Leaving MGM (and Irving Thalberg) behind and joining Paramount, Erich von Stroheim worked with his co-writer Harry Carr to come up with a tale set in Stroheim’s native Vienna, a tale as large and expansive as anything he had told. The production ran on for nine months after having essentially recreated a large section of 1914 Vienna on the Paramount backlot until the studio shut down production and forced Stroheim to cut a film with what he had. He ended up producing two films, The Wedding March and its now lost sequel The Honeymoon, and the first half (well, perhaps the first third, there was apparently talk of a third entry) feels truncated. The films were also victims of the transition to sound, getting left behind in the mad dash for talkies that Paramount was obviously not willing to give money to Stroheim to reshoot in order to accomplish. The end result is a nice film with a surprisingly hard edged finale that really feels like it was going to feed into something more but manages to stand well enough on its own.
Prince Nicki (Stroheim) is the only son of an old Viennese family that is running low on funds. He spends his nights pursuing expensive women and gambling, getting himself into financial holes that his father, Prince Ottokar (George Fawcett), refuses to help with the problem while his mother, Princess Maria (Maude George), helps him paper over the problems, but she extracts from him a promise that he will marry money, a woman of her choosing. He happily accepts, and in the tradition of these sorts of romantic operettas, Nicki instantly discovers the woman he actually loves, a common girl named Mitzi (Fay Wray), the daughter of an innkeeper who is purportedly betrothed to Schani (Matthew Betz), a butcher.
The movie is built out of extended sequences, the first of which is really where Nicki meets Mitzi, and it’s where the film is at its most charming. Nicki is part of a military parade on Corpus Christi, stationed to the side as the Emperor Franz-Josef enters the cathedral. Nicki and Mitzi catch each other’s eyes, and it’s just a series of small, playful bits of mostly wordless banter between the two as things happen around them, mostly Mitzi’s father (Cesare Gravina) and mother (Dale Fuller) engage with Schani, notice the flirting going on between their daughter and the notorious, penniless womanizer on the horse and in the uniform above them.
The romance between the two grows around a late night meeting where Nicki visits Mitzi at her window, taking her out to look at the beautiful Blue Danube River, but this happens while Prince Ottokar meets with the rich industrialist Fortunat Schweisser (George Nichols) to arrange the marriage of Nicki to Schweisser’s daughter Cecelia (ZaSu Pitts). I mean…it was kind of predictable that Nicki’s parents would figure out a less than ideal match (Cecelia has a limp) just when Nicki finds true love. It really is that kind of movie.
What this doesn’t seem to be is the kind of movie where Nicki marries Cecelia, leaving Mitzi alone to try and save Nicki’s life because Schani is so mad at what’s going on that even though Nicki’s marrying another woman, Schani can’t take the shame and is planning on murdering Nicki as he walks out of his own wedding. This is either the most cynical ending of Stroheim’s career outside of Greed, or it’s essentially the second act turn that was going to get resolved in further story that probably would have been captured in The Honeymoon.
It’s a largely nice look at Vienna in 1914, at ill-fated romance, and with a not entirely expected ending that sends our loving characters in vastly different directions. I wish The Honeymoon still existed in order to see how the story resolved (I imagine it’s pretty standard romantic stuff and Nicki and Mitzi end up together), but this does feel like half of a story instead of something entirely completely. Still, the production design is impeccable (one of the film’s cameramen got married on the set of the cathedral), enough so that when it was complete Stroheim reportedly declared that he was standing in the Vienna of his youth. The acting is good all around, and the romance is solidly built. Without the second half of the story, it feels like a trifle with an unexpected ending. Still, it’s nice.
3 thoughts on “The Wedding March”