Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bing's Birthday Movie: The Emperor Waltz (1948)

We have once again come to that rolling time of the year when this corner of the internet celebrates Bing Crosby's birthday. There has long been confusion about the date. According to biographer Gary Giddins, Harry and Kate Crosby's fourth son was born on May 3rd, 1903. The proud parents had the announcement placed in a local paper, but it was published on the 5th and contained the word "yesterday" making it appear the future "Bing" was born on the 4th. A correction was asked for and received from the paper. Later Paramount Studios publicity would use May 2nd as the date and 1904 as the year at the behest of manager/brother Everett Crosby. In 1906 on May 3rd Bing's younger sister Mary Rose was born. The young lady was most put out by having to share a birthday with anyone else and her brother happily relinquished the date. Just like a kid! No consideration for future biographers, astrologers or bloggers.

Today, along with birthday cake, let's take a look at the 1948 release The Emperor Waltz. A Technicolor musical written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and directed by Wilder, The Emperor Waltz is not one of those classic Crosby movies that even non-fans recall, nonetheless I find it to have a certain charm and worth the time of the viewer. There are few writer/directors I admire more than Billy Wilder and few entertainers I enjoy more than Bing Crosby. I don't know what I expected when they got together, but I guess it wasn't The Emperor Waltz. Initial disappointment was erased on a recent viewing.

Our story is set in the long ago Austria of Emperor Franz Josef and concerns the love affair between a haughty widowed Countess Johanna Augusta Franziska played by Joan Fontaine and a brash American salesman Virgil Smith played by Bing Crosby. Ditto her purebred poodle and his mutt. There is a lot of talk about class differences and bloodlines and, through the years, this has been my major gripe with the script. Perhaps at the post-war era Brackett and Wilder felt the need to make some sort of a statement, but it's a tad heavy handed and detracts from the fun - and there is fun.

The musical numbers are presented wittily and include Friendly Mountains (a yodeling song), The Emperor Waltz with Johnny Burke lyrics to Johann Strauss' melody and Jimmy Van Heusen and Burke's Get Yourself a Phonograph, the phonograph being Virgil's stock-in-trade.  The old standby I Kiss Your Hand, Madame starts with Bing's vocal, then brings in a piano, then two policemen pick up violins and then the domestic staff starts to dance. When our countess swoons after a few boo-boo-boo's, you know Billy Wilder is poking fun at operetta and musical film conventions.

The uninspired humorist often remarks when watching a musical "where did the orchestra come from?". There is no need to ask in the enchanting The Kiss in Your Eyes as an entire village puts bow to string to accompany this most stirring of love songs with lyrics by Johnny Burke to the melody from Richard Heuberger's Im Chambre separee from his 1898 operetta Der Opernball. It is one of the loveliest ballads Bing ever recorded and and it is followed in the movie by a grand punchline from the Countess.

The Technicolor is sumptuous and truly befitting the operetta-like sensibility of the movie.  Location filming was done in Jasper National Park in Alberta.  Apparently Wilder had pines transplanted from California, not being satisfied with our Canadian trees.  On one hand I am mildly insulted, but on the other I am amazed at the resources of the studio.

Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine is every inch the royal lady, looking lovely in her costumes and easily handling the comic and dramatic portions of the script. A nice transition from her young, vulnerable characterizations to the more confident and sophisticated females she would soon portray.

Early in the film Bing tends to shout his way through Virgil, but his character is a lone fish out of water with no kibitzing pal such as a Bob Hope or Barry Fitzgerald.  Once he starts to sing - well, like the Countess, it is easy to fall for the go-getting salesman.  Lucile Watson (The Women, The Thin Man Goes Home) is an absolute delight as a dowager princess with a penchant for storytelling and for our Countess' profligate father played in fine style by Roland Culver (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Holly and the Ivy). 

Bing Crosby, Richard Haydn

The top performance comes from Richard Haydn as Emperor F-J himself.  Unrecognizable under the whiskers and make-up, and foregoing his famous precise nasally delivery, Mr. Haydn gives us a very interesting Franz-Josef. A petulant, funny, irritating, thoughtful and memorable character. You will pinch yourself to be reminded of whom you are watching. Mr. Haydn would later direct co-star Crosby in the 1950 comedy-romance Mr. Music.

