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Saturday, September 18, 2010

THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948)



Hiding in plain sight under the candy-coated shell of this unusually lavish Bing Crosby Paramount musical is a remarkably personal work from Billy Wilder that’s long overdue for rediscovery. Wilder, after serving on a deNazification board in Berlin, returned home for divorce proceedings and briefly moved in with his mentor & idol Ernst Lubitsch who would soon die of heart disease. This may have sparked this first of the three overtly Lubitschean romantic-comedies Wilder would make. (The other two were LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON/’57 and AVANTI/’72; flawed films worth rubies.) Bing Crosby plays a traveling gramophone salesman in turn-of-the-last-century Vienna who falls for widowed Baroness Joan Fontaine. Their dogs fall for each other, too, which sets up the complicated but delightful plot just as the setting allows Bing to hike, yodel & croon to Viennese tunes real & faux. You’re well into the film before it becomes apparent that Wilder is using this trifle as a personal deNazification program for everything he still loves about Austria & German culture. Even the anthem the Germans expropriated from Haydn is played on screen for the first time since the war without a Nazi association. It’s no accident that the film’s climax has Bing saving a trio of mix-breeds from euthanasia. They’re mongrel dogs, of course, but Wilder gives Crosby a long speech in defense of mutts and commoners in general and even has the elderly Kaiser chime in. (Wilder may have originally planned a far darker allegory with the pups going down. An unlikely ending for a Crosby pic!) Unexpectedly, Wilder’s staging of the musical numbers is utterly delightful, especially the cleverly shot & structured yodeling number, spectacularly shot on real (Canadian) locations.


CONTEST: When Fontaine locates Bing’s hotel thru his whistle . . . only to find it’s the chambermaid who's doing the whistling, you get a ‘Lubitsch Touch’ so packed with mischief & info it’s worthy of the master. And Wilder even has Fontaine refer to two specific Lubitsch heroines when she finally succumbs to Crosby’s charms on a tiny island, Name the two films & their leading ladies to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD. (Extra points for spotting the gag for the Kaiser that Wilder swiped from Lubitsch’s German silent THE OYSTER PRINCESS/’19.)

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