, it’s fair to assume that they’re doing his waltz.  {SHATTER!!}  No one hears that, but we sure do.  In goes the dark, menacing figure…

Surprise, it’s Bing Crosby.  Prefiguring James Bond by a good fifteen years, he whips off his outer prowler layer revealing a suitly men’s suit.  In he strides, like he owns the place.  Nevertheless, he draws stares.  Oh shoot, the earmuffs!!  And just like that, everyone’s favorite 1940s crooner has broken the land speed record for earmuff removal.  Oh yes, this is one suave fella.

Crosby plays Virgil Smith, a flat-footed yankee rube just making the rounds in Vienna, Austria as a simple gramophone salesman.  Clearly, Virgil’s wandered a good ways off the beaten path of the old neighborhood.  But, he’s got an angle.  If he could only get into the royal palace, corner the geriatric Emperor Franz Joseph (a real guy, played by Richard Haydn in all his mutton-chopped glory), and get his endorsement of this newfangled gramophone device…!  Why then, everyone in Vienna would want one!  He’d be on Easy Street!  (“Americans- anything for the almighty dollar”).  He’s even brought his trusty pooch, a white fox terrier called Buttons, to double as the RCA canine mascot, curiously staring down the horn of the early record player.

But that’s not why he breaks into the palace.  No, this intrusion bookends The Emperor WaltzBilly Wilder’s first film in color (beautiful Technicolor, at that) and his only bona fide dip into the realm of musical comedy.  Written by Wilder and his longtime co-writer Charles Brackett and intended as a tribute to the director’s mentor, the great Ernst Lubitsch, basically begins at the end. 

By this point, things have gone effectively south for Virgil, as the lovely Countess Johanna Augusta Franziska von Stoltzenberg-Stolzenberg (Joan Fontaine) turns sour on first sight of him.  A romance had occurred, a darn potent one at that.  (Potent enough to sell the arc, anyhow.  It’s reported that in real life, Crosby- at that moment The Biggest Star In The World- didn’t care two hoots about his co-star, Fontaine).  What the heck went wrong?  The entire rest of the movie- one long flashback- details just that.  (It also, along the way, detail’s Virgil’s plan to sell the emperor a gramophone).

This is where The Emperor’s Waltz goes to the dogs- literally.  Just as Virgil strikes up his unlikely romance with Countess Johanna Augusta Franziska von Stoltzenberg-Stolzenberg, Buttons finds amorous favor with her well-coifed standard poodle, Scheherezade.  The canine romance becomes more potent than even the central human one, with Scheherezade at one point tearing away from cloistered palace life (where she’s been granted the “honor” of mating with the Emperor’s esteemed poodle) to go find Buttons.  Hot dog, that is truly one hot-to-trot dog.

Despite Wilder’s extravagance in fabricating a Technicolor version of the Austria of his youth (Quaint village life… Swiss Miss girls in braids… Flowers too colorful to be believed…), one need only squint through a modicum of prior knowledge of the director’s views and experiences regarding then-recent history to arrive at the metaphor of the piece.  While the weightiness of WWII-era fascism and the tragic sweeping actions of Adolf Hitler were clearly at the fore of Wilder’s mind (he lost family members in the Holocaust), he only nearly betrays the requisite feel-good nature of the musical comedy form.  The film’s climax involves an attempt to drown a newborn litter of puppies because they are born the wrong breed and color.  While this is perhaps unpleasant by the genre’s standards circa 1948, it pales in comparison to actual headlines of that same time and place.  Wilder and Brackett nearly fumble the delicate balancing act, with a large part of the save credit going to Crosby, who maintains his Crosby-at-all-costs consistency no matter what situation his character is thrust into.

Authentic Film Historian Joseph McBride, who’s recent book, Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge, only strengthens his already-solid credentials as an expert on the director, provides a suitably in-depth newly recorded audio commentary track.  McBride doesn’t wait long to flag the film as, in his eyes, Wilder’s strangest.  It’s true that the musical form proved not to be Wilder’s forte, and the filmmaker himself came to regard The Emperor Waltz as “a debacle”.  (As evidenced in a very brief subtitled video excerpt provided wherein director Volker Schlöndorff interviews Wilder, in German).  But it must be said that for all its anomalous aspects when lumped in with the likes of Some Like it HotThe Apartment, or even Irma la DouceThe Fortune Cookie or Avanti!, the movie remains a viable and even necessary viewing in terms of seeing a fuller version of this absolutely key filmmaker of the twentieth century.

Surprisingly, Kino Lorber’s packaging of this excellent new Blu-ray edition makes no mention of the transfer’s particulars.  This is most unexpected, as one would assume that the label would be quite eager to extol the virtues of this eye-poppingly gorgeous high-definition presentation.  Though far from considered a key Billy Wilder entry, it’s terrific to see that such Powers That Be have made a point in assuring that this underrated and side-eyed spectacle is as dressed to the nines as it can be.  Fans of all key talent involved shouldn’t wait to break into The Emperor Waltz.

The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s image quality and are included only to represent the film itself.