Waltzes For Spring

April is the cruellest month, wrote the poet.  It may never have seem much truer than now, as we shelter in place and long to enjoy the blossoming weather.  Which is why, while we languish indoors and look for something to occupy our minds, I’m posting a movie clip, courtesy of YouTube channel music speaks, that I think really hits the spot for Spring:

The above scene is from MGM’s musical opus of 1938, The Great Waltz, a (extremely highly fictionalized) movie biography about the life of the 19th-century composer Johann Strauss II.  The scene itself is about the composing of his waltz “Tales From The Vienna Woods” (a name that brings up an amusing recollection for me, of how my college history professor always described the writings of Sigmund Freud), featuring Strauss (Fernand Gravet), his soon-to-be, opera-singing mistress (Miliza Korjus), and a helpful coachmen (Christian Rub), as well as a horse named Rosie who, though contributing no music of her own, does at least inspire a bit of melody.  And while I know almost nothing, beyond a Wikipedia entry, of the composer’s life, I think I can state, with absolute authority, that this is NOT how Strauss composed his waltz.

No, this scene is, without a doubt, pure, unadulterated Hollywood.

But, yet, what a scene, and, if I may add, what a Hollywood that created it.  What else could better sum up the cinema of Hollywood’s Golden Age?  Or of the movies of that era’s richest, most famous studio, MGM?  The scene is deliriously silly but utterly sublime:  An extraordinarily attractive couple, out for an early-morning carriage ride in the Vienna Woods, is inspired to compose a divinely beautiful waltz, aided by a coachman, some shepherds, a post horn, an obliging bird, and Mother Nature in all the glory of springtime.  What better mood-lifter to watch than when you’re stuck indoors?

Yeah, I know, the scene is also epically kitsch, but I say there’s more to it than big-budget cheese.  Just note how comprehensive, how intricate it is.  First, it represents a range of social classes (rural shepherds, working-class coachmen, upper-class riders), whose pleasures and occupations are spontaneously yet tunefully brought into sync (and without any dialogue needed).  Next note the rhythm, how the action moves from the three-note beat of carriage wheels to the chromatic complexities of music and song.  And then see how the three characters, initially separate and wary, are joined in a harmony that’s physical, emotional, and creative; indeed, how Art and Nature themselves are fused in the joyous waltz that climaxes the scene—a giddy, mind-bursting high done in three-quarters time.

If all this doesn’t make you laugh and raise your spirits, well, then, my dears, I don’t know what else can.

As noted, the scene, and its accompanying film, is supremely a product of its Hollywood era.  There’s its biographical subject matter, part of an already extensive film genre (in that decade alone MGM gave us Queen Christina, Marie Antoinette, Viva Villa!, Parnell, and The Great Ziegfeld, for starters).  There’s the attention to historical detail, on which MGM lavished such a no-expense-spared compulsion to getting everything so overwhelmingly right that even today it boggles the imagination to view.  Just contemplate those frothy embellishments on Korjus’s gown, how much lace, tulle, glitter, feathers, ribbons, and pleatings went into it, the sheer number of stitches needed to create this gossamer delight.  It’s not that such a gown once existed.  It’s that its look, its design, the very folds composing its skirt and sleeves, embrace the essence of the era portrayed—that of a mid-19th-century Vienna in which, as conceived and designed by MGM, could only such a confection have been worn, created, or even dreamed of.

There’s also in the scene that mixing of popular and ‘high’ culture, so endemic to 1930s-40s-50s Hollywood (so rooted in its ethos you might not even notice).  Here’s a big-budget, mass-audience movie about a previous century’s popular entertainment, the light-classical music of waltzes and operettas, prominently featuring a classically trained operatic soprano equipped with a glass-cracking coloratura (and whose name, the ads tells us, is pronounced “Gorgeous”).  Maybe MGM was exhibiting a form of class snobbery here—a kind of let’s-educate-the-groundlings-in-good-taste-shall-we attitude—but my gut tells me that was not the case.  I think MGM knew that its audience knew what this film, its subject, its music, was about.  The audience didn’t need such an education, because MGM was giving it something it already comprehended, and loved.

And then there’s the high artifice of the film itself—captured not only in the scene’s manically meticulous props and costumes (note the coach-and-four that whizzes by so briefly, yet is so exact in detail, down to the jacket buttons), but in its material filming.  Though the scene begins with a brief establishing long shot of horse and carriage traveling through the woods, the rest is filmed in rear-screen projection, the carriage and actors clearly moving in front of a pre-filmed woodland scene.  By our Steadicam/greenscreen/CGI standards today, the technique looks crude and obvious, but I’m guessing that past audiences accepted it without comment, so widely was it done.  Rear-screen projection allowed directors to keep a vehicle (and the actors within) inside a studio, thereby controlling the filming process and not subjecting it to alfresco whims.  The result is a cinematic paradox:  The Nature meant to inspire the characters is nowhere present except by what, for its time, was sophisticated mechanics (the cuts to actual woodland scenes, such as the shepherds, would have been incorporated by simple editing).  That’s what makes for the goofy fun of Old Hollywood—it’s so blatantly, endearingly fake that we don’t mind pretending it’s real.

But why quibble?  MGM does itself proud here:  The scene (seen even in the YT print) is gorgeously filmed; the black-and-white cinematography is sumptuous, the lighting (both indoors and out) is lovely—see how light streams in pale silver shafts across trees and grass; the music, first crooning, then caressing, leaps into a quick, heart-stirring rhythm that physically lifts the actors to their feet, the whole culminating in a mile-high, mile-long note from Korjus that must have mentally whooshed audiences out of a stuffy theater and right into those rear-projected clouds.  It goes beyond its obvious kitsch to something almost great; inscribing, in its music, its rhythm, in the very shimmer of the celluloid, the reification of MGM’s motto, prefacing the credits for all its films:  Art for Art’s Sake.  And which, using the vast resources of a prodigious studio in the springtime of its creative powers, is what we see created before our eyes, in a scene about the creation of the world’s most beautiful waltz.

Hooray for Hollywood, I say.

Now just think what MGM could have done with a scene of Stravinsky composing The Rite of Spring.  With rear-screen projection or without.

Stay well, be safe.

BONUS CLIP:  Here’s the trailer for the (complete) film of The Great Waltz, which was fabulously directed by Julien Duvivier and an uncredited Victor Fleming and Josef von Sternberg.  You won’t see anything like this again:

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