Wilder: The Emperor Waltz (1948) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder: The Emperor Waltz (1948)

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In Austria, the American traveling salesman Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby) arrives in the palace of Emperor Franz-Joseph I with his mongrel dog Button expecting to sell one gramophone to him to promote his sales in the country. However, the guards believe he has a time-bomb and he does not succeed in his intent. When the dog Sheherazade of the widowed Countess Johanna Franziska von Stolzenberg-Stolzenberg (Joan Fontaine) bites Button, Virgil visits her and sooner he falls in love for Johanna and Button for Sheherazade that is promised to breed with the Emperor's dog. When Virgil asks permission to marry Johanna to the Emperor, the nobleman exposes to the salesman that their difference of social classes would doom their marriage and offers a business to Virgil.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

After making Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Death Mills, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett decided to take a step back. Wilder, especially, was traumatized by the horrors he saw while touring post-War, post-Holocaust Europe, and desired to make a film about the Europe he grew up in. A magical joyous world of singing, dancing, and liederhosen.

It didn't turn out too well. The crappy part is that this joyous vision also involved Bing Crosby. Then Paramount's biggest star, he was already famous for the Road To movies he made with Bob Hope, and he'd won the Academy Award a few years back for Going My Way. He was a big ol' crooner at heart, and not exactly what I would call romantic leading man material, tossing out lines like "I think you're both full of pickled pumpernickel!" with utter seriousness.

His glassy eyes make it look like he's staring ten feet behind whoever he's talking to, and his exact range of emotions begins and ends at 'dutifully passive'; his pet dog in the film, Buttons, is a more charming lead by a mile.

He plays opposite of Joan Fontaine, who must have gotten a lot of work in the 50's since she's so good at playing a robot here. Her character starts off as stuffy, but hears Bing excrete one of his musical numbers and then she goes all gaga. Her emotional reactions to him function much like a light switch.

Speaking of light, this is Billy Wilder's first color film. The result isn't terrible-- Technicolor rarely is-- but it's simply used, well, as color. There's barely any of the dynamism here present in his black and white works, and if Brackett and Wilder weren't plastered onto the credits and their senses of humor chopped up into the screenplay, I wouldn't think that this was from them.

There's so much badness here that it's hard to encapsulate, but The Emperor Waltz has absolutely no forward momentum. Everything that happens in the movie seems to happen in the last ten minutes. And I definitely want to talk about the end at some point since I find it both awful and fairly offensive to boot. Ryan, now that you've managed to track down the film, what do you think? Am I being too mean to a Wilder lark?

You are not being too hard on this film at all because I found it as bad as you. Like you said, it was the first movie Wilder shot in color which I find ironic since it is the most colorless film that he has made. Everything in the film just fell flat and was almost painful to watch. Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine had no chemistry in the film and both of them acted as if they got out of bed and learned the lines that morning. The old men and women used as a kind of narrator for the story were so unmemorable that every time they went back to them I had forgot that they had even existed.

Looking at Wilder's work 30+ years since his last film it is very peculiar how bad this movie sticks out in that period of time. Before he made Double Indemnity and the Oscar Winning The Lost Weekend and after this film he made A Foreign Affair, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole back to back to back. The Emperor Waltz sticks out so bad because it is so toothless without any wit, spark or memorable character. Maybe he needed to cleanse himself after what he saw after in the war and, hey, I don't blame him at all, but this movie feels like pitching a home run to a batter in the middle of a perfect game.

One thing I want to ask you is can you really call this film a musical. I consider a musical something where all (or most) of the characters sing and dance. In this film, other than the violin playing and a dance number, the only person that sings is Bing. I amused myself during the film by making a back story that his character is actually a crazy man that spontaneously burst into song for no reason. He sings while walking, while rowing a boat, while talking to a girl, that it become ridiculous. The one time I liked Fontaine in this film was when they were on the island and she told him to stop signing.

And speaking of that island scene, since you are such a dog person, how did you feel that Crosby apparently got up in the middle of the night and rowed to the island to drop off his dog because it was bothering him?

