Classic Film Review: German gender bending, the 1933 original “Viktor und Viktoria”

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The 1982 Blake Edwards farce “Victor/Victoria” was a landmark in the mainstream cinema’s treatment of gay subject matter on the big screen, and a giddy, Oscar-winning blockbuster to boot.

Not remotely as daring as the French “La Cage aux Folles” (1978), it still did something no Hollywood film had managed to do before — draw millions of Americans into a movie where “gay” wasn’t a crime, a punchline or a mental illness.

So why not have a Pride Month revisit of that film’s 1930s antecedent, the “daring” 1933 German musical “Viktor und Viktoria,” a last blast of cross-dressing whimsy to escape Weimar Germany as the Nazis came to power?

“Viktor und Viktoria” doesn’t have the overt sexuality of the Hollywood film that came 50 years later. The words “gay” and “homosexual” are never used, no overtly gay character is so-identified. So there’s little of that dishy, swishy hilarity that the legendary Robert Preston brought to the Julia Andrews/James Garner film.

The music is different. Franz Doelle and Bruno Balz were replaced by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse.

But “Viktor” is a giddy delight in its own right, with bouncy tunes including a Spanish number that later became “The Shady Dame from Seville” in Hollywood, sight gags and slapstick reminiscent of the just-vanquished silent film era and delightful star turns by the leads.

It’s a landmark of Queer Cinema partly by reputation, but mainly because of its remakes. This 1933 film was remade in French in 1934 (“Georges et Georgette”) and English (“First a Girl”) in 1935.

Fifty years later, the world was “ready” for the definitive remake.

A young, down-on-her-luck light opera coloratura (Renate Müller) can’t land a job with her pleasant but thin voice. And a seriously hammy actor (Hermann Thimig) is having the same trouble, only he lies to keep up appearances.

The lie is exposed when Susanne and Viktor re-meet at the Automat (cheap self-serve lunch counters, the rage in the 1930s). And then she spies one of his publicity photos. It isn’t just Hamlet and William Tell that Viktor insists he’s famous for. He can camp it up in a dress, when the need arises.

In this streamlined comedy, we don’t see the “Eureka” moment and aren’t treated to the coaching and “makeover” that turns Susanne into “Viktor…IA.” The two just show up at the vaudeville theater, dodge prying eyes as she/he changes into costume.

And then, the grand debut, a clumsy, forgets-her-lines vamp through this moon-eyed song about going back to Spain, finding love in Madrid, and tumbling into the orchestra pit.

Director Reinhold Schünzel turns this scene into a knock-about riot, with the campy Viktor sitting with the orchestra, coaching Susanne/Viktoria on the stage, grabbing and taking over instrument after instrument and conducting, getting the music up to the tempo that works for this number and this act.

After all, it’s HIS number and HIS act that she’s performing.

One hint of multi-octave showing-off and one Big Reveal (the wig comes off) later, Viktoria is a star, a sensation signed to tour “Romania, Turkey, Italy, England” all the “Berlitz” (language school) countries.

On the British stop on the tour, she does her number in English. But that’s when she falls in with German expats, including ladykiller Robert (Anton Walbrook of “49th Parallel” and “The Red Shoes”). Can she keep her secret, even as she’s falling in love?

Can Robert believe he’s smitten with a very pretty “young man?”

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The script it basically an operetta, lines and lines of dialogue (not all of it) are sung, exposition delivered in recitative, sung “live” on set — “I can sing, I can laugh, I can dance. I’m lacking much in finance.”

Müller and Walbrook are quite amusing in the “Let’s do things a couple of guys on the town do” scenes — smoking, drinking whiskey (Check out how Müller sidles onto a bar stool.), getting a shave at the barber’s and getting in a bar brawl at a waterfront dive.

The screenplay strips some of the sexual confusion Robert is feeling (much the way “Victor/Victoria” did) too early for this to really reach any sort of cutting edge treatment of sexuality.

Mastermind Viktor isn’t homosexual. He pines for another woman on the tour, who lusts after Viktor–IA.

But all the women ogling the quite-feminine Viktor–IA in the bar (inspiring the riot), the gender embarrassment the act creates in the audience, get the message across. This isn’t “Cabaret,” but for a lark of a cross-dressing musical, it’s an eye opener.

And go to the biographical links of the star and her director to learn the costs of questioning gender roles and mores and speaking out through the arts in a fascist regime.

The restored “Viktor und Viktoria” returns, via virtual cinema (visit your local arthouse cinema website) for Pride Month. If you liked the Julie Andrews version, you’ll get a kick out of this.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Renate Müller, Hermann Thimig, Hilde Hildebrand, Friedel Pisetta and Anton Walbrook

Credits: Written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, music by Franz Doelle, lyrics by Bruno Balz. A Kino Classics “virtual cinema” re-release.

Running time: 1:39

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