The Red Danube
M-G-M’s The Red Danube (1949) was one of several anti-communist films produced by Hollywood in the aftermath of World War II: other notable releases included Conspirator, I Married a Communist (aka The Woman on Pier 13) and The Red Menace. These films dramatized history as it unfolded, capturing real-life fears of communism and fortifying Cold War tensions in the United States and abroad. In the case of The Red Danube, director George Sidney utilized a top-name cast and extensive on-location shooting as a means of examining post-war conditions in Vienna—specifically the enforced repatriation of Russian citizens.
Based on Bruce Marshall’s novel Vespers in Vienna, the story follows righteous but agnostic British Col. Nicobar (Walter Pidgeon) to Vienna, a city divided into four sectors: American, British, French and Russian. Nicobar and his junior officers are to assist the Soviet authorities in finding and returning Russian citizens from the other sectors. Initially oblivious to the brutal conditions that await the displaced citizens back in their homeland, Nicobar eventually becomes aware: the assignment turns personal, and tragic, when Nicobar’s subordinate, Maj. John “Twingo” McPhimister (Peter Lawford) falls in love with Maria (Janet Leigh), a beautiful ballerina. Maria seeks refuge in the convent—run by the outspoken Mother Auxilia (Ethel Barrymore)—that serves as the British soldiers’ home base. Maria’s plight, along with Mother Auxilia’s lectures on the nature of Christianity, prompt Nicobar to rediscover his faith and to take a stand against the inhumane practices of the Soviets. The Colonel successfully lobbies against forcible repatriation but his actions are too late to save Maria, who kills herself instead of returning to Russia. Despite this tragedy—or in part because of it—change is perpetuated in the name of freedom.
The straight-from-the-headlines nature of the material struck a chord with reviewers. Variety hailed the film and cast for bringing humanity to a difficult subject. The film’s message is staunchly pro-Christian, as evidenced in Mother Auxilia’s speeches that condemn the faithless Soviets, yet The Hollywood Reporter was relieved that the film’s anti-communist message was not compromised by preachiness. A recurring complaint from critics was the depiction of the British as fumbling caricatures, but most were impressed by the performances, particularly Barrymore’s as the troubled nun and Angela Lansbury (in a small role) as Nicobar’s driver.
Miklós Rózsa’s score for The Red Danube cuts to the heart of the story with a methodical, stepwise theme for the Russians. Their material is oppressive and dominated by brass, yet the accompanying string writing defiantly comes to the fore as a theme for Twingo and Maria. This melody is as much an expression of their love as it is an anguished outcry leveled at Communist Russia. The love theme, with its urgent syncopation, features prominently in the “Main Title” and “D.P. Camp.” It repeatedly rises in protest against the Russian material, which is never far behind, eagerly awaiting its chance to take back the spotlight. The Hollywood Reporter called the score “vivid,” with Variety commending it for “point[ing] up incidents dramatically.”
Disc 2, tracks 1–8 present the surviving tracks of Rózsa’s score mastered from ¼″ tapes of what were originally 35mm optical film recordings. Throughout the film, the characters sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a kind of morale booster; Rózsa picks up the tune in his score in three surviving tracks (2, 5 and 8) that were recorded with dual microphone angles, allowing them to be mixed into stereo (some of the underscore cues were also recorded this way). A light stereo reverb has been added to the monaural cues so that this 13:54 suite maintains a consistent ambiance throughout.
- 1. Main Title 1M1
- The score’s forceful Russian theme plays as title cards introduce the film’s main characters, segueing to the impassioned love theme while the balance of the opening credits play over footage of deportation trucks carrying displaced Soviet citizens. The story proper begins in post-World War II Rome, where Pvt. David Moonlight (Melville Cooper) arrives at British headquarters. A benevolent triple-meter theme for the British gently rises and falls, evoking the noble ideals of Col. Michael “Hooky” Nicobar (Walter Pidgeon) and his subordinates.
- 2. Hooky’s Billet 2M3
- Nicobar and his aides are stationed at a Viennese convent under the care of Mother Auxilia (Ethel Barrymore) for the duration of their repatriation assignment. A brief but warm arrangement of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is taken up by strings for their arrival; the characters sing the song in camaraderie throughout the film.
- 3. The Colonel’s Decision 5M2
- Conflict descends on the convent when Russian soldiers visit in search of Maria (Janet Leigh), a displaced ballerina; she disguises herself as a nun and the soldiers leave after failing to recognize her, the orchestra cautiously lingering with a threat after they depart. A reprise of the British theme offers relief to Maria and her suitor, Maj. Twingo (Peter Lawford), but their celebration is short-lived. A troubled variation of the same material sounds when Col. Nicobar announces his intention to turn Maria over to the Soviets the next morning. Although his conversation with Russian Col. Piniev (Louis Calhern) has convinced him that the Soviets only wish to honor Maria, she suggests otherwise—as does a menacing sneer from the brass. Low strings assume this descending half-step figure for Mother Auxilia locking the convent door and turning the key over to Twingo, in hopes that he will pass it to Maria so that she might escape during the night. Rózsa emphasizes the tragic variation of the British theme as Twingo does just that: Maria implores him not to put himself at risk, but he gives her the key and asks that she contact him once she is safe. The cue subsides as she leaves, but Twingo notices a Russian car returning to the convent and he rushes to stop her. This time she is discovered, and Nicobar allows the Soviets to take her, betraying Twingo and Mother Auxilia.
