The Forgotten: Billy Wilder's "The Emperor Waltz" (1948)

Billy Wilder's unsuccessful musical still has some appeal and reveals a lot about its maker.
David Cairns
Billy Wilder always more or less disowned his one real musical, which leaves the enthusiast with a choice: keep re-watching the classic Wilder films, of which there are many, or probe into the obscure, disreputable corners of the great man's oeuvre?
The year was 1948. Wilder had been involved with the war effort. Lost Weekend had belatedly come out in 1945 and won an Oscar for Ray Milland. And while the rest of Hollywood was churning out movies that developed the film noir genre Wilder had helped launch with Double Indemnity, he made a Bing Crosby musical set in Austria. He claimed it was offered to him, but the script is credited to Wilder and Charles Brackett, so he can't distance himself that easily.
"On a December night, some forty-odd years ago, His Majesty Franz Joseph the First, Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, and so forth and so forth, was giving a little clambake at his palace in Vienna."
The film immediately looks to be rewarding: Wilder liked to expound his personal principles of storytelling and filmmaking, one of which was, "A guy comes in the door, you got nothing. He comes in the window, you got a situation." The Emperor Waltz begins with Bing Crosby coming in a window, which he breaks, gate-crashing the Emperor's ball (we're in 1905 or thereabouts).
Crosby discards his winter coat but forgets to remove his ear-muffs, which causes a few curious glances from the waltzing aristocrats. The gag is like a rough sketch for Tony Curtis's suspense-filled ear-rings in Some Like it Hot, but Curtis notices the incriminating jewelry at the last instant when he puts his glasses on and his hands touch his ears. The gag is smarter, more dramatic, funnier. And that becomes the main pleasure of The Emperor Walts: spotting things Wilder did better elsewhere, and wondering why he chose to make this.
The plot has Crosby as a determined American phonograph salesman with a mongrel dog, and Joan Fontaine as a countess with a poodle, and Richard Haydn as the Emperor. The story unfolds in a flashback told by minor characters at the ball, a playful form of narration that's typical of 1940s narrative experimentation (see David Bordwell's new book). It's Wilder's first color film, and looks totally unlike anything he made before or after (I suppose The Spirit of St. Louis is the closest approximation, another Technicolor period tale).
Another pleasure to be had is mentally recasting the picture. I'd like to be able to at least pretend to find Bing Crosby interesting, but I really can't, so I imagine Pat O'Brien doing the salesman patter, and not singing buh-boo-bah-bo-buh-buh, or William Holden doing the ardent suitor bit and not singing either. Joan Fontaine should work as a snooty aristo, but she plays it too forcefully ("Give it both knees," Wilder would advise his actors) where her sister would have softened it.
Even Bing's dog is a terrible actor, constantly looking off camera for instructions from his trainer (Wilder had the same trouble with Marilyn Monroe and Paula Strasberg), but at least the dog has charm. Most of the film's laughs are cute dog related, and I can't see Wilder being really enthused about that kind of low-hanging fruit.
A sort of Tyrolean dance where the servants (including Wilder's girlfriend Doris Dowling, better cast in Lost Weekend) start cavorting to Crosby's crooning has a faint, distorted Alpine echo of Lubitsch, and may explain what Wilder thought he was doing. But Lubitsch's operetta films of the early Thirties were the cinematic state of the art, and some of that freshness clings to them. Wilder's unenthused, warmed-over version must have confirmed him in his view that Lubitsch could be studied and learned from, but not really imitated.
If the shadow of Lubitsch is apparent, Wilder is also working with a number of alumni from his bête noire, Mitchell Leisen. Wilder became a director in the first place to protect his scripts from Leisen's alterations, but here he has Leisen's lover Billy Daniels as choreographer, and Fontaine, Haydn and Roland Culver has all previously acted with distinction for Leisen. (After sixty years denouncing Leisen as a "talentless faggot," Wilder abruptly admitted, "He was a good director, I guess," at the age of 94.)
There are good lines, of course, and some felicities of casting, particularly Sig Ruman (the only man in Austria with an accent) as a canine psychologist (he studied with Freud, of course). But the filmmakers who loved this kind of dumb romcom could do it beautifully, and Wilder's tastes were naturally smarter, which explains his discomfort.
The Emperor, in his panic room after an assassination scare. Later, he will speak of the aristocracy: "We are like snails, living in lovely, twisted little shells. Eh, have you ever observed a snail, Mr. Smith? They are majestic creatures, with small, coroneted heads which peer very proudly from their tiny castles. They move with dignity. I imagine they have a great sense of their own importance. But you take them from their shells and they die."
It's still better than Buddy, Buddy. And the same year, Wilder would make a more interesting return to the Europe of his youth in A Foreign Affair. And two years later, Sunset Blvd...
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 


Billy WilderThe ForgottenColumns
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.