Cast & Crew
In 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, British Col. Michael "Hooky" Nicobar is transferred from Rome to Vienna, a city divided into four governing zones: American, British, French and Russian. Hooky's assignment will be to assist Brigadier C. M. V. Catlock in monitoring possible subversive activities against the Allied nations. Accompanying Michael on the trip are his aides, Audrey Quail, Major John "Twingo" McPhimister and Private David Moonlight. Soon after arriving in Vienna, Hooky learns that he will be in charge of efforts to forcibly repatriate Soviet citizens living in the British zone. The assignment troubles Hooky, who immediately expresses his concerns about the motives of the Russians and their history of poor cooperation. After receiving their orders, Hooky, Audrey, Twingo and David are sent to a convent, where they will living during their stay in Vienna. There, Twingo meets a beautiful but mysterious dancer who calls herself Maria Buhlen, but whose real name is Olga Alexandrova. Maria, who is a Russian, conceals her identity from all but the Mother Superior at the convent, fearing that the revelation will result in her deportation to Russia. Twingo falls instantly in love with Maria, but she goes to great lengths to avoid him because she does not know if he can be trusted. Determined to win Maria's attentions, Twingo attends her ballet rehearsals night after night, but does not succeed in impressing her.
One day, Mother Superior formally introduces Maria to Twingo, and they make a dinner date. During their dinner, Maria tells Twingo that she is not Austrian but does not reveal her nationality. Later that night, after leaving her apartment, Twingo sees a mysterious figure lurking near her building. The next day, when Catlock tells Hooky that the Russians are looking for a woman named Olga Alexandrova, he begins to suspect that the woman he knows as Maria is really Olga. Maria eventually tells Hooky about herself, that she is the daughter of Russian dissidents, and confesses that she is very frightened. After learning that the Mother Superior is providing sanctuary for Maria, Hooky is faced with the dilemma of dutifully reporting her to the authorities or protecting her from harm. When Russian Colonel Piniev and his aides arrive at the convent looking for Maria, Hooky does not reveal what he knows. After the Russians leave, however, Hooky tells Maria that he plans to turn her over the following day, and puts Twingo in charge of guarding her. Twingo gives Maria the key to the convent, thus allowing her to flee unnoticed late in the night. The plan is foiled, however, when Hooky catches Twingo aiding Maria. Later, when Piniev returns to the convent and assures Hooky that Maria will be treated well, he surrenders her to the Russians. Twingo is angered by the betrayal, and the Mother Superior criticizes Hooky for his action.
Several days pass, and Hooky and Twingo continue their repatriation assignment with a visit to Russian Professor Serge Bruloff. When they inform Bruloff that he is being deported, Bruloff, rather than face a return to Russia, shoots himself in the head. The incident causes Hooky to question the Russians' treatment of their citizens, and he when he sees Maria crying out to him from the back of a deportation truck, he changes his opinion of the repatriation efforts and vows to raise an international awareness of the Russian policy. One day, Hooky takes Mother Superior with him to inspect a train carrying displaced persons, and they are shocked when they see the deplorable conditions on the train. Mother Superior blames the Russians' cruelty on their lack of faith in God, and after the inspection, she tells Hooky that she saw Maria on the train, and that she must have escaped from the convoy taking her back to Moscow. When Hooky learns that Maria and the other displaced persons are being sent to a remote British zone in southern Austria, he sends for her and reunites her with Twingo.
The next time Piniev visits the convent looking for Maria, Hooky refuses to cooperate with him. The next day, Hooky meets his superiors and learns that a brief he wrote about forcible repatriation is being considered by the United Nations, and that the British and French have vowed to end the policy. Because of his unyielding stance on the issue, Hooky is relieved of his duties. Tragedy strikes a short time later, when Maria, discovered by the military police, kills herself by jumping out of a window. Time passes, and Hooky's efforts to end repatriation finally succeed. After receiving word from his superiors that the army is to be "humanized," he is promoted and put in charge of administering the new policy.
Francis L. Sullivan
Margo Von Lou
Janna De Loos
A. Norwood Fenton
James E. Newcom
John Nickolaus Jr.
Edwin B. Willis
Best Art Direction
The Red Danube
By the time 1949 rolled around, public opinion had begun to swing distinctly against post-war Soviet actions. Much of the dismay centered around the repatriation policies affecting millions of refugees who were required by treaty to be returned to Russia. These refugees, once repatriated, often faced death squads and detention camps (many of which were in the inhospitable weather of Siberia) for their alleged desertion of their homeland. This is the background for the movie The Red Danube (1949), based on Bruce Marshall's 1947 novel Vespers in Vienna. An ambitious project encompassing the grand intellectual debate over religion versus godlessness as well as the political and moral dilemma of Allied commanders forced to carry out ruthless Soviet policy, The Red Danube's serious subject matter was played out through the personal story of a Russian ballerina in 1945 Austria who fights to avoid being returned to her homeland. She is taken in by the Mother Superior of a convent in the British section of Vienna, where she is given refuge while her situation is arbitrated by an English officer and his Soviet counterpart in whose hands the girl's fate rests.
The Red Danube was intended to be one of MGM's important and serious productions. The studio assembled a production team and cast that were up to the challenge. The talented George Sidney, an MGM veteran who started as a messenger boy but rapidly progressed up the ranks to become an Oscar®-winning shorts director, was brought onboard to direct although he was more accustomed to helming lavish and entertaining musicals (The Harvey Girls , Anchors Aweigh ). Producer Carey Wilson tapped real-life Austrian expatriate writer Gina Kaus and Arthur Wimperis, the Oscar®-winning screenwriter of Mrs. Miniver )1042), to adapt Marshall's novel, and prestigious composer Miklos Rozsa was assigned to write the musical score.
