Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Waltzes from Vienna (1934)

by Brent Reid
  • This hidden gem is sadly one of the Master’s most underrated films
  • Features Jessie Matthews, Britain’s biggest and first international film star
  • First and best of a famous German operetta’s many screen adaptations
  • Based on the lives of the composers Strauss, but is completely song-free
  • Often wrongly described as a musical but few have even seen it properly
  • It’s mostly known via many poor quality, incomplete bootleg releases
  • But there’s a fantastic restored version that’s cheap and easily available
  • For the first time, every official release is detailed and fully reviewed

Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Waltzes from Vienna aka Le Chant du Danube, starring Jessie Matthews (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) French poster

French poster



Definitely made to be enjoyed and not taken too seriously, this is a highly fictionalised account of the lives of the composers Johann Strauss, both Elder and Younger. Of course, though it’s fairly atypical Hitchcock – his star was temporarily on the wane at this point and making it was a contractual necessity – he ensured it’s far from lacking in the visual tricks and dark drama department.

Jessie Matthews and Esmond Knight in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Jessie Matthews and Esmond Knight making beautiful music together. Knight was the only member of the cast to reprise his role from the source play’s lengthy run at London’s Alhambra Theatre.

I’ll come right out and say it: I really love this film and just don’t get the near-universal disdain for it. Granted, most indignation seems to emanate from folk disappointed that it doesn’t meet with their idea of what a Hitchcock film should be. Well, tough. It’s a lightweight British romantic comedy-drama from the early 1930s; what do they expect – Psycho? Then there’s the whole question of how they saw it; more on that in a minute. Hitch’s career spanned well over 50 years and the cinematic landscape changed hugely from his first films to his last. Ergo, they’re very different and not everyone is capable of liking or appreciating them all equally. Perhaps those with narrower tastes should just stay away from films of this type, locale and period altogether…

L-R: Esmond Knight, Jessie Matthews and Edmund Gwenn in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Esmond Knight, Jessie Matthews and Edmund Gwenn fail to see eye to eye

Waltzes from Vienna supposedly tells the story of Strauss Jr’s musical rivalry with his famous father, his tangled love life and composition of the grandaddy of all waltzes, “The Blue Danube”. It’s all highly fanciful of course: Strauss Jr spends half the film working in a bakery while pursuing amorous liaisons with the owner’s daughter and a married countess, both of whom are completely fictional. In fact, most of the film’s main characters never existed, but the fairy tale related here is so much more interesting than the historical record.

Hitch’s sole experience of working on a film of this nature notably led him to further refine the possibilities of music in general, both diegetic and offscreen, to orchestrate suspense. It also marked the beginning of a lifelong obsession with waltzes and the employment of specific editing techniques that would last for the rest of his career. These were particularly apparent in his very next outing, The Man Who Knew Too Much, later that same year and its quasi-remake 22 years later. Their shared climactic Albert Hall sequences are still widely celebrated to this day as prime examples of accomplished filmmaking. The artistic and technical aspects of both 1934 films have lengthy chapters dedicated to them in Hitchcock’s Music, and it’s well worth a read for anyone seeking new and unique insights. However, Hitch’s time on Waltzes was not a happy one: years later he told François Truffaut it marked a career nadir. Unlike many of his exaggeratedly negative pronouncements on his British films, this time Hitch was probably telling the truth. In his 1943 autobiography Seeking the Bubble, Esmond Knight, who played Strauss Jr, related:

‘When Waltzes from Vienna was only half-finished, “Hitch” had tired of it and, I think, had begun to realise that he had made a mistake, and after an exhausting day in a stuffy studio in which an enormous crowd of extras were assembled he announced, “I hate this sort of stuff. Melodrama is the only thing I can do.”‘

Whoops. An unintentionally ironic quote from Hitch as “melodrama” literally means a drama with songs and music – “music-drama” – so he should have been happy with his lot! What can’t denied by anyone is the quality of the score, with the Strausses’ classics arranged by the golden team of Hubert Bath (who also worked on two other Hitchcocks), Julius Bittner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Louis Levy (eight other Hitchcocks). The expectedly brilliant results receive a detailed analysis, in fact the most exhaustive to date, in:

Jessie Matthews in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) French Universal DVD

Doe-eyed Jessie plays the ingenue and musical distraction; French Universal DVD

The film stars one of my favourite actresses, the preternaturally talented but troubled “Dancing Divinity”, Jessie Matthews (1907–1981). Though her and Hitch reportedly disliked both their experience of working with each other and the finished film, this is definitely not one to be overlooked. Everyone plays their parts to sheer perfection, especially Frank Vosper as scenery-chewing caricature Prince Gustav, and Jessie was never lovelier. If you’ve a taste for very well-made British cinema of the 1930s, you’re likely to thoroughly enjoy the dish on offer here. It precariously blends an unlikely mixture of outright slapstick, farce, romance and high drama, yet effortlessly pulls it all off.