Personally, the negatives I find in the movie are the somewhat overly-preachy aspects of the script, and a tendency to drag in spots. Those aspects are more than made up for by the accomplished actors and  sumptuous cinematography from George Barnes. The lovely music which garnered Victor Young a Best Scoring Oscar nomination is a treat. Oscar nominations also came the way of Edith Head and Gile Steele for the grand costumes. Perhaps if the Academy had recognized Richard Haydn, he would have received a nomination as well.

Celebrate, everyone!  Enjoy that cake and slip that Crosby disc on or in whatever music making machine is at your disposal.


  1. I like this one a lot too, and thought this was a terrific write-up. It's been a while since I've seen it, but if memory serves, I thought Fontaine was little too icy and reserved in her scenes with Crosby, to the film's detriment.

    But its been well over 10 years since I've seen it and I think merits another look see. I think Wilder was rough on it too, but I remember it not being worth his scorn.

  2. Sometimes a movie gets a bad reputation and if it is approached at all, it is with preconceived scorn. Then in the case of "The Emperor Waltz" you find yourself having a good time and wondering what's everybody's problem!

  3. Insulted my imported tress? Only a Canadian would think like that! Never seen this one, CW. I'm not a big Bing fan, though.

  4. I'm surprised Jasper Park allowed the foreign trees, but we Canadians are generally a welcoming bunch. I have read that Bing made a big hit with local golfers.

    I've been a Bing fan all my life. Feels like it any way. Someday, Kim, you may see this movie if only to complete your Billy Wilder viewing.

  5. I've missed this one, but your post intrigues me. As does the idea of Richard Haydn under whiskers and makeup, and without his marvelous adenoids.

  6. I have such fond memories of this movie! It was truly one of the first classic films I saw on TV and besides being captivated by the period - especially the clothes, I fell hook line & sinker for Mr. Crosby.Years later I saw it again on TV, this time getting to appreciate how beautiful it looked in all of its Technicolor splendor. And now , still more years later I figure it was a no-brainer for me to fall for this because, well, anything Billy Wilder touches it a-ok with me. I was so excited when I saw the title of your post - and reading it made me feel all happy inside!

  7. JTL, Haydn is simply wonderful in this role. You'll wish you could go right through the screen and give him a congratulatory hug.

    FlickChick, your fondness for the movie makes me happy inside. We can start our own cult!

  8. Wonderful review as usual. Not one of my favorite Bing films - he yelled a lot in it and I can't stand Joan Fontaine, but a great review on Bing's b-day!

  9. Thanks, DL.

    I think Virgil had to yell. He didn't have any friends besides the dog. Gee, you sound like a Joan F. fan the way my husband is a Bette D. fan. It's not worth my time to try to watch the folks he dislikes when he is at home.

  10. I've always enjoyed this one, too. Dogs in love--plus some great songs (you mentioned "The Kiss in Your Eyes" and there's also the lovely "I Kiss Your Hand, Madame"). Another fine write-up!

  11. Thanks, Rick.

    Those doggies were born in the wrong time. Today they'd have book deals like Uggie.

  12. Thanks for the blog. Somehow I've missed more Bing movies than I should have, but I've been catching up this last year and a half. I'll be looking for this one soon.

  13. CaftanWoman, How I missed a Billy Wilder film is a mystery to me - but I've managed it. I'm also curious to see Richard Haydn play a character different from his usual type. As far as Bing goes, I've always found him irresistible as Father O'Malley and (being a child not raised in the Catholic Church) the first time I saw "The Bells of St. Mary's" I couldn't help wishing he would ask Sister Benedict to run away with him.

  14. Well, Lambfam, it's a comfort to know that the movies are always there for us to catch up with.

    Lady Eve, I will be very surprised if you are totally impressed with Richard Haydn in this movie. "The Bells of St. Mary's" has really grown on me over the years. I think Ingrid is perfect and Bing at his most relaxed.

  15. I really enjoyed reading your classic movie review to a film I have not yet seen. I will put this on my list of "gotta see films".

    Thank you very much for your support. Everyone's kindness has been very comforting during my illness. ((Hugs)).

  16. A big hug and a pat on the back coming your way from Canada, Dawn.

    A Technicolor musical with some laughs looks good on a prescription pad.

  17. I saw this film in a revival theater as a teenager! I remember it was colorful but little else. You've prompted me to add the DVD to my "to watch" pile -- when my kids were little they especially loved A CONNECTICUT YANKEE which is on the flip side. :)

    Best wishes,

  18. Laura, "A Connecticut Yankee" was "our" movie when my daughter was little. To this day, when the appropriate situation presents itself, we both say "It's not my fault" sounding for all the world like Sir Hardwicke as King Arthur.



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