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The Emperor Waltz

The Emperor Waltz(1948)

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teaser The Emperor Waltz (1948)

One of director Billy Wilder's most atypical films, The Emperor Waltz (1948) was also one of his least favorite. "The less time you consume in analyzing The Emperor Waltz," he later said, "the better. There's nothing to explain; there's nothing to read into that thing... We shot it in 1946. We held it back as long as we could."

Wilder was being unduly harsh on himself. Atypical the film may be, but it received good reviews at the time and is still regarded as a charming and witty little gem. It's a light romantic musical farce about a traveling American phonograph salesman, Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby), who in 1901 crashes the court of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph (Richard Haydn), seeking the emperor's endorsement. During the ensuing complications, Virgil and his dog fall in love with a countess (Joan Fontaine) and her poodle.

Wilder was strongly in the mood to make a light tale such as this because he had just come off of directing two dark, dramatic features -- Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945) -- as well as the documentary short Death Mills (1945), a record of the Nazi concentration camps. That short was filled with horrific images of the camps and had been tough for Wilder to get through. As he later told Cameron Crowe, "I was very eager to do something on the more frivolous side... I kind of thought it would be fun to make a musical." In a meeting with the Paramount front office, an executive mentioned that they didn't have a picture at the moment for Bing Crosby. Wilder immediately jumped in and said he would like to do a musical with the star.

Wilder and Charles Brackett fashioned an original screenplay, and lyricist Johnny Burke was brought on to write a handful of charming songs, including "The Kiss in Your Eyes," "Get Yourself a Phonograph," and "Friendly Mountains," the latter an interesting mash-up of two old Austrian yodel songs. Crosby also sings the popular oldie "I Kiss Your Hand, Madame," which he first recorded in 1929.

Wilder had some creative clashes with Bing Crosby and that is probably a reason that Wilder didn't remember the picture too fondly. Crosby brought in his own writers to rewrite his dialogue even though Wilder and Brackett were two of the best writers in town -- a sign of Crosby's immense power as a major star. It's likely that the original script was more hard-edged and satirically biting, and that Crosby softened it, at least as far as his character was concerned. (One scene that remains quite Wilder-esque concerns Sig Ruman as a doctor analyzing a dog.)

For the female lead, Paramount tried to entice Greta Garbo out of retirement, to no avail. Joan Fontaine was borrowed instead from David Selznick. Selznick had loaned Fontaine out more often than he had used her in his own films. For The Emperor Waltz, he charged Paramount $300,000 and of that amount, Fontaine got only $75,000 minus her agent's commission. This was the last film for Fontaine under her Selznick contract. Afterwards she signed a contract with her new husband, producer William Dozier, whom she had married just before production. (He was the second of her four husbands.) Her next two films -- both of which were released before The Emperor Waltz -- were Ivy (1947) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). That latter film, a masterpiece directed by Max Ophuls, is also set in turn-of-the-century Vienna.

For The Emperor Waltz, Fontaine agreed to take second billing to Bing Crosby -- the first time in four years she had not had top billing. In later years she, like Wilder, was not crazy about this film, writing in her memoir: "Crosby was pleasant to work with, but I felt I scarcely knew him when the picture was finished. The results looked like it." In 1965, Fontaine would work with Crosby once again on an episode of his TV show.

The Emperor Waltz was well received, with The New York Times declaring: "Brackett and Wilder have made up with casualness and charm -- and with a great deal of clever sight-humor -- for the meagerness of the idea... Fontaine turns in a sweet job of farce." Variety said "The dialog has zing, the pace is zippy and the results well worth 105 minutes of theatre time."

The film received two Oscar® nominations, for Best Color Costume Design (Edith Head and Gile Steele), and Best Score of a Musical Picture (Victor Young). It lost those awards to Joan of Arc (1948) and Easter Parade (1948), respectively.

The Emperor Waltz was shot on location in Jasper National Park, Canada.

Producer: Charles BrackettDirector: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art Direction: Franz Bachelin, Hans Dreier
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Bing Crosby (Virgil Smith), Joan Fontaine (Johanna Augusta Franziska), Roland Culver (Baron Holenia), Lucile Watson (Princess Bitotska), Richard Haydn (Emperor Franz-Josef), Harold Vermilyea (Chamberlain), Sig Ruman (Dr. Zwieback), Julia Dean (Archduchess Stephanie), Bert Prival (Chauffeur), Alma Macrorie (Inn Proprietress).

by Jeremy Arnold

Barbara Bauer, Bing Crosby
Cameron Crowe, Conversations With Wilder
Marsha Lynn Beeman, Joan Fontaine: A Bio-Bibliography
Robert Bookbinder, The Films of Bing Crosby
Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses
Charles Thompson, Bing

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