Vosper also featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much and the very Hitchcockian Rome Express, co-writing the latter, before dying at the tragically young age of 37 in 1937. The part of Strauss Sr is ably essayed by Edmund Gwenn, appearing in his second of four Hitchcocks and third of four films with Jessie, preceding Forever and a Day, a wartime flag waver Hitch almost directed. Other Hitch connections come via two more paternal roles in a 1940 radio adaptation of The Lodger and “Father and Son”, a 1957 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Ever dependable, Gwenn always elevates anything he’s in and I’ve yet to see him give a less than stellar performance.

Jessie Matthews in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) French Universal DVD

French Universal DVD

The film is based on the libretto of the 1930 German operetta Walzer aus Wien. Yup: there are no songs in this film, but that doesn’t stop it being commonly yet incorrectly being labelled as a musical. Who perpetuates these many Hitch myths and untruths; have they ever actually viewed the works in question? Anyway, said operetta was evidently hot property at the time: an English-language version, The Great Waltz, followed hot on the heels of Hitch’s film. Inevitably, the English version in turn soon spawned its own eponymous screen adaptation, though in this case there have been three to date: in 1938, 1955 (for TV) and 1972. As yet, the latter two versions haven’t been officially released on home video anywhere. The 1938 version starred Luise Rainer, the first two-time and back-to-back Oscar winner, and makes for an interesting comparison with Hitch’s take on the material (cue sheet). Beware: as usual, there are many ropy looking bootlegs of all four versions floating about, especially from the usual rogues in Europe. These are the only official releases of the 1938 to date; the DVDs are region 0, NTSC format, so will play anywhere:

The Great Waltz (1938) US herald

The Great Waltz (1938) US herald

A tale of two transfers

Waltzes from Vienna has mostly fared particularly badly on home video, doing its overall reputation no good whatsoever. Even among multitudes of egregious bootlegs of Hitch’s British films, it stands head and shoulders above – or perhaps that should be below – the rest. It was retitled Strauss’ Great Waltz for US theatrical release, but the packaging on numerous boots from there and elsewhere usually reverts to its original moniker. This is despite most such DVDs featuring a rip of an earlier bootleg: a subtitle-free VHS of a heavily edited (53min) French-dubbed version, retitled Le Chant du Danube. Some boots are even worse: as well as being particularly awful quality, they also have the original video player’s onscreen menu popping up at regular intervals. Ugh. Anyway, enough of that; let’s look at the good quality copies:

Betty Huntley-Wright in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK Network DVD

Betty Huntley-Wright rips it up as the saucy maid; UK Network DVD

Betty Huntley-Wright in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) French Universal DVD

Damage-free French Universal DVD

There are actually two licensed transfers currently in circulation on DVD, from France and the UK. They’re from completely separate sources and are very different in appearance. Network have done a great job of getting Jessie’s films out on UK DVD, but I’m very sorry to say in this case, they’ve dropped the ball somewhat. Their DVD only has a transfer of a well-worn theatrical print, even though it came out years after the French release. It’s reasonably clear for the most part and provides more than acceptable viewing, especially on a smaller screen, but… It’s frequently jittery, dupey, badly scratched and even torn in places, with all cigarette burns unfortunately present and incorrect. It also has constantly fluctuating density and is over brightened and contrasty, losing detail in the blown-out highlights. Lastly, the muffled audio has several brief drop-outs but at least they don’t excise any actual dialogue.

Fay Compton and Robert Hale in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK Network DVD

Fay Compton and Robert Hale try to figure out what went wrong with the UK Network DVD

Fay Compton and Robert Hale in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) French Universal DVD

Damage-free French Universal DVD

Several times during the course of the film, the UK transfer’s A/V abruptly shifts to a lower quality source. I haven’t gone to the trouble of working out the total runtime of all such footage, but strongly suspect it’s been interpolated to bring an edited print – perhaps that 53-minute version – back up to full length. There’s one last brief but telling difference between the transfers: just after the original 1934 BBFC certificate, the UK inserts an unnecessary, anachronistic “BFI Films Forever” ident (8sec) prior to the film’s credits. Naturally, the French does not.

Esmond Knight and Fay Compton in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK Network DVD

Esmond Knight and Fay Compton have it all taped up; UK Network DVD

Esmond Knight and Fay Compton in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) French Universal DVD

Damage-free French Universal DVD

Thankfully, it’s a completely different story for the French Universal disc: it’s virtually flawless, with beautifully balanced contrast and deep black levels. It shows lots of tasty grain throughout, and looks very film-like, even when projected on my 106″ screen. Additionally, the audio is rich, full-bodied and clear as a bell. It really is one of the finest looking and sounding classic films I own on DVD. I don’t know anything about the provenance of this transfer, but it’s rock steady and has been at least digitally stabilised. Short of a new digital scan and restoration, released in HD, it’s difficult to imagine much improvement beyond what we have here; even UK theatrical distributors Park Circus don’t hold any screening materials. But the BFI Archive holds a large cache of film materials on Waltzes going right back to the original negative, so you never know…

