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In the years following World War II, Hollywood--along with the rest of the world--tried to come to terms with the aftermath of that terrible global conflict. In addition to the standard action war movies celebrating heroism and military achievements, moviemakers sometimes tried to tackle subjects and events that resisted easy interpretation and resolution. Hollywood was particularly conflicted about the Soviets; their totalitarian and anti-religion philosophy was abhorrent to average American audiences, but as our committed allies during the War (and with over 25 million dead to show for it), finding a workable point-of-view toward the Russians and their leader Stalin was difficult yet necessary.
By the time 1949 rolled around, public opinion had begun to swing distinctly against post-war Soviet actions. Much of the dismay centered around the repatriation policies affecting millions of refugees who were required by treaty to be returned to Russia. These refugees, once repatriated, often faced death squads and detention camps (many of which were in the inhospitable weather of Siberia) for their alleged desertion of their homeland. This is the background for the movie The Red Danube (1949), based on Bruce Marshall's 1947 novel Vespers in Vienna. An ambitious project encompassing the grand intellectual debate over religion versus godlessness as well as the political and moral dilemma of Allied commanders forced to carry out ruthless Soviet policy, The Red Danube's serious subject matter was played out through the personal story of a Russian ballerina in 1945 Austria who fights to avoid being returned to her homeland. She is taken in by the Mother Superior of a convent in the British section of Vienna, where she is given refuge while her situation is arbitrated by an English officer and his Soviet counterpart in whose hands the girl's fate rests.
The Red Danube was intended to be one of MGM's important and serious productions. The studio assembled a production team and cast that were up to the challenge. The talented George Sidney, an MGM veteran who started as a messenger boy but rapidly progressed up the ranks to become an Oscar®-winning shorts director, was brought onboard to direct although he was more accustomed to helming lavish and entertaining musicals (The Harvey Girls , Anchors Aweigh ). Producer Carey Wilson tapped real-life Austrian expatriate writer Gina Kaus and Arthur Wimperis, the Oscar®-winning screenwriter of Mrs. Miniver )1042), to adapt Marshall's novel, and prestigious composer Miklos Rozsa was assigned to write the musical score.
The onscreen talent was a collection of MGM's best contract players: dapper Walter Pidgeon (Oscar®-nominated for Mrs. Miniver and Madame Curie ) would play the British colonel, and the venerable Ethel Barrymore was cast as the redoubtable Mother Superior. The affable Peter Lawford was given the role of Pidgeon's aide, with Angela Lansbury, a real-life refugee from the London Blitz, to play Pidgeon's driver. The unsympathetic yet crucial role of the Russian officer was played by the versatile Louis Calhern, who would be nominated for an Oscar® the next year for his role as Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee (1950). The key role of Maria, the beautiful ballerina trying desperately to save herself, was given to relative newcomer Janet Leigh, who in the two years since making her screen debut had appeared in a half dozen films for the studio. In fact, her second film If Winter Comes (1947) also featured two of her The Red Danube co-stars Pidgeon and Lansbury. (She'd appear again with Angela in 1962's The Manchurian Candidate). Leigh had been discovered by Norma Shearer, and her fresh-faced appeal put a very human face on The Red Danube's grave subject matter.
In order to convincingly play a ballerina, Janet Leigh began ballet lessons with MGM choreographer Alex Romero, who was charged with getting the actress into toe shoes so she could confidently execute a few steps. During one rehearsal Leigh's toe shoe became jammed between the floorboards and she suffered a severe knee strain, but she did manage to get the ballet steps right on screen. [SPOILER ALERT] In addition to the tough dance sequences, Leigh reportedly found the entire role to be emotionally draining, especially her death scene which she found particularly difficult for her to get through.
When The Red Danube came out in December of 1949, the critical reception was lukewarm. Reviewers sincerely appreciated MGM's efforts to make a serious motion picture about the troublesome post-War period and the moral questions brought about by the undeniable brutality of the Soviet Union's repatriation policies. However, they also thought that there was far too much talk and too little action to sustain audience interest for 119 minutes. Some believed that the romance between Lawford as a British Major and Leigh as the delicate but resolute Russian ballerina felt superficial with Lawford appearing more callow than affectionate. [SPOILER ALERT] As for Leigh's suicide scene, many felt it lacked a strong dramatic impact. Almost everyone cited the excessive talkiness of the philosophical discussion scenes between Walter Pidgeon's Colonel Nicobar and Ethel Barrymore's Mother Superior which were long passages of the devout nun trying to convince the non-religious military man of the folly of remaining estranged from God. Of the entire cast, Angela Lansbury received the best critical notices for her supporting role, but overall MGM's good intentions couldn't overcome the audience's lack of interest in The Red Danube. The studio tried sending the stars on an extensive publicity tour, but it was not enough to boost the ticket sales. The movie received one Oscar® nomination for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White but lost to Sunset Blvd.
The Red Danube also had a role to play in Hollywood's reaction to the government's 1947 investigation into possible communist influences in the movie industry. The HUAC hearings involving the "Hollywood Ten" had shaken the town to its core, and in response to the scrutiny the film industry began to turn out several outwardly anti-Soviet movies. Whether these were made solely to appease Washington D.C. or to genuinely illuminate the clearly reprehensible policies of Joseph Stalin, the U.S.'s former ally, is up for debate. The U.S. had played with the devil during WW II, and now had to distance itself. The Red Danube was part of the complicated fabric of those early years of the Cold War, and as with most of the movies with an anti-communist theme, it did not ignite the public's interest as entertainment to any great degree. Maybe it felt a little bit too much like medicine going down - a history lesson disguised as a tragic romance - but were audiences simply weary of hearing how they had so misjudged their wartime partners? In any case, The Red Danube is a perfect example of a major Hollywood studio - and the most prestigious one - putting its considerable skill behind a movie that they surely knew would not be a success. Seen from the hindsight of nearly sixty years, The Red Danube still seems like a noble effort.
Producer: Carey Wilson
Director: George Sidney
Screenplay: Gina Kaus and Arthur Wimperis, Bruce Marshall (novel "Vespers in Vienna)
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Col. Michael 'Hooky' Nicobar), Ethel Barrymore (Mother Superior), Peter Lawford (Maj. John 'Twingo' McPhimister), Angela Lansbury (Audrey Quail), Janet Leigh (Maria Buhlen), Louis Calhern (Col. Piniev).
by Lisa Mateas