powered by AFI
A lavish MGM production, The Great Waltz (1938) comes complete with elaborate sets, meticulous design and brilliant photography. It's a Hollywood version of the early life of Johann Strauss, the Viennese "waltz king." Set in the mid-19th century days of Emperor Franz Joseph, the film overflows with Strauss waltzes which are played, sung and danced to varying degrees of success; the most imaginatively staged is "Tales from the Vienna Woods."
While Frenchman Julien Duvivier received directing credit, one wonders how much control he really had over such a big production, especially since this was his first American film. He had just made two masterpieces of French cinema, Pepe Le Moko (1937) and Un Carnet de Bal (1937) - the latter of which he would soon remake for Alexander Korda as Lydia (1941) - and The Great Waltz doesn't really bear the same personal feel. (Bits and pieces of the movie were even directed, uncredited, by Josef von Sternberg and Victor Fleming.)
New York Times film critic Frank Nugent essentially realized this, too. He wrote of the film: "A stupendous show. Stunning, opulent and melodious. All of which does not prevent it from being a bit of a bore. Metro, of course, makes the most beautiful bores in the world. They are designed by Cedric Gibbons, gowned by Adrian and have dollar signs all over them. No other studio in Hollywood can build such ballrooms and fill them with such lovely, lacy ladies. No other studio makes such enchanting beer-gardens, with the moonlight just right and the dance floor perfection. No other studio can make so big a picture out of so small a script."
Other critics, however, were more positive about The Great Waltz, and the film did well at the box office. It even garnered three Oscar® nominations, for Best Supporting Actress (Miliza Korjus), Best Cinematography (Joseph Ruttenberg) and Best Editing, and it won for Cinematography.
Over a long casting process, MGM considered many possible leading men including Nelson Eddy, Brian Aherne and Fredric March, until Belgian-born Fernand Gravey finally won the part of Strauss. He was billed as "Fernand Gravet" so as to avoid possible ridicule by American audiences. Also cast were recent double Oscar®-winner Luise Rainer and Polish soprano Miliza Korjus, appearing in her only American film. Of Korjus, film critic Nugent wrote that her "resemblance to Mae West and difficulties with the recording in the upper registers tend to offset a lively and full-throated performance."
MGM spared no effort on the music for The Great Waltz. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin adapted Strauss' compositions and conducted them with a 90-piece orchestra. According to studio notes, Dr. Arthur Guttman, conductor of the Johann Strauss Theater in Vienna, was brought to Hollywood to aid in the music's overall authenticity. Even more impressively, fourteen of the violins used in the scoring were Stradivarius models, including one - the so-called "Da Vinci Stradivarius" - which was at the time acclaimed as the world's most valuable violin.
Two hundred sets were built for The Great Waltz, including grand ballrooms, staircases, Vienna Woods resorts and a replica of the court of Franz Joseph. Some props, such as cabinets, were owned and lent by the Strauss family. A harpsichord loaned for use in the film by composer Sigmund Romberg had actually been played in the Imperial Opera in the 1840s.
MGM's press book for The Great Waltz also claimed that "Miliza Korjus eats 12 raw eggs daily to preserve her voice," and "Joan Crawford, visiting the set, sang in the 'Vienna I Love You' chorus on a dare."
Producer: Bernard H. Hyman
Director: Julien Duvivier
Screenplay: Samuel Hoffenstein, Walter Reisch, based on a story by Gottfried Reinhardt
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin, Arthur Guttman
Film Editing: Tom Held
Costume Design: Adrian
Cast: Luise Rainer (Poldi Vogelhuber), Fernand Gravey (Johann Strauss II), Miliza Korjus (Carla Donner), Hugh Herbert (Julius Hofbauer), Lionel Atwill (Count Anton Hohenfried), Curt Bois (Kienzl), Leonid Kinskey (Dudelman).
by Jeremy Arnold