Home video releases

As with other Hitch rarity Juno and the Paycock, the UK and France have only two official releases between them. But in a complete reversal, this time the French come out on top. I’ve scrutinised both transfers under a microscope and don’t want to sound too critical of the UK, but it can’t be denied that it’s sorely lacking, especially in comparison to its cross-Channel cousin. Make no mistake though: it’s still vastly superior to any of the bootlegs. But Universal’s disc is the way to go. The full film is 80 minutes long, equating to 77 minutes with 4% PAL speed-up, and these are the only official releases to date:

[Edit: I’m investigating a region o, NTSC DVD which may well be licensed and contain the restored transfer. If so, it will be suitable for players worldwide, including the Americas. Watch this space!]

The French Waltzes disc has an optional French dub and subtitles. As mentioned above, the dub was prepared for the same drastically edited version that ended up on various boots. On playback, the official DVD reverts to English audio with French subs to cover the missing portions. Somebody boo-booed department: the French Universal 2012 reissue DVD sleeve erroneously claims it contains the aforementioned Juno and the Paycock as a bonus, but it’s identical to the previous disc, so actually has Downhill. A special treat is the latter film’s lovely chamber ensemble score by Christophe Henrotte, which is completely unique to this release. If packaging is your thing, the original French disc has nicer sleeve and label art than the reissue. Here are samples of all currently available transfers:

Jessie Matthews in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) NTSC bootleg DVD

Edited NTSC bootleg DVD (53min)

Jessie Matthews in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) PAL bootleg DVD

Edited PAL bootleg DVD (53min)

Jessie Matthews in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK Network DVD

UK Network DVD

Jessie Matthews in Waltzes from Vienna (1934, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) French Universal DVD

French Universal DVD. All together now: “Aaah…”

Perhaps Waltzes isn’t generally lauded as one of Hitch’s best, and both the director and his cast had something of a hard time making it, but nonetheless the results can justifiably stand proud amid his exalted oeuvre. Bear in mind that most contemporary reviews and opinions are based on a viewing of one of the plethora of shockingly awful quality bootlegs that are likely also missing a whole third of the film. When viewed via one of the two full length official releases, especially the French DVD, Waltzes is a sumptuous and tasty Viennese pastry, full of fun, frolic, romance and the grudging but unmistakable touch of Hitchcock.

September 2021: I’ve a spare copy of the French Universal reissue DVD, in as new condition. If anyone in the UK would like to buy it for £15 including P&P – a bargain! – drop me a line.

Friday the Thirteenth (1933)

Jessie Matthews, Donald Calthrop and Ralph Richardson in Friday the Thirteenth (1933)

Now, if only Hitch had been able to direct Jessie’s previous film, Friday the Thirteenth (1933), it would have been a perfect fit. He certainly wanted to but wasn’t allowed the opportunity, despite his many connections to the project. This grim suspenser was produced for Hitch’s studio, Gaumont-British, by his friend and mentor Michael Balcon. In the event, it was helmed by Victor Saville, the studio’s most prolific director and perhaps its most important, alongside Hitch. Saville had just done a commendable turn on Ivor Novello‘s 1932 reprise of The Lodger, and prior to that, produced The White Shadow and Woman to Woman, on which the young Hitchcock apprenticed. He also produced and directed the latter film’s 1929 remake.

Not only that, Sidney Gilliat co-wrote Friday the Thirteenth before going on to do such a bang-up job (pun intended, cf. Friday!) on Hitch’s own The Lady Vanishes. As if that wasn’t enough, Friday was chock-full of regulars from Hitch’s acting stable. To call this film Hitchcockian is an understatement: it’s a virtual checklist of his favourite themes and motifs, and as great as it is, one can only wonder what the Master’s take on the material would have been. The one that got away. In all, I strongly recommend it for fans of Hitch and early thrillers alike. It’s a minor key (ha!) British film of the 1930s and there are lots of bootleg DVDs copied from VHS recordings, but only two legit discs:

  • US: VCI DVD (2013)
  • UK: Network 2on1 DVD (2015) w/Jessie’s First a Girl (1935)

Jessie Matthews in Friday the Thirteenth (1933)

Our Jessie in Friday the Thirteenth: lucky for some.

More Jessie Matthews on home video

Coming soon: Jessie Matthews Collectors’ Guide

For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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Fr. Matthew Hardesty
Fr. Matthew Hardesty
5th July 2022 04:02

I just finished Waltzes from Vienna on the earlier French Universal release and am now listening to that disc’s exclusive score for Downhill. It is beautifully done. I find it a bit too heavy and moody though. It sounds modern to me as well (see the synthesized distortion effect that is introduced when the headmaster brings in the femme fatal who rails against our protagonist after his friend has left the room). It doesn’t sound like a period piece to me, but, again, it is quite well done.

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