Billy Wilder Hits Some Sour Notes In ‘The Emperor Waltz’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

Not every dog can have a Lady and the Tramp romance, but no dog should want an Emperor Waltz love story (and that probably goes for dog lovers, too).

Speaking as a neutral dog person, I probably should’ve noticed Scheherezade the poodle and Buttons the fox terrier on the poster art for Billy Wilder’s musical. The period clothing and cast seemed more relevant (and Wilder’s name is no small deal), but it’s really the dogs who take the cake in this movie, as Scheherezade is engaged to the Emperor’s poodle and not supposed to be dating an American mutt.

Yep, there’s nothing quite like human prejudices being cast on to dogs and, despite looking like a film that should be extravagant and frothy, The Emperor Waltz is really a film about toxic relationships (both human and canine)

Johanna (Joan Fontaine) is Scheherezade’s owner and not the main force behind the marriage. That would be her father, the baron (Roland Culver), who owes people money, but Johanna accepts the engagement and tries to make it go off without a hitch.

Virgil (Bing Crosby) is a traveling salesman from America who wants the Emperor (Richard Haydn) to endorse his gramophone. It’s not like his dog, Buttons, and Scheherezade fall in love at first sight. The opposite is true. While one would hope there were trainers on set and no dogs were harmed in this picture, Buttons and Scheherezade go at each other pretty rough, or at least are convincingly violent.

Instead of a meet cute, it’s a meet trauma, and afterwards Scheherezade has trouble being around other dogs. Naturally the answer to that is to force Scheherezade to be around her abuser, and should Johanna fall in love with Virgil at the same time, so be it.

For a traveling salesman, Virgil can sure afford a fancy wardrobe, and while Crosby gets to sing a few songs, none of them are memorable until they cut away to the ensemble cast for a dance break, or in another instance the whole town playing string instruments. Virgil acts like he’s a great lady’s man but he’s mostly obnoxious, and while Technicolor works when a film can rise to the energy of the colors, they only look garish here.

Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator, Charles Brackett, and while certain characters feel very true to their work, like the elder gossips and Johanna’s scheming father, there are also all of these throwaway details that lead nowhere, like Johanna mentioning she has younger siblings out of the blue.

Film historian, Joseph McBride, provides the commentary track and his knowledge of the director, having written a book on him called Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge, really comes across in the level of insights provided.

Right before The Emperor Waltz Wilder had been working on a documentary on the Holocaust called Death Mills and McBride talks about how that experience influenced this film, as well as the impact of Wilder’s mentor, Ernst Lubitsch. McBride even manages to dig up a recording of the Emperor’s voice (who it’s easy to forget was a real person while watching) and while Emperor Waltz might not be known as Wilder’s best work, McBride treats it with the same consideration that he might have shown Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard.

The Emperor Waltz is available on Blu-Ray now from Kino Lorber.

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