- 4. Bruloff’s Suicide 7M1
- Nicobar and Twingo visit renowned Russian professor Bruloff (Konstantin Shayne) and inform him that he is to be taken back to Moscow. Bruloff, quietly devastated, requests that Nicobar find his wife, who is staying in Vienna under the name Helena Nagard (Tamara Shayne), and inform her of his situation. Nicobar agrees and Bruloff excuses himself to pack but instead shoots himself in the head. The gunshot is answered by a cluster of low brass and a frenzied orchestral outburst, its syncopation suggestive of the love theme, as the officers discover the professor’s corpse. A mournful Russian melody unfolds while his body is carried out, and Twingo wonders aloud what this tragedy will mean for Maria. A condensed exclamation of the tune sounds when Nicobar informs Twingo that their next unfortunate soul will be Bruloff’s wife. The scene transitions back to the convent, where Nicobar explains Bruloff’s suicide to the man’s widow. In the finished film, the cue was dialed out for this conversation; the unused music centers on a new theme built into an octatonic harmonization of the material for Helena’s despondent reaction. The cue is dialed back in for her eventual breakdown, with outbursts from the condensed melody over disturbing chromatic lines that move in contrary motion.
- D.P. Camp 7M2
- Helena is taken to a Displaced Persons (D.P.) Camp, where Nicobar and Twingo explain Bruloff’s death to an unsympathetic Soviet soldier. The indomitable Russian theme from the “Main Title” is given full treatment, angrily gathering momentum as Helena is ushered onto a deportation truck and driven out of the camp. Maria spots Twingo from one of the trucks and shouts to him, with hurried statements of the love theme beckoning along with her; he hears her and runs after the truck, eventually stopping in defeat, with the Russian theme ringing out definitively as Nicobar considers the ramifications of his work.
- 5. Row, Row, Row to Rome 9M2
- When Maria is discovered on a train carrying displaced Russians, Mother Auxilia suggests that she be taken to hide in the British Zone in Southern Austria. Nicobar agrees and they secretly drive her to safety on Christmas Eve. In an attempt to keep spirits high, Twingo leads the travelers in a rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” with the score seamlessly assuming the tune once they arrive at their destination.
- 6. Nicobar’s Problem 10M1
- Nicobar illegally transports Mother Auxilia to Rome, where he is to speak out against the methods of the Russians while she converses with the Holy Father. Outside the Vatican, she tells Nicobar of her intentions to ask God how to counter his agnostic beliefs. This unused cue for the conversation between Nicobar and Mother Auxilia features a series of somber readings of the British theme that quietly challenge Nicobar’s lack of faith.
- For the finished film, Rózsa re-recorded “Holy Unction” from his earlier score to Madame Bovary (done in the last recording session for The Red Danube, and presumably a directive from M-G-M brass) to replace “Nicobar’s Problem” and create more of a religious aura. The re-recorded “Holy Unction” can be found in the Madame Bovary bonus section of this box set (disc 11, track 28).
- 7. Suicide 11M2
- Just after Twingo informs Maria of his plan to take her to Scotland, she is discovered by military police; they escort her back to the convent, where she begs Audrey Quail (Angela Lansbury) to find Twingo. Nervous strings prod Maria toward a window just in time to see the Russians arriving by car, to the accompaniment of their theme. Brass stingers punctuate the sporadic string gestures and the Russian theme gradually suffocates Maria, who looks for a way out and settles on the window right in front of her. Pleading high strings take up the Russian theme as Twingo arrives in an adjacent office—but he is too late. Shattering glass is heard and he and Quail rush into the empty room to find that Maria has attempted suicide. The score acknowledges the tragedy with ascending minor triadic brass for a shot of Maria, barely alive on the ground outside the convent. (In the subsequent scene—the cue for which has not survived and thus does not appear on this CD—she takes her final moments to ask Twingo not to weep for her; Rózsa gives the love theme a bittersweet sendoff as she dies.)
- 8. End Title 12M3
- Nicobar, who has rediscovered Christianity with the help of Mother Auxilia, is placed in charge of an operation to “humanize” the army. A brief that he wrote has helped bring about the end of forced repatriation. Nicobar assures Twingo that, as with any great loss, he will learn to live with the death of Maria. The British officers board a plane, homebound for England. A grand, celebratory version of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” for chorus and orchestra plays as Mother Auxilia watches the plane leave, the happy tune setting the stage for a brighter future throughout the end titles. —