The treatment of dogs in this movie is just... well, a lot different than what you'd get now. Both Joan and Bing both have pups in the movie, and their romance blossoms as the two dogs fall in love, which is pretty hoary stuff. Lady and the Tramp it is not.

But before that, we have the dogs get into some nasty fights, something that stands out in the fairy tale. There's also that scene you mentioned, which is such a contrivance to get Bing and Joan on that island for some romancing it's eye-roll worthy.

Which brings me to that ending, where Bing Crosby has to rescue a basket full of puppies from being murdered by an evil vet. This actually happens. Nowadays direct to video kids movies think this is too old hat.

I think somewhere Wilder and Brackett decided to make a romance movie that was kid friendly and went completely schizo, resulting in something that kept skewing younger and younger until it turned into a star baby and skittered away. It's such a painfully cheap emotional climax and it instantly solves every character's problem... and it's just too easy. This isn't Lubitsch that Wilder hit, and this isn't even shit Shirley Temple would have touched.

There's two other things I want to touch on before I never have to talk about this movie again and you can't make me.

Wilder has a peculiar fascination with a couple of things-- staircases for one-- that keep popping up throughout his movies, but I always notice this weird desire he has to humanize corporate products. Here we have Buttons playing the famous RCA dog, and he's used as a pitch prop. The writing cleverly allows them to escape saying what brand they're actually using, while exploiting that brand for nostalgic and comedic purposes. Wilder later does the same thing with Shell Oil in Some Like It Hot, and I'd be surprised if it didn't pop up somewhere else that's slipping my mind at the moment. Of course, since Wilder creates a corporate product his desire to show other products in a warm and familiar glow is probably working double time.

I also wanted to make note of the dance sequence, which I believe is either Wilder's only dance sequence or, god willing, seriously Wilder's only dance sequence. Crosby can't dance, and doesn't, so we're instead treated to a chauffeur and a pair of maidens dancing about. Like a lot of the film, it's stagy and unconvincing, and only seems to work for children who like to the skinny guy dance around with a portly lady and a pretty one. Lame, lame, lame.

I wish this had been a better film. As it is, this is a grand mess, a 1948 Ocean's 12 or some such disaster. Ryan, do you have anything else to add?

You mention Shell Oil in Some Like it Hot and RCA in this movie but how could you forget that Coca-Cola was what could have ended the Cold War according to One, Two, Three? Or that a Mustang is the first thing that comes to mind when you come into money from The Fortune Cookie? I don't mind product placement and I believe Wilder uses them just because it just popped in his head. I doubt it was business related in the least.

What bugged me with the RCA part was it was a cheesy joke. Much like the film it was a type of joke that would populate a badly written sitcom and not of the typical level of Wilder and Brackett.

With all of that said lets get back to talking about puppies. When my wife and I watched the movie, we didn't think they were going to try to kill the puppies, we thought they were going to paint the white dogs in blackface 101 Dalmatians style. We truly thought this this because the film had left any type of reality by this time that I wouldn't be surprised with anything happening in the film.

I agree with you that the end was way too "Disney" and was missing any type of bite that a typical Wilder film would have. The easiest way for a film to paint someone as a bad guy as for them to do something to an animal and in this film the father shows his true colors by ordering the drowning of poor defenseless puppies. Thankfully Bing was around to be puppy protector and he saves the day and gets the girl right as the credits roll.

One of the greatest things that Wilder did was get people to play against their types. Look at Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend or Fred McMurray in any of the films he was in for examples, yet here he just made a typical Bing Crosby film with Crosby doing his typical schtick. I didn't really want to see a Crosby film I wanted to see a Wilder film and although he did write and direct this film it felt like Wilder was a "director for hire" this time. Will I revisit this movie again? I seriously doubt it. There was nothing in this film to remember or look back fondly on. Although I didn't particularly enjoy the film I am glad I saw it because sometimes failures help shape people as much as successes and it shows as Wilder will say later on that "Nobody's Perfect".

Next Week: A Foreign Affair (1948)

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The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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