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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

THE RED DANUBE (1949)

Little-known post-WWII drama about the handling of displaced persons in a divided Vienna is more interesting than its title or year-of-release might suggest. It sounds like some Red-Baiting/Witch-hunt melodrama. Instead , we get Walter Pidgeon as an agnostic Colonel, billeted in a convent while maneuvering thru repatriation cases with Soviet counterpart Louis Calhern. Their main argument pivots on former Russian prima ballerina Janet Leigh who’s lost in a deepening relationship with Peter Lawford’s lovestruck Major and doesn’t want to go back. What’s intriguing is that this fairly conventional affair takes a backseat to Pidgeon’s personal struggle with the convent’s Mother Superior (Ethel Barrymore*) as his war-induced crisis of faith starts to influence his political/military responsibilities and he hits an international wall of inhumanitarian regulations. No doubt, this was all laid out better in the novel (Bruce Marshall/‘Vespers in Vienna’), but enough gets into the film to carry you past a lot of dramatic missteps. Director George Sidney steps up his game, much helped by Charles Rosher’s stunning cinematography. Watch as he brings back the glory days of silent cinema on his intro shots of Leigh (Rosher wasn’t Mary Pickford’s main lenser for nothing!), plus unusually good art direction in a studio faked Vienna and a typically rich Miklós Rózsa score.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The Mother Superior is a wise old darling, natch, but how nice to have Ethel Barrymore around to tart up the old cliché.

DOUBLE-BILL: The divided post-war cities of Berlin & Vienna, split into Allied Sectors, made for some great drama (great location shooting, too) in films like THE SEARCH/’48; A FOREIGN AFFAIR/’48 and THE THIRD MAN/’49. But it also made a delightfully witty backdrop on Powell/Pressburger’s joyous, forgotten, updated DIE FLEDERMAUS in OH . . . ROSALINDA!!/’55, all studio artifice and a one-of-a-kind nutcase movie unlike anything. A huge critical & commercial flop, it’s an awfully lovable miss.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The Soviet threat, as presented here, may have looked naive & overstated at one time. But just about any post-Glasnost Stalin bio now paints a pretty grim picture for repatriates, particularly for returning POWs.

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