The onscreen talent was a collection of MGM's best contract players: dapper Walter Pidgeon (Oscar®-nominated for Mrs. Miniver and Madame Curie ) would play the British colonel, and the venerable Ethel Barrymore was cast as the redoubtable Mother Superior. The affable Peter Lawford was given the role of Pidgeon's aide, with Angela Lansbury, a real-life refugee from the London Blitz, to play Pidgeon's driver. The unsympathetic yet crucial role of the Russian officer was played by the versatile Louis Calhern, who would be nominated for an Oscar® the next year for his role as Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee (1950). The key role of Maria, the beautiful ballerina trying desperately to save herself, was given to relative newcomer Janet Leigh, who in the two years since making her screen debut had appeared in a half dozen films for the studio. In fact, her second film If Winter Comes (1947) also featured two of her The Red Danube co-stars Pidgeon and Lansbury. (She'd appear again with Angela in 1962's The Manchurian Candidate). Leigh had been discovered by Norma Shearer, and her fresh-faced appeal put a very human face on The Red Danube's grave subject matter.
In order to convincingly play a ballerina, Janet Leigh began ballet lessons with MGM choreographer Alex Romero, who was charged with getting the actress into toe shoes so she could confidently execute a few steps. During one rehearsal Leigh's toe shoe became jammed between the floorboards and she suffered a severe knee strain, but she did manage to get the ballet steps right on screen. [SPOILER ALERT] In addition to the tough dance sequences, Leigh reportedly found the entire role to be emotionally draining, especially her death scene which she found particularly difficult for her to get through.
When The Red Danube came out in December of 1949, the critical reception was lukewarm. Reviewers sincerely appreciated MGM's efforts to make a serious motion picture about the troublesome post-War period and the moral questions brought about by the undeniable brutality of the Soviet Union's repatriation policies. However, they also thought that there was far too much talk and too little action to sustain audience interest for 119 minutes. Some believed that the romance between Lawford as a British Major and Leigh as the delicate but resolute Russian ballerina felt superficial with Lawford appearing more callow than affectionate. [SPOILER ALERT] As for Leigh's suicide scene, many felt it lacked a strong dramatic impact. Almost everyone cited the excessive talkiness of the philosophical discussion scenes between Walter Pidgeon's Colonel Nicobar and Ethel Barrymore's Mother Superior which were long passages of the devout nun trying to convince the non-religious military man of the folly of remaining estranged from God. Of the entire cast, Angela Lansbury received the best critical notices for her supporting role, but overall MGM's good intentions couldn't overcome the audience's lack of interest in The Red Danube. The studio tried sending the stars on an extensive publicity tour, but it was not enough to boost the ticket sales. The movie received one Oscar® nomination for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White but lost to Sunset Blvd.
The Red Danube also had a role to play in Hollywood's reaction to the government's 1947 investigation into possible communist influences in the movie industry. The HUAC hearings involving the "Hollywood Ten" had shaken the town to its core, and in response to the scrutiny the film industry began to turn out several outwardly anti-Soviet movies. Whether these were made solely to appease Washington D.C. or to genuinely illuminate the clearly reprehensible policies of Joseph Stalin, the U.S.'s former ally, is up for debate. The U.S. had played with the devil during WW II, and now had to distance itself. The Red Danube was part of the complicated fabric of those early years of the Cold War, and as with most of the movies with an anti-communist theme, it did not ignite the public's interest as entertainment to any great degree. Maybe it felt a little bit too much like medicine going down - a history lesson disguised as a tragic romance - but were audiences simply weary of hearing how they had so misjudged their wartime partners? In any case, The Red Danube is a perfect example of a major Hollywood studio - and the most prestigious one - putting its considerable skill behind a movie that they surely knew would not be a success. Seen from the hindsight of nearly sixty years, The Red Danube still seems like a noble effort.
Producer: Carey Wilson
Director: George Sidney
Screenplay: Gina Kaus and Arthur Wimperis, Bruce Marshall (novel "Vespers in Vienna)
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Col. Michael 'Hooky' Nicobar), Ethel Barrymore (Mother Superior), Peter Lawford (Maj. John 'Twingo' McPhimister), Angela Lansbury (Audrey Quail), Janet Leigh (Maria Buhlen), Louis Calhern (Col. Piniev).
by Lisa Mateas
The Red Danube
The working titles of this film were Vespers in Vienna, Storm Over Vienna, The Strange Case of Mary Buhlen, The Case of Maria Buhlen and The Crossroad. According to an April 1947 Los Angeles Times news item, production on the film was initially set to begin before mid-June 1947. An October 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that art director Hans Peters was part of a shooting unit that filmed background footage for the picture in Vienna and Rome. The same news item listed Victor Saville as the film's director. Although some filming took place at Clover Field in California, the rest of the picture was shot entirely at M-G-M's Hollywood studios.
The Red Danube was one of several anti-Communist films made in Hollywood in the early days of the Cold War. For additional information, see entries above and below for The Iron Curtain, The Red Menace and I Married a Communist. The Red Danube received mostly negative reviews in its initial release. The Variety reviewer commented: "Neither a thriller nor a sound propaganda exposition of the totalitarian threat, 'Danube' falls between two chairs, landing the harder because it first wanders in a morass of religious talk." The New York Times reviewer noted that the film inadvertently lampooned the "...Western procedure in the quadripartite administration of Vienna through official blindness to Soviet cunning." The film received an Academy Award nomination in the category of Best Black & White Art Direction-Set Decoration. Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford and Janet Leigh recreated their film roles for a March 19, 1951 Lux Radio Theatre version of the story.
Released in United States Fall October 14, 1949
Released in United States Fall October 14, 1949