In early 19th century Vienna, Johann Strauss II (Esmond Knight) plays second fiddle, both metaphorically and literally, in his father’s (Edmund Gwenn) orchestra, where he’s constantly denigrated by his elder namesake. After leaving the orchestra he seeks success on his own terms by writing a new piece using lyrics composed by Countess Helga von Stahl (Fay Compton), about a certain nearby river.
This romantic comedy seeks to balance several elements: the relationship between Strausses Junior and Senior, Junior’s relationship with his music student Resi (Jessie Matthews), and the composition of his most famous work. Or as the description at the BFI put it, “Strauss must choose between becoming a composer or a pastry chef”.
Director Alfred Hitchcock brings together these elements with aplomb, resulting in a film which is completely atypical of his oeuvre. I’ve only seen one other Hitchcock comedy, and this 1934 film is entirely different from 1976’s Family Plot, which is unsurprising given they were made at opposite ends of his directorial career. Here the comedy is a mixture of Laurel and Hardy style slapstick and dialogue-based jokes, and there are some scenes which are surprisingly funny.
I was surprised to learn after viewing this that the tension between father and son has a firm basis in fact as Johann Strauss senior tried to deter his son from a career in music, even beating him after finding him practicing the violin. However the specifics are largely fictionalised, in particular the fact that in real life The Blue Danube wasn’t composed until some years after Strauss senior’s death.
The film looks fantastic, with gorgeous period instruments and high-ceilinged chambers with more candelabras than you can shake a candlestick at. It also benefits from strong performances, which help to make it a pleasure to watch.