30 September 2004 | jandesimpson
Piffle, but very pretty
It would be hard to find two consecutive feature films by a director of significance as different from one another as "The Lost Weekend" and "The Emperor Waltz", the former as hysterically hard hitting as anything Hollywood produced in the 'forties, the latter pure schmaltzy escapism. The first and most obvious conclusion is that Billy Wilder, as part of his contract to Paramount, was doing as he was told in producing a piece of box office confectionery. And yet there is no escaping the credits which bill the script as being by Wilder himself and Charles Brackett. So he must have known what he was doing. Superficially it looks and sounds like a nostalgic recreation of Wilder's home country, Austria, during a golden period before the First World War when the only thing to unsettle the court of the Emperor Franz Joseph was the entry of an itinerant American phonograph salesman and his mongrel dog. It is said that it might have been a different film but for the fact that Wilder had to accept Bing Crosby for the leading role and that he had to cater for the audience expectations of one of the most popular stars of the day, hence the odd song, though scarcely enough to make it a musical in the fully accepted sense. There is the odd witty line such as Franz Joseph's remark that were he to shave off his whiskers it would create consternation in changing his image on the country's currency. Apart from this it is hard to find much in the way of Wilder's characteristically cracking dialogue. The parallel romance between Bing and a countess and their dogs Buttons and Sheherazade rather palls after a while but the pretty visuals with the Canadian Rockies substituting for the Austrian Tyrol have some compensations. Bing plays his part with star flair although the same can hardly be said of Joan Fontaine as the countess. Aside from the virtue of a gorgeous hair-do, she acts with a stilted woodenness that is light years away from her work in "Rebecca" and "Jane Eyre". Still there is generally something engaging to catch the eye including one wonderfully kitschy moment when all the lasses from a village where violins are made play their instruments. When Wilder made "The Emperor Waltz" he already had to his credit that immortal film noir "Double Indemnity". 1947/48 must have been a particularly bad period for him as he followed his Austrian romance with easily his worst effort, "A Foreign Affair", a third-rate "Ninotchka" tale set in postwar Berlin with Jean Arthur, an otherwise good actress, hardly a match for Garbo. For all its faults "The Emperor Waltz" is infinitely more enjoyable though there is little indication of the talent that was to produce "Some Like It Hot", "The Apartment" and "Kiss Me, Stupid".