293: Austria on Hollywood’s Screens

Archival Spaces 293:

Austria Made in Hollywood

Uploaded 15 April 2022

Fay Wray and Erich von Stroheim in The Wedding March (1928, Erich von Stroheim)

Back in December, I reported on the Academy Film Museum Symposium “Vienna in Hollywood. The Influence and Impact of Austrians on the Hollywood Film Industry 1920s – 2020s.” Now, I have finally caught up with an excellent book that focuses less on Austrians in Hollywood and more on the image of Austria and Austrians in Hollywood cinema: Jacqueline Vansant’s  Austria Made in Hollywood (Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2019). A professor of German at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Vansant presents close analyses of fourteen out of ca. fifty films with Austrian settings, produced during the classical Hollywood period from the 1920s to the 1960s, noting that Austrian characteristics and stereotypes in these films were filtered through American perceptions and contexts, rather than the historical realities in Austria.  And like the checkered history of that country, American views of Austria have vacillated between positive, often nostalgically tinged images as a happy multi-ethnic empire of benevolent rulers and “sweet young things” and negative images, based on its decadent, even promiscuous, anti-democratic legacy.    

While images of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, appeared occasionally in American cinema prior to the mid-1920s, Vansant rightly points out that it was the man you love to hate, Erich von Stroheim who most lastingly influenced Hollywood’s Austria. In his two Viennese films, Merry-Go-Round (1923) and The Wedding March (1928), von Stroheim, critiques Austria under Emperor Franz Josef I as a decadent, anti-democratic society with a rigid class structure, while at the same time expressing an intense nostalgia for the pomp and circumstance of Austrian nobility. Unlike most biographers of von Stroheim, who have focused on von Stroheim’s wholly fictional biography as an Imperial military officer when he in fact was born an Austrian Jew and social outsider, Vansant analyses how the director employed contemporary American perceptions of Austria to develop moralistic narratives about the hedonism of the ruling class, thereby drawing parallels to America’s roaring twenties, while also nostalgically fetishizing aristocratic etiquette.

Evenings for Sale (1932, Edwin Marin)
Bing Crosby in The Emp[eror Waltz

In the following chapter, Vansant looks at four Paramount comedies: Evenings for Sale (1932, Stuart Walker), Champagne Waltz (1937. A. Edward Sutherland), Billy Wilder’s The Emperor Waltz (1948), and Michael Curtiz’s A Breath of Scandal (1960). The first two films were situated in a post-World War I republican Vienna, untouched by economic hardship and political instability. Evenings for Sale features an impoverished but amoral aristocracy looking for financial support from American merry widows on European junkets and comes down on the side of American Puritanism, while Champagne Waltz pits Austria’s high culture (opera) against American low culture (jazz) in its central romance, its robust American male rescuing an old-world female and bringing her to New York. The Wilder and Curtiz films, on the other hand, imply that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was both racist and anti-democratic, in contrast to the down-home simplicity and moral strength of their American heroes.

The Great Waltz (1938, Julien Duvivier)

In the wake of the so-called Anschluß which unified Nazi Germany and Austria, several Hollywood films tried to construct metaphorically an Austrian identity – separate from Germany – through music and equestrian sport. In The Great Waltz (1938, Julien Duvivier), Franz Josef and Johann Strauss meet after the 1948 revolution to articulate their love for Austria, while the Franz Schubert bio-pic, New Wine (1941, Reinhold Schünzel), emphasizes the Austrian roots of the composer while drawing parallels between the repressive Austria of the 1820s, and the New Order of 1938. Finally, Florian (1940, Edwin L. Marin) utilizes its story of a royal Lipizzaner horse and its human companions before and after World War I to explain to Americans the plight of Austrian refugees after the Anschluß.

Erich von Stroheim in So Ends Our Night (1941, John Cromwell)

The demise of Austria in March 1938 was directly visualized in three Hollywood films. While So Ends Our Night (1941, John Cromwell) and They Dare Not Love (1941, James Whale) take diametrically opposed views on Austria’s guilt or innocence in supporting Adolf Hitler, Once Upon a Honeymoon (1943, Leo McCarey) is more ambivalent, even as it cautions Americans about the dangers of Nazism. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, Flotsam, So Ends Our Night uses newsreel footage to visualize Austrians enthusiastically cheering Adolf Hitler’s entrance into Vienna to tell its story of Jewish refugees harried across the map of Europe as the Nazi war machine marches on. Strangely, They Dare Not Love also utilizes newsreels, indeed takes its cue from The March of Time’s “Nazi Conquest No. 1” to argue bizarrely for Austrian’s victimhood and the restoration of an Austrian monarchy. Finally, Honeymoon has a democratically-minded American journalist trying to woo a naïve American golddigger who is planning to marry an Austrian aristocrat and secret Nazi, just as Americans in general needed to be convinced that German fascism was dangerous.

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965, Robert Wise)
The Cardinal (1963, Otto Preminger)

The dichotomy between Austria as an innocent victim of the Nazis and an enthusiastic Fascist collaborator also characterized two Hollywood wide-screen extravaganzas of the 1960s: Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965) and Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (1963). While the popular musical avoided all discussion of politics, except to create a dramatic raison d’etre for the von Trapp family’s Technicolor flight over the Alps, the fictional biography of an American church leader clearly accused Austrian Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of supporting and sympathizing with the Nazis.

Common to Hollywood’s version of post-Imperial Austria, as Vansant notes about The Sound of Music, is that “there is no mention of political dissent, no civil strife, and no Austro-Fascist government.” (p. 124) Like most of Hollywood’s costume films playing on foreign soil, films about Austria often revealed more about America’s collective fantasies than about the German-speaking nation along the Danube.       

Reginald Owen as Emperor Franz Josef I and HelenGilbert in Florian (1940, Edwin L. Marin)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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