Im weißen Rößl (English title: White Horse Inn or The White Horse Inn) is a musical comedy set in the picturesque Salzkammergut region of Upper Austria. It is about the head waiter of the White Horse Inn in St. Wolfgang who is desperately in love with the owner of the inn, a resolute young woman who at first only has eyes for one of her regular guests. Sometimes classified as an operetta, the show enjoyed huge successes both on Broadway and in the West End (651 performances at the Coliseum starting April 8, 1931) and was filmed several times. In a way similar to The Sound of Music and the three Sissi movies, the play and its film versions have contributed to the saccharine image of Austria as an alpine idyll—the kind of idyll tourists have been seeking for almost a century now. Today, Im weißen Rößl is mainly remembered for its songs, many of which have become popular classics.
Genesis of the play
In the last decade of the 19th century, Oscar Blumenthal, a theatre director from Berlin, Germany, was vacationing in Lauffen, a small town in the vicinity of St. Wolfgang. There, at the inn where he was staying, Blumenthal willy-nilly witnessed the head waiter's painful wooing of his widowed boss. Amused, Blumenthal used the story as the basis of a comedy—without music—which he co-authored with actor Gustav Kadelburg. However, Blumenthal and Kadelburg relocated the action from Lauffen to the much more prominent St. Wolfgang, where the Gasthof Weißes Rößl had actually existed since 1878. Having thus chanced upon a suitable title, the authors went to work, and Im weißen Rößl eventually premiered in Berlin in 1897.
The play was an immediate success. The Berlin audience would laugh at the comic portrayal of well-to-do city dwellers such as Wilhelm Giesecke, a producer of underwear, and his daughter Ottilie, who have travelled all the way from Berlin to St. Wolfgang and now, on holiday, cannot help displaying many of the characteristics of the nouveaux-riches. "Wär' ick bloß nach Ahlbeck jefahren"—"If only I had gone to Ahlbeck", Giesecke sighs as he considers his unfamiliar surroundings and the strange dialect spoken by the wild mountain people that inhabits the Salzkammergut. At the same time the play promoted tourism in Austria, especially in and around St. Wolfgang, with a contemporary edition of the Baedeker praising the natural beauty of the region and describing the White Horse Inn as nicely situated at the lakefront next to where the steamboat can be taken for a romantic trip across the Wolfgangsee. The White Horse Inn was even awarded a Baedeker star.
Just as the play was about to be forgotten—a silent movie starring Liane Haid had been made in Germany in 1926—it was revived, again in Berlin, and this time as a musical comedy. During a visit to the Salzkammergut, the actor Emil Jannings told Berlin theatre manager Erik Charell about the comedy. Charell was interested and commissioned a group of prominent authors and composers to come up with a musical show based on Blumenthal and Kadelburg's libretto. They were Ralph Benatzky, Robert Stolz and Bruno Granichstaedten (music), Robert Gilbert (lyrics), Hans Müller and Charell himself. The show premiered in Berlin on November 8, 1930. Immediately afterwards it became a success around the world, with long runs in cities like London, Paris, Vienna, Munich and New York.
During the Third Reich the comedy was marginalized and not performed (Goebbels called it "eine Revue, die uns heute zum Hals heraushängt"—"the kind of entertainment we find boring and superfluous today"), whereas people in the 1950s, keen on harmony and shallow pleasures, eagerly greeted revivals of the show. German language films based on the musical comedy were made in 1935, 1952 and 1960 respectively.
Outline of the plot
It is summertime at the Wolfgangsee. Josepha Vogelhuber, the young, attractive but resolute owner of the White Horse Inn, has been courted for some time by her head waiter, Leopold Brandmeyer. While appreciating his aptness for the job, she mistrusts all men as potential gold-diggers, rejects Leopold's advances and longingly waits for the arrival of Dr Siedler, a lawyer who has been one of her regular guests for many years. This year, Josepha hopes, Siedler might eventually propose to her.
When Siedler arrives, he finds himself in the very same place with Wilhelm Giesecke, his client Sülzheimer's business rival, and immediately falls in love with Giesecke's beautiful daughter Ottilie. As it happens, Sülzheimer's son Sigismund, a would-be beau, also arrives at the White Horse Inn. Angry at first about that person's presence at the same inn, Giesecke soon has the idea of marrying off his daughter to Sigismund Sülzheimer, thus turning a pending lawsuit into an advantageous business merger. However, Siedler's love is reciprocated by Ottilie, who adamantly refuses to marry Sigismund, while Sigismund himself has fallen for Klärchen Hinzelmann, a naive beauty who accompanies her professorial father on a tour through the Salzkammergut.
Seeing all this, Leopold Brandmeyer decides that he has had enough and quits his job. Josepha has also done a lot of thinking in the meantime, reconsiders her head waiter's proposal of marriage, and can persuade him to stay—not just as an employee but also as boss. Love gets its way with the other two couples as well, and the play ends with the prospect of a triple marriage.
A post-war Argentinian movie in Spanish, La Hostería del caballito blanco, was directed by Benito Perojo and released in 1948. A Danish film of 1964 by Erik Balling, Sommer i Tyrol (although the Tyrol is not the original setting), starred Dirch Passer and Susse Wold.
In addition, the musical triggered a number of spin-offs such as the 1961 Austrian comedy film Im schwarzen Rößl (The Black Horse Inn), directed by Franz Antel, about a young woman (surprisingly, it was Karin Dor again, who had just played Giesecke's daughter in the 1960 version) who inherits a dilapidated hotel on the shores of the Wolfgangsee. As a matter of fact, a number of hotels in St. Wolfgang do use similar names (Black Horse, White Stag, etc.).
A note on the spelling
According to the German spelling reform of the 1990s, which curbed the use of the letter ß, Rößl, which has a diminutive suffix added to the noun Roß ("horse", "steed"), now has to be spelt Rössl (just as it is Ross now instead of Roß). Understandably, both Rößl and Rössl can be seen simultaneously nowadays, depending on when a particular text was written.