‘The Emperor Waltz’ from 1948: Bing, Waltzes, and Puppies

This delightful musical movie features Billy Wilder’s tribute to his beloved Vienna.
‘The Emperor Waltz’ from 1948: Bing, Waltzes, and Puppies
Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby) and Countess Johanna Augusta Franziska (Joan Fontaine), in "The Emperor Waltz." (Paramount Pictures)
Tiffany Brannan

NR | 1 hr 46 min | Musical, Comedy | 1948

Viennese waltzes, the Alps, and Bing Crosby? The classic crooner who made “White Christmas” famous may seem like the one that doesn’t belong in that group, but he made a movie called “The Emperor Waltz” in 1948. Also starring Academy Award-winner Joan Fontaine, this movie is a beautiful tribute to Vienna of the early 20th century. It was directed by Billy Wilder, who was educated in Vienna, but this tribute to his birth city turned out very differently from what he had originally planned.

An American in Austria

American traveling gramophone-salesman Virgil Smith (Crosby) goes to Vienna to peddle the new invention. Having ascertained that the country’s reception to new inventions is determined by the Austrian emperor’s purchases, he determines to sell Emperor Franz Joseph (Richard Haydn) on the “talking machine.” While Virgil is waiting for his appointment with the emperor, the other people in the waiting room mistake the gramophone for a bomb.
Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby, L) and Emperor Franz Joseph (Richard Haydn), in "The Emperor Waltz." (Paramount Pictures)
Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby, L) and Emperor Franz Joseph (Richard Haydn), in "The Emperor Waltz." (Paramount Pictures)

Before Virgil is thrown out of the palace grounds, his little dog, a male mutt named Buttons, gets into a fight with a female pure-bred poodle, Sheherezade. Her owner is also purebred Austrian nobility, Countess Johanna Augusta Franziska von Stoltzenberg-Stolzenberg (Fontaine). Johanna is a beautiful but cold young widow with a very greedy, enterprising father, Baron Holenia (Roland Culver).

The emperor wants to breed Scheherezade with his male poodle, Louis, so he can have puppies to keep him company in his lonely old age. However, after its altercation with Buttons, Scheherezade is traumatized by the sight of any other dog. Desperate to keep a canine mishap from destroying their chances at the royal court, Johanna decides to do whatever she must to calm her dog. She brings Scheherazade to Virgil’s simple room at the inn to see Buttons, and she and Virgil must act like friends to give the dogs the right idea. Before long, all four are so friendly that Scheherazade only wants to be with Buttons, and Johanna wants to give up her royal title to marry Virgil.

The Road to Vienna

After the success of “The Lost Weekend” in 1945, Paramount gave Wilder carte blanche on his next film. He was excited about the idea of making his first musical comedy in Technicolor and using Crosby, Paramount’s biggest star at the time.

During Bing Crosby’s long and successful film career, he traveled to many foreign settings from the comfort of a Paramount soundstage. For instance, most of his “Road to ...” movies with Bob Hope are set in exotic locales.

“The Emperor Waltz” is much more serious, as Wilder went to great lengths to make “The Emperor Waltz” a realistic, loving tribute to the Vienna he knew before the devastation of World War II.

Filming in Europe wasn’t possible, but they did location shooting in Jasper National Park in Canada. Since it didn’t have the ideal appearance, especially for Wilder’s first Technicolor film, he transported pine trees from California and painted transplanted white daisies blue to improve the authenticity and the overall appearance of the outdoor settings. Nevertheless, even with such attention to detail, Wilder was not happy with the finished result.

Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby) walks with his dog Buttons on the Austrian countryside, in "The Emperor Waltz." (Paramount Pictures)
Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby) walks with his dog Buttons on the Austrian countryside, in "The Emperor Waltz." (Paramount Pictures)

Serious Themes

Wilder and his frequent co-writer and producer, Charles Brackett, developed an idea based on the real-life incident when Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen tried to interest Emperor Franz Joseph in a magnetic recording device.

Before this movie went into production, Wilder visited Austria, searching for his family who were victims of the Holocaust. After that experience, the Jewish director wanted to make a lighthearted tribute to the lost beauty of Vienna, resulting in this operetta parody. However, the film includes a serious example of eugenics, and classism in the forbidden romance between the dogs, using mongrel puppies as a graphic illustration of what the Nazis did to Jews.

There are so many delightful moments in this movie. In one scene, an entire village plays a beautiful waltz together on different stringed instruments. In another, a redheaded chambermaid (Roberta Jonay), a gangly chauffeur (Bert Prival), and a pleasantly plump inn proprietress (Alma Macrorie) perform a charming dance trio. Crosby croons some unforgettable songs of Viennese inspiration, including “I Kiss Your Hand, Madame” and “The Kiss in Your Eyes.” The talented canine actors make the movie especially entertaining.

The story is a classic fairy tale, but with some interesting added elements, making it very entertaining and uniquely charming.

Lobby card for "The Emperor Waltz." (Paramount Pictures)
Lobby card for "The Emperor Waltz." (Paramount Pictures)
“The Emperor Waltz” is available on YouTube, on DVD and BluRay from Amazon, and in limited supplies from eBay and Walmart.
‘The Emperor Waltz’ Director: Billy Wilder Starring: Bing Crosby, Joan Fontaine, Roland Culver Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes Not Rated Release Date: July 2, 1948 Rating: 4 out of 5
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Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.