June 2015
Behind the photograph: The Great Waltz

Albertina Rasch with Miliza Korjus


Upon viewing the above photograph one might surmise it depicts a wardrobe fitter examining a period costume dress. Except that’s no wardrobe fitter or seamstress, it’s choreographer Albertina Rasch with Miliza Korjus. That would lead one to assume it’s a production photograph for The Great Waltz (1938). Rasch staged the dance numbers for The Great Waltz and Korjus sang her way through the film in the role of Carla Donner. In the film, Donner is an opera singer who through her performances turns people on to the music of Johann Strauss II. Korjus came to Hollywood by way of the Berlin Opera to appear in the film.

In fact, according to an item in the Los Angeles Times, Dimitri Tiomkin was responsible for bringing the German opera singer to the attention of executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the time producer Irving Thalberg was considering a filmed life of Strauss, the waltz king.

The studio planned to make The Great Waltz in late 1935 or early 1936. In early 1935, it was announced that Dimitri Tiomkin was doing advance music work for the film. After more than a year of preparations, however, in November 1935, MGM announced that they were postponing the project to wait for the “right” operatic lead.*

Tiomkin was familiar with the voice of Miliza Korjus through phonograph records. Thalberg listened to recordings of Korjus, was suitably impressed, and apparently put in motion a plan to bring her to MGM. Korjus made her way from Berlin to New York in March 1936 and began screen tests in Culver City at MGM in October, one month after Thalberg’s untimely death at age 37.

[It’s interesting that a Los Angeles Times writer wrote in 1936 that the “j” in Korjus is pronounced like an “i”; whereas MGM later advertised her name as rhyming with “Gorgeous.”]

Tiomkin arranged and adapted Strauss’s music for The Great Waltz. Or as Los Angeles Times music editor Isabel Morse Jones wrote, “Tiomkin was called in to ‘recompose’ the Viennese waltzes.” The film marked the last occasion on which Tiomkin and his wife Albertina Rasch worked on the same production. (Tiomkin had supplied music for Rasch’s ballets and for MGM films with ballet sequences choreographed by Rasch.)

READ MORE: Albertina Rasch

The problem with the photo of Rasch and Korjus is that we have not been able to find any photos of Korjus wearing the dress and hat pictured in relation to The Great Waltz. Further, if this were an MGM publicity photo it would likely have a “still code” in the lower right corner identifying the film’s production number.

Since Rasch is wearing a corsage, perhaps the photo was taken at a formal event? In February 1939, Korjus attended the 11th Academy Awards at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles as an nominee in the supporting actress category for The Great Waltz. She also opened the awards program with a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” However, the dress she wore for the Oscars, seen here, is not the same as the dress, above.

Could Rasch be helping Korjus with her dress at the annual Hollywood Bowl banquet held at Earl Carroll’s Theater Restaurant in June 1939? The party had a slew of notable hosts and hostesses, in addition to Tiomkin, Rasch, and Korjus, there were Otto Klemperer, Jesse Lasky, Basil Rathbone, and Edward G. Robinson, along with Hollywood musicians such as Nathaniel Finston, Boris Morros, and Irvin Talbot. Could be, except the background in the photo does look suspiciously like an MGM set.

READ: Dimitri Tiomkin and the Hollywood Bowl

Which brings us to Madame Pompadour. As audiences were viewing previews of The Great Waltz in October 1938, MGM announced that Korjus would play the title role in the film version of the operetta. Fate would intervene and Korjus’s second American film was never made after the singer/actress was injured in a car accident in Los Angeles in May 1940. Besides, the dress above does not bear any resemblance to the Baroque/Rococo period of French costume.

Other possibilities? Tiomkin, Rasch, and song-and-dance man George Murphy sat as judges for a Great Waltz contest at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, but there is no evidence that Korjus was there.

Korjus did make public appearances for The Great Waltz as late as March 1940, when she appeared at the Palm Springs Tennis Club to present a scene from the film.

When Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper wrote of Louis B. Mayer’s 20th anniversary at MGM in 1944 she recalled, “Miliza Korjus did ‘The Great Waltz’ which many think is the best musical they ever made.”

Which brings us back to the very beginning. In October 1936 for the aforementioned screen tests Korjus made at MGM—two years before The Great Waltz began filming—the trade publication Variety noted that Korjus made her first on-camera appearance in costume. Could it be the costume seen above? The set in the background was used in The Great Waltz, it is the interior of Dommeyers Casino. Except that still doesn’t explain why Rasch is wearing a corsage.

Sources

“Town Called Hollywood,” [column] by Philip K. Schemer, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1936

“Music Bolsters Film Box Offices,” by Isabel Morse Jones, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1938

“Korjus Will Depict Champ Glamour Girl,” by Edwin Schallert, Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1938

“Bowl Forces Will Banquet Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, June 25, 1939

“In Palm Springs” Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1940

“Mayer 20 Years at Helm of M.G.M.: Anniversary of Film Magnate Brings Up Flood of Memories,” by Hedda Hopper, Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1944

Variety, March 25, 1936, October 1, 1936, October 23, 1936, and November 11, 1938

*American Film Institute catalog entry on “The Great Waltz”


(Sixth in an occasional series featuring rare or unusual photographs.)

Behind the photograph: Leonard Liebling

Behind the photograph: Rhapsody in Blue

Behind the photograph: Hairston and Tiomkin

Behind the photograph: Tansman and Tiomkin

Behind the photograph (Dimitri Tiomkin with His Excellency the High Commissioner for Kenya, Mr. Ng-Ethe Njoroge and Mrs. Njoroge at the London premiere of Tchaikovsky)

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