In the shadow of Germany’s annexation of Austria on March 15, 1938, Hollywood’s most radiant, rapturous musical biography appeared. Its ostensible subject: Johann Strauss II (Fernand Gravet, so-so); but at the outset the film admits that it aims for the “spirit” of the music and of Strauss rather than the “facts” of his life. Directors Julien Duvivier and Josef von Sternberg—additionally, Victor Fleming did some re-takes—have conjured a nineteenth-century Vienna that pits an eternal dream against the nightmare that the Nazis had so recently imposed. Indeed, the crushing of the Austrian Revolution of 1848 by Franz Joseph I, which occurs in the film’s background (at their initial meeting, Strauss calls the future emperor a “stuffed shirt”), refers to the annexation—but delicately, obliquely, so as not to rock the boat of U.S. neutrality
What a fabulous film this is, richly melodious, with Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical arrangements, sumptuous sets, Joseph Ruttenberg’s gorgeous Oscar-winning cinematography, Toscha Seidel’s violinning and Albertina Rasch’s swirling choreography. Hollywood produced few great musical films past this one; but the 1930s—the time of the Great Depression—were teeming with them.
Luise Rainer, who, still with us, turned 100 today. She plays Strauss’s anxious sweetheart and, later, wife, Poldi—a fictitious character. In the film, Strauss cheats on this loyal, loving woman with a dragonish opera singer, Carla Donner (played—and sung—by Miliza Korjus). Rainer’s poignant charm, her eyes shimmering with tears, creates a haunting impression; having already won two best actress Oscars, here—now—Rainer gives the performance of her career.
Even so, it isn’t the film’s best acting. This comes from Lionel Atwill as Count Anton Hohenfried, Donner’s lover, who beseeches Poldi to intervene on her husband’s affair for all their sakes.
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