The Merry Widow
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The Merry Widow with no singing? A silent version of an operetta may seem an unlikely venture, but this vivacious hit proved that the right ingredients make for an irresistible romantic souffle?. Those ingredients include Erich von Stroheim's stylish direction (in his first film after Greed), ex-Ziegfeld bombshell Mae Murray in her best role, a star-making turn for John Gilbert and a mythical European kingdom straight out of fairyland. Murray plays showgirl Sally O'Hara, who's jilted by a prince (Gilbert). On the rebound, she marries a nasty old baron who conveniently keels over on their wedding night, leaving Sally not only merry, but rich enough to attract a bevy of suitors...including the prince, eager to rekindle their flame.
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Quite surprisingly, The Merry Widow was a critical and box office success for von Stroheim. The film was so successful that it was remade in 1934 by Ernst Lubitsch (as a musical, replete with the Lubitsch touch, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald) and in a best-forgotten 1952 version starring Lana Turner. Despite a studio mandated, ill-fitting happy ending, von Stroheim's silent version is, predictably, the most bizarre. The director added much to the story, stamping it with his idiosyncratic touch and causing the film to go considerably over schedule and over budget. The previous year's Greed had nearly bankrupted the studio and sent producer Irving Thalberg to the hospital. After The Merry Widow, von Stroheim would not direct a film for three years.
The story is aptly set in the fairy tale kingdom of Monteblanco (visually realized by the lush cinematography of Oliver Marsh and surrealistic mattes). Prince Mirko (Roy D'Arcy) is heir to the throne . Second in line is Mirko's womanizing cousin, Prince Danilo (Gilbert). Enter the American chorus dancer Sally O' Hara (Murray) whose legs are immediately noticed by all the attending males. It is the first of many such scenes with burning gazes. Baron Sadoja (Tully Marshall) is the elderly perv who bankrolls the kingdom. Sadoja's gaze focuses on O'Hara's feet, and von Stroheim takes the route of delirious excess in visualizing the Baron's foot fetish (one orgy-like fantasy sequence glides over rows of shoes, a scene that outraged Thalberg. The director nonchalantly explained that the character had a foot fetish, to which the producer replied, "And you have a footage fetish.") Mirko envisions O'Hara as a Venus de Milo torso and, he will only home to her arms when, they are adorned with jewels. Danilo's leer fixates instead upon O'Hara's bee-stung lips. He objectifies her, but after pulling a bit of prankster deception on her he later feels guilty for his lust for a sincere maiden. He quickly proposes to her, and then he cowardly jilts her after the King and Queen persuade him not to marry a commoner. Devastated, O'Hara rebounds by marring Sadoja who, after merely kissing his wife's shoulder in the bridal chamber, falls in the ultimate climax of death. Now widowed and the wealthiest woman in the kingdom, O'Hara becomes the booty. Mirko and Danilo duel over her. Danilo loses, but survives with a minor wound (!) Of course, being an MGM production, a happy ending is called for, and it nearly wrecks the film.
Mirko is von Stroheim's sadistic Prussian antagonist, a part the director relished and understandably wanted to play himself. Unfortunately for von Stroheim, Thalberg rejected the director as actor, prompting the casting of D'Arcy. D'Arcy's florid portrayal reaped praise aplenty from critics and audiences, turning him into a villainous star. Unlike his co-stars, D'Arcy survived sound but his acting style was stylistically baroque and dated quickly, relegating him to "B" films and serials, such as Shadow of the Eagle (1932) opposite John Wayne and Whispering Shadow (1933) opposite Bela Lugosi. Contemporary audiences may find D' Arcy's acting dated, but appealing in its otherworldly expressions (overt leering, a seemingly frozen, malevolent grin). It is easy to see how he walked away with the film.
Part of von Stroheim's excesses in the filming included costly Prussian underwear, worn by D' Arcy underneath his costume (and therefore never seen) merely to get the actor in the right mood. Still, it's hard to sympathize with Thalberg's sense of frustration. Having worked with von Stroheim numerous times, Thalberg knew the his penchant for opulence and, rightly, felt the film needed this director's brand of genius. Von Stroheim's own comment, comparing his Merry Widow to Lubitch's more conventional remake, is telling: "Lubitsch shows the king on the throne first, then in the bedroom. I show him in the bedroom first so you know what he is when you see him on the throne."
Years later, upon meeting von Stroheim, Orson Welles complimented him by assuring the director that he was "ten years ahead of his time." Von Stroheim retorted, "twenty." Seen today, von Stroheim's films certainly stem from silent film stylization. However, his uncompromising sense of vision and aesthetic commitment show von Stroheim as still being ahead of his time. Of all von Stroheim's films, the director liked this one least, feeling that he had compromised too much with Thalberg. In a way, he was right, but regardless, the director's surreal hedonism personally soaks the film, albeit in a subdued light. No serious film student should bypass the works of Erich von Stroheim, and The Merry Widow is the essential starting point to a richly unique oeuvre.
*my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies
When opting to purchase this DVD, the only thing that gave me pause was the fact that it had a theatre organ score. My only exposure to theatre organ scores is the work of Gaylord Carter in alternate audio tracks of Wings and Phantom of the Opera (1925) (Silent) [Blu-ray]. I must confess I'm not a fan. His accompaniments, while brilliantly executed, tend to be too busy for my taste and muddle up what's happening on-screen.
Not so with the accompaniment in the Warner Archive edition of The Merry Widow! Dennis James does a superb job using the might of the organ in the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, GA to make the screen come alive, using music from the popular operetta which audiences in 1925 would've understood and attributed to the story. And the music holds up just as well today, even though many today would only have a passing acquaintance with the Merry Widow Waltz, which James uses with discretion and at all the right moments.
This release is not a restoration, such as one might find in The Blackbird. Instead, it is essentially a release of the print which Warner Brothers owns since they own the MGM catalog at present. It's scratchy and a couple of scenes are a little rough in terms of cutting, but it's a beautiful film with a lot of humor sprinkled into a story of decadence, love, marriage, and two cousins who want the attentions of an Irish vaudeville performer.
If you're a parent or grandparent, view the film before you show it to the kiddos. If they're 13 or over, they can probably handle what's going on on-screen. But let's remember: this is Erich von Stroheim. If you don't understand what I just said, watch it. If you DO understand it, you'll know you need to watch it first.
This is one to add to your collection.