Of all of the rare and rarely seen early Hitchcock films, Waltzes From Vienna has long excited the least curiousity among the widest spectrum of the master’s fans. After all, Hitchcock’s dismissal of it in the legendary book of interviews by Francois Truffaut is definitive enough—he calls it “a musical without music” that was made “at the lowest ebb of my career,” and fails to even mention its leading lady Jessie Matthews, who at the time was among the most popular musical stars in Britain—to dampen the inquisitiveness of even those in search of Hitchcockean novelty. The picture’s profile underwent a change with the 2006 publication of Jack Sullivan’s revelatory study Hitchcock’s Music. Sullivan avers that the film was “a laboratory for musical experimentation, the predecessor of numerous musical effects and designs…[and m]ost striking of all, it marks the beginning of an obsession with waltzes that would continue throughout Hitchcock’s career.”
The experimentation is not strictly musical. In the opening scene of the picture, with the Vienna Fire Brigade racing to the site of a blaze, Hitchcock plays with sound levels in a fashion rare for an early talkie, as one character struggles to make his all-important question “Where’s the fire?” heard. The fire is at Ebezeder’s bakery, and the sequence, wherein Johann Strauss the younger (Esmond Knight) and baker’s daughter Rasi (Matthews) are so distracted by their musical and amorous pursuits that they don’t notice the building getting hotter, leading up to Strauss and one of the bakery’s chef’s arguing as to who will “rescue” Radi.
The scene has a not-unimpressive amount of comic energy, and the movie’s tone shifts between this silly anticness and half-hearted attempts at actual drama given what little credibility they have by Edmund Gwenn’s performance as the crusty, disapproving Strauss the Elder. Aside from that, it’s boy-has-girl (young Strauss and Rasi), boy-meets-predatory-would-be-patroness-with-jealous-husband (Fay Compton and Frank Vosper respectively), boy’s-experience-watching-bakers-toss-rolls-in-the-basement-inspires-the-rythm-for-the-"Blue-Danube"-waltz, and so on, complete with inadvertently hilarious bits of putatively verisimilitude-boosting-dialogue such as “He threw his coffee at General Radetzky—you know, the man your father wrote a march about.” On second thought, maybe that’s meant to be funny.Throughout, the melding of music (much of which was arranged by Hubert Bath along with future scoring giant Erich Wolfgang Korngold) and sound effects—cuckoo clocks and clanging bells and such—is constant. There’s one inspired bit when Vosper’s jealous prince throws his servant down a flight of stairs, his tumble accompanied by the sound of Strauss’ piano run from another room.The deft touches aren’t all in the audio department, either. The picture’s scenario has the rather wishy-washy young Strauss give copies of the "Danube" Waltz to both Rasi and his patroness—with a different dedication on each one. Both women are determined to intercede with publishers and bandleaders on his behalf. Hitchcock does a swift dolly-in to Compton as she rolls up the score and tucks it under her arm; in a quick match-cut, we see the roll tucked under Rasi’s arm, and Rasi turns and marches out of the room. Nifty.
Hitchcock’s putative obsession with waltzes would of course reach an apotheosis with Shadow of A Doubt, for which Dimitri Tiomkin adapted and frequently distorted Lehar’s “Merry Widow Waltz” as a leitmotif for its murderous antihero Uncle Charlie. But Sullivan’s study contains fascinating insight into the form’s use in several other films. Waltzes From Vienna’s significance in this aspect of Hitchcock studies makes it far more than a curio. And truth to tell, it is in its way a fairly diverting entertainment. The region 2 French Universal DVD of the film—titled Le Chant du Danube—is a pretty handsome one, and its French subtitles are removable. Its sole extra is a second feature—Hitchcock’s 1927 melodrama Downhill, starring and from a play by Ivor Novello, which is also part of a recently released U.K. Hitchcock box set.