When Joan was a Countess: The Emperor Waltz

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As a little girl, I wanted to be a princess and be married to a policeman (a policeman, not a prince). That would have been the ideal life for me. But, of course, I grew up and made wiser decisions. Because being a princess doesn’t only involve wearing beautiful dresses and being rich, but also a ton of exhausting responsibilities. Reality sometimes sucks. However, dreaming and having an interest for royalty is still possible. That’s how history was made, with its countless kings, queens, princes, princesses, countesses, etc. We can read about them in books or we can witness them in films. These can be real or fictional stories.

My friend Emily from The Flapper Dame invited us to participate to her blogathon, The Royalty on Film Blogathon, celebrating her two passions: movies and royalty. Of course, I was happy to subscribe for the event. My film choice for the event is an unusual one, not the first film we think about when we mention films about royalty: The Emperor Waltz (Billy Wilder, 1948). But as I’m going to Austria very soon, I thought that could be nothing but a most interesting choice.

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As I said, The Emperor Waltz takes place in Austria, and around the beginning of the 20th century. Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby), an American seller, and his dog Button are in Vienna to send a gramophone to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. On her side, Countess Johanna Augusta Franziska von Stoltzenberg-Stolzenberg (Joan Fontaine) and her father, Baron Holenia (Roland Culver) are waiting in the hall too to meet the Emperor for a most important business. Johanna thinks the Emperor wants to create an alliance between her and another sovereign, but she then discovers that he simply wants to create an alliance between her poodle, Scheherezade, and his, Louis. Baron Holenia is most thrilled as this would mean they’ll be connected to the Emperor’s family. Meanwhile, Virgil is having trouble because people suspect that the box containing the gramophone contains a bomb. The palace is alerted and the Emperor has to wait in a little room until everything is fixed. A man of the court throws the box in the fountain and  Virgil is obviously angry. He manages to save his product from the waters and shows the utility of the gramophone to the man in question and the soldiers, but this one orders him to leave before he even has time to meet the emperor. As he is going, the countess and her father come out of the palace with Sheherezade. Buttons sees her and run to her. They fight and Scheherazade bites Button. The countess, her dog and her father leave without apologizing. Later, Sheherezade suffers from a nervous breakdown. She is afraid of other dogs and the cause is Button. According to Dr. Zwieback (Sig Ruman), she has to meet the little dog again to overcome her fear. Johanna and Virgil will agree to make peace to help the dog. Which will work, I mean, REALLY work as the two dogs will fall in love and, as faith is mean to be, their owners too… The main story is presented to us as a long flashback.

The Emperor Waltz is meant to be a musical, however, we just hear a few songs all sang by Bing Crosby and his beautiful deep voice. The most memorable one is “I Kiss Your Hand, Madame”. Well, to me it is. So, for those who don’t like musicals (don’t mistake me, I love musicals), you can’t suffer too much by watching this film!

One of the songs, “The Emperor Waltz” is, of course, easy to associate with the title. That’s probably the main association we can make between the film and its title. Yes, there’s an emperor in the film and, yes, people dance waltz (we’re in the court of Vienna after all), but this is not the main suggest. The lyrics of the song were added to Johann Strauss music “The Emperor Waltz”.

Aside from the song, I’ll say that my own personal favourite music moment in the film is the one when Sheherazed runs away to join Button, who is on a little island in the mountains. She is pursued by her masters, and we can hear Rossini’s William Tell‘s Overture during the scene. That makes it both a funny and epic moment.

Everybody knows that music…

I said earlier that films about royalty could include real of fictional stories and/or characters. As for The Emperor Waltz, the story (and that won’t be a surprise for you) is fictional and most of its characters are. The only exception is Emperor Franz Joseph. Also known as Franz Joseph I of Austria, he was Emperor from 1848 to his death in 1916. Franz Joseph can also been known for having been married to one of Austria’s most iconic and famous monarch: Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as Sissi (immortalized on the screen by Romy Schneider). Sadly, no Sissi in the film, as this one was murdered in 1898 at the age of 60. Interestingly, the Emperor was portrayed by Richard Haydn, who also played Uncle Max in The Sound of Music, another film taking place in Austria. But with his long white beard and his shaved head, he’s pretty hard to recognize in the Billy Wilder’s film.

Of course, our main interest for the film is not necessarily for the Emperor, but mostly for the Countess and the  American seller. Both Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine used what they normally excelled at to satisfy us: Joan, her capacity to switch easily from one emotion to another and Bing, his seducing and beautiful singing voice. He was a fine actor as well.

Roland Culver was an interesting choice as Baron Holenia, who is seen a man who only thinks about fortune and important alliances.

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Although the film takes place in Austria, the interior scenes were filmed in Paramount studios, and, as for the outdoor mountain scenes, they were filmed in Jasper National Park in Canada. I was a bit disappointed when I learned that, thinking first that it has really been filmed in Austria, but the illusion remains efficient. These are, after all, beautiful mountains and it’s believable. Of course, filming in Austria could have been more expensive. Now that I know more about the movie locations of this film. It doesn’t only makes me want to visit Austria, but also Jasper National Park, which seems to be a lovely and grand place too!

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Jasper National Park. We recognize the little Island!

When we think about Billy Wilder’s filmography, The Emperor Waltz is not the first film that comes up to our mind. Billy Wilder himself wasn’t very satisfied with the film. As for the shooting, the Canadian weather didn’t make it easy, and the off-screen chemistry between Joan Fontaine and Bing Crosby wasn’t very good. Once again, poor Joan was snubbed by her leading actor…

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Shooting the film
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Well, here Joan and Bing seems to get along well!

On it’s release, the film wasn’t a big commercial success and the critics where mixed.

But despite that, The Emperor Waltz remains a lovely and enjoyable film, even if it’s not a perfect one. It was nominated to the Oscar for Best Costumes (Edith Head- what a surprise…) and Best Original Score (Victor Young), and to the Writers of Guild of America for Best Screenplay (Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder – they’ll both win the Best Screenplay Oscar two years later for their marvellous work on Sunset Boulevard).

Music and costumes are indeed among the best things in the film. I’ve previously talked about the music, so we’ll stick to the costumes. As always, Edith Head did a marvellous job to illustrate the story through a bunch of marvellous clothes. Those colors are a real treat for our eyes and, once again, it can make us dream to be a princess (or, in this case, I shall say: a countess!)

Anyway, The Emperor Waltz is a film that deserves to be explored, especially if you enjoy movies where love and royalty are the central subjects. It’s a light, funny and colourful film that can only make you pass a good moment. I’ve seen it twice, and twice I enjoyed my viewing, even if it’s not a masterpiece.

A big thanks to Emily for hosting this awesome blogathon! I invite you to read the other “royal” entries as well 😉 :

The Royalty on Film Blogathon

Auf Wiedersehen! 😉

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