Having done my master’s thesis in writing school on the films of Billy Wilder, I know what inspired him to make “The Emperor Waltz” in 1948. Wilder’s admiration of Ernst Lubitsch and memories of the lost Europe of his youth give us a film that might be pretty as a wedding cake but whose icing tastes slightly bitter.
Bing Crosby, used to being a fish out of water in the “Road” pictures with Bob Hope, goes it alone as a phonograph salesman interested in selling a machine to the Viennese Emperor, played in charming fashion by the mutton-chopped Richard Haydn. Haydn tells Crosby’s character (Virgil Smith) that he finds his white mutton chops and moustache tiring, but that his subjects would not be able to adjust to a clean-shaven emperor. Since the Smith character is sort of like The Music Man’s Professor Harold Hill, Haydn is not sure what he’s up against. But Wilder doesn’t make it that easy; this is the Hapsburg empire, not River City. The subjects in this kingdom already can sing and dance.
The plot involves the prized poodle of Countess Johanna, who falls for Virgil’s fox terrier, Buttons. Johanna, played by Joan Fonteyn, convinces Virgil to let the two dogs play together. While the dogs frolic, Virgil romances and wins Johanna. However, in the empire, no person of royal blood would ever marry a salesman from Newark. So Virgil must get the Emperor’s approval.
Wilder once said “I could direct a dog. Kids, I don’t know.” Well he gets plenty of opportunity to direct dogs in this movie. Buttons gets as much screen time as the dog in 2011’s “The Artist.” Virgil talks to Buttons all the time, but it doesn’t really move the plot along.
Crosby sings a few songs in this one, but it’s not really a musical. One song, “Friendly Mountains,” features a hiking and yodeling Virgil singing along with echo-ing mountains. That song doesn’t work for me; too cute for its own good.