- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Bel Canto Society, based in New York City, specializes in video copies of vintage opera movies. The company is willing to stretch a point by offering a handful of operetta films in its catalog and I was intrigued by two recent sale items: “Three Waltzes” and “Paris Waltz,” co-starring vehicles of 1938 and 1948, respectively, for the French conjugal team of Yvonne Printemps and Pierre Fresnay. They shared theatrical and movie showcases during the 1930s and 1940s and sustained an active partnership until Mr. Fresnay’s death in 1975.

The historical sources seem a bit hazy about whether the romance that began in 1932 also led to a marriage ceremony at some point. Both were divorced already. Whatever the details, they enjoyed a long run together and still do in a manner of speaking: Miss Printemps died in 1977 and their remains share a cemetery plot in a suburb of Paris.

During the 1920s Miss Printemps was the wife and leading lady of the phenomenal playwright-actor-producer Sacha Guitry, who made a triumphant shift to the movies in the middle 1930s. That was a bit too late to benefit Miss Printemps, who was born Yvonne Wignolle and was younger than springtime when she debuted as a dancer at the Folies Bergere in 1908 at the age of 13.

She emerged as a singing star a decade later, but the cinema and Yvonne Printemps never quite got into synch. The advent of sound would seem to have enhanced her value, but she appeared in only nine movies, eight of them with Mr. Fresnay. Despite an abiding loyalty to the stage, he also became a major French film star of the 1930s, initially as Marius, the restless young hero of Marcel Pagnol’s “Fanny” trilogy, and then decisively as the aristocratic French officer in Jean Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion.” The latter was such a prestigious import in 1938 that it crashed the Academy Award finals as a best picture nominee.

“Three Waltzes,” adapted from a popular German operetta, was a theatrical hit for the Printemps-Fresnay team in 1937, and the movie version didn’t seem to dilute its popularity. Unfortunately, the film now seems so slapdash that its original allure is elusive at best. The knack of transposing a playful, tuneful, theatrical prototype brings out the botcher in a now obscure German director, Ludwig Berger, subsequently hired by Alexander Korda as a co-director on “The Thief of Baghdad.”

Elements that sound amusing in theory — a romantic plot that bridges three generations, with music derived from Johann Strauss, Johann Strauss II and Oskar Strauss in the fleeting time frames — prove facetiously stilted in execution. The soundtrack is the most conspicuous stumbling block to melodic time-traveling: it never flatters the composers or Miss Printemps, captivating enough in her prime to inspire extravagant tributes. A bemusing example, attributed to the poet and art patron Anna de Noailles: “Wasn’t it enough that you had your eyes and your smile without having a throatful of birds?”

Miss Printemps was almost 40 when she made her first film, an adaptation of “Lady of the Camelias” that doesn’t seem to be in the Bel Canto collection.

She was 44 at the time “Three Waltzes” was filmed, so movie posterity is obliged to catch up with a matronly rather than youthful legend. Facially, she doesn’t compete with the stellar actresses of the decade. Though dressed sumptuously and brimming with self-confidence, she’s easier to mistake for an Una Merkel or Spring Byington than a headliner or heartbreaker.

“Paris Waltz” proves a happier showcase for both stars, even if it finds them a decade older. Writer-director Marcel Achard, a successful comedy playwright since the 1920s, protects Miss Printemps as a distinctive vocalist and Mr. Fresnay as a versatile character actor.

Cast as Hortense Schneider, the pre-eminent leading lady in Jacques Offenbach’s operettas of the 1850s and 1860s, Miss Printemps gets to finesse a greatest hits song score. Amazing as it seems, “Three Waltzes” managed to shortchange this kind of strong point. Cast as a pixieish Offenbach, Mr. Fresnay is an eccentric comic asset, rather like Groucho Marx in his prime, but with the lechery soft-pedaled.

Indeed, one of the humorous distinctions of this biopic is that it needs to preserve Schneider’s reputation as a grandly promiscuous diva, beloved of titled admirers from Russia to Egypt, without quite reducing Offenbach, her musical mentor and partner, to a level of abject impotence or nincompoopery. It’s a bit of a close call, but Mr. Fresnay’s nearsighted, wistful little music man is preposterously endearing.

At this juncture a more entertaining waltz-time companion feature for “Paris Waltz” would probably be the big Straussian blowout of 1938, MGM’s “The Great Waltz,” which borrowed a famous French director, Julien Duvivier, in order to supervise the overripe lyricism and Old World nostalgia of it all.

The movie’s plot devices are hilariously far removed from the facts about Johann Strauss II’s rise to prominence as the Waltz King of Vienna, at about the same time Offenbach was enchanting Paris. The screenwriters suffer total amnesia about the hero’s musically prominent father and siblings while emphasizing a fanciful romantic rivalry between the sacred and profane women in his life. We contemplate a mind-boggling mismatch that pits Luise Rainer as Mrs. Strauss, an angelic wallflower of a baker’s daughter named Poldi, against the man-eating Carla Donner, a powerhouse soprano embodied by Miliza Korjus, imported from the Berlin Opera to sell the greatest hits lineup neglected by “Three Waltzes.”

One encounters a lot of idle chatter about divas these days, but to appreciate what a pop diva might have signified in riper times gone by, sample Miss Printemps singing out in “Paris Waltz” and Miss Korjus in “The Great Waltz.”

Nominated for an Oscar as supporting actress, Miss Korjus was never cast in another musical, despite the fact that she remained in the U.S. and sustained a concert career into the 1950s. One begins to understand why she was a one-shot movie weapon: she’s an overpowering eyeful and earful, and it would require a very special context to justify her supersonic big blonde impact. Nevertheless, once, just once, MGM should have tried to get her and Groucho into the same musical comedy.

TITLE: “The Great Waltz”

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1938, decades before the start of the rating system)

CREDITS: Directed by Julien Duvivier. Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Walter Reisch, suggested by the life of Johann Strauss II. Cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg.

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes


WEB SITE: www.mgm.com

TITLE: “Paris Waltz”

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in France in 1948)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Marcel Achard, suggested by the life of Jacques Offenbach. Cinematography by Christian Matras. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

VHS EDITION: Bel Canto Society

WEB SITE: www.belcantosociety.org

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