Review: Billy Wilder's 'The Emperor Waltz' is a Piercing Satire Stuffed Into A Silly Narrative

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 24, 2021

Review: Billy Wilder's 'The Emperor Waltz' is a Piercing Satire Stuffed Into A Silly Narrative

"The Emperor Waltz" is a most curious film, especially when you realize it was co-written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and, most especially, when you see the credit "Directed by Billy Wilder." The movie is so seemingly un-Wilder on the surface, although when you delve deeper and peel away all the noise and nonsense, it's as Wilderian as they come.

Filmed in lavish Technicolor and billed as a musical — although Wilder called it "a comedy with scattered songs" — the 1948 pic is set in turn-of-the-20th-century Austria, where traveling gramophone salesman Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby) is eager to interest Emperor Franz Joseph (Richard Haydn) in endorsing his product. The poor shmo encounters problem after problem, and soon meets another problem, the Countess Johanna von Stolzenberg-Stolzenberg (Joan Fontaine). Alas, their canines fall for one another. The two adults soon follow suit, which does not bode well for the countess's father's ambitious plans for himself and his daughter.

Yes, it's an innocuous plot, until you start to see the parallels with the rise of Nazism. Only in a Wilder comedy could there be a Holocaust subtext. The auteur had just returned from visiting the remnants of Berlin, as well as the concentration camps after the liberation. He had considered making a doc about what he experienced but instead, as a favor to a friend (he says), he chose to direct "Emperor."

The ending, having to do with three puppies, is a startling comment on Nazi atrocities, and audiences must have been shocked to see such a scene play out in a Crosby picture. Again, only Wilder could have gotten away with it.

Crosby was a huge star and box office draw at the time, and his ego was so inflated he barely spoke to either Fontaine or Wilder and thought it okay to alter his own dialogue. Suffice to say, his performance isn't really a performance as much as his doing his Bing schtick. What I find most difficult to comprehend is how he was a romantic leading man opposite goddesses like Fontaine and Grace Kelly (in "High Society"). I get it was a different time, but he looked and acted like everybody's uncle!

Fontaine was known mostly for dramatic roles. Here, she proves that she was quite deft at comedy.

The film did quite well financially, and was nominated for two Oscars: Best Color Costume Design and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. Wilder and Brackett were nominated for Best Written American Musical by the Writers Guild of America.

A brief but fascinating Extra is an excerpt from director Volker Schlondorff's interview with Wilder, where he wonders if Wilder made the film because he was homesick for Austria. Wilder's cutting response: "Homesick for the Alps with the white socks and the Nazis?"

The disc also features an Audio Commentary by author Joseph McBride ("Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge"), where he discusses the many layers of what he calls "Wilder's strangest film."

Billy Wilder gave us "The Lost Weekend," "Sunset Boulevard," "Witness for the Prosecution," "Some Like It Hot," and "The Apartment," to name just a few classics. Even his lesser-known work is worth a look. "The Emperor Waltz" is certainly a worthwhile sit, if only to appreciate the bracing Wilderian satire at the core of the outwardly silly narrative.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • New Audio Commentary by Film Historian Joseph McBride, author of "Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge"

  • Billy Wilder and Volker Schlöndorff Discuss "The Emperor Waltz"

  • Trailers

    "The Emperor Waltz" is currently available on Blu-ray.

    Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute