Film Title: The Merry Widow
Studio: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- Mae Murray
- John Gilbert
- Roy D’Arcy
1925 was a very good year for John Gilbert. Jumping ship from Fox Film Corporation the previous year after being lured by Irving Thalberg to the fledgling Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he was on his way to full-fledged movie star status. After four appearances for his new employers in 1924, the back-to-back triumphs of The Merry Widow and The Big Parade in 1925 would put him at the very top of the Hollywood game and make him one of the era’s superstars.
1925 was a very good year for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Entertainment entrepreneur Marcus Loew had gained control of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures in 1924, consolidated them under the banner Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer pictures, and the 1-2-3 box office punch of Ben-Hur, The Merry Widow, and The Big Parade vaulted M.G.M. to the very top of the Hollywood studios.
1925 was a very good year for both Mae Murray and Erich von Stroheim. But, Murray’s career had taken a downturn, and The Merry Widow bolstered it one last time. However the next year her new husband and manager convinced her to walk out on her M.G.M. contract, and her career never recovered. But,The Merry Widow was to be von Stroheim’s greatest commercial success, yet his unwillingness or inability to conform to studio financial constraints did not grant him the opportunity to direct another picture for three years. In 1929 his fights with star Gloria Swanson and producer Joseph Kennedy over budget and screen content caused his last production, Queen Kelly, to be shut down, never completed, and he never directed (under his own name anyway) again.
The Merry Widow was based on an extremely popular operetta penned by Franz Lehár. It had been performed worldwide, and an English language version had opened on Broadway in October of 1907 to great acclaim and popular success. M.G.M. purchased the screen rights. It may seem strange now to purchase the screen rights to an operetta for the silent screen. But The Merry Widow, in today’s parlance, was a brand. The name was familiar to audiences who had never seen the operetta. The film was conceived as an A-list, but modestly budgeted, vehicle for Mae Murray, who had originally come to prominence as a dancer with the Ziegfeld Follies, had played the part on Broadway, and with whom “The Merry Widow Waltz” was identified in the public mind. John Gilbert had been coming along nicely; Irving Thalberg decided he was ready to be featured in a bigger budget, more prestigious film. Director Erich von Stroheim was assigned to direct the film. M.G.M. had inherited von Stroheim’s contract in the merger the previous year along with his film Greed then in production. The ups and downs and ins and outs of that troubled production have been well chronicled elsewhere. But despite von Stroheim’s “excesses” and cost overruns on that project, Irving Thalberg, over Louis B. Mayer’s strenuous objections, insisted on von Stroheim to direct. Thalberg thought him a genius and just the man to bring that “something extra” he felt the production needed. He also believed that under his close personal supervision he could keep von Stroheim on schedule and within budget.
Von Stroheim and M.G.M. contract writer Benjamin Glazer (and undoubtedly Irving Thalberg himself and a team of other contract writers) restructured, relocated, and rewrote Lehár’s frothy little operetta. The first two-thirds of the story do not appear in Lehár’s version but are merely referred to. Von Stroheim’s version is set in the vaguely Baltic kingdom of Monteblanco amidst the mountains. The kingdom is ruled by King Nikita (George Fawcett) and Queen Milena (Josephine Crowell) but is financed by the wealthy Baron Sadoja (Tully Marshall). Returning to the kingdom with the army are Crown Prince Mirko (Roy D’Arcy) and, next in line to the throne after him, his cousin, Prince Danilo (John Gilbert). The army stops at a mountain inn on their way home. There they meet dancer Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray) and the rest of the American touring troupe of the Manhattan Follies. They too are on their way to the kingdom where they have an engagement to perform. Sally is initially drawn to Prince Danilo who, although attempting to hide his royal lineage from Sally, acts very much the entitled royal who has never had any trouble getting what he wants. Also smitten by Sally’s charms are Crown Prince Mirko and the Baron Sadoja. The next evening the three “suitors” are in attendance when Sally and the Manhattan Follies present their royal performance in the kingdom’s capitol. The three men’s attentions are brilliantly focused for the audience by von Stroheim’s use of opera glasses which each use to view Sally’s performance: the Baron concentrates on the dancer’s feet (yes, he has a foot fetish), the Crown Prince focuses on Sally’s body, while Danilo only has eyes for her face. There are all kinds of subsequent plot twists and turns where love is discovered, love is won, love is lost, three deaths occur, Sally becomes the Merry Widow, and, finally, where love is triumphant.
The Merry Widow was M.G.M.’s second highest grossing picture of 1925, topped only buy the enormous popularity of The Big Parade. The critical reception was also very good indeed. Critic and playwright Robert E. Sherwood wrote: “The main things are von Stroheim’s direction, von Stroheim’s profound knowledge of composition and scenic effects, and John Gilbert’s magnificent performance as Prince Danilo. Gilbert gives an eloquent, vibrant, keenly tempered interpretation of what might have been a trite romantic character. At every point he sparkles with brilliance and at times bursts into flames.” Sherwood gets it right. Gilbert’s performance, except for a few requisite von Stroheim leers in the early scenes, is what makes us believe the love story. Lord knows he wasn’t getting much to work with from Mae Murray. Of Mae Murray’s performance, contemporary film historian Jeanie Basinger has written: “She has no apparent acting talent, but she’s very good at standing there, hand on hip, showing off her extremely expensive wardrobe. In this sense, Murray knows her job . . .” I would add that her sobriquet “The Girl With The Bee-Stung Lips” is appropriate and amply in evidence here; she has lots of hair that can convincingly look either designedly disheveled or the height of haute coiffure, and that the word timorous might have been coined this performance. Roy D’Arcy (who would pair with Gilbert to similar affect in La Bohème and Bardelys the Magnificent) is very effective as the von Stroheim character generally played by von Stroheim in a von Stroheim picture. That, or he’s looking forward three years and is hoping to give Conrad Veidt a run for his money for the title role in The Man Who Laughs. Von Stroheim. Unlike many who ecstatically leap into a von Stroheim picture feet first, I have to ease my way in. Once there I can certainly appreciate the worlds that he created on film with all their “how should I put it,” eccentricities. During production Mae Murray went to Thalberg complaining that, “This is filth!” To which Thalberg replied, “The man’s a genius. He’s giving the picture dimension.” But even Thalberg had some trouble with the Baron Sadoja character. When he went to speak to von Stroheim about it, von Stroheim asserted, “The old man’s a degenerate. He has a foot fetish.” Thalberg, undoubtedly stressed out by the whole process of four months with von Stroheim in what was originally budgeted as a three-week shoot, retorted, “And you sir, have a footage fetish!”
Unlike his experience with Greed, von Stroheim gave over the final cut of The Merry Widow to Thalberg without complaint. Also, unlike Greed, von Stroheim never disowned the release version of the film. This was standard operating procedure in the studio system, where directors were essentially done with their work on a film once shooting had wrapped. I’m guessing that what is on the screen is von Stroheim’s vision of the film, albeit with some of the darker aspects excised. So much of the film is pure von Stroheim: the “Merry Widow Waltz”, despite von Stroheim’s insistence that a musical sequence had no business in a silent film, is impeccably staged and photographed; the masked two-some playing music in the background during Danilo’s attempt to seduce Sally; the previously mentioned opera glasses scene; Sally’s fading away leaving only the traces of her jewelry behind when beheld by a suitor; the duel in the fog; both on-screen death scenes; Danilo’s lesbian nightclub companion. And, of course, the character with the foot fetish. This is not the product of M.G.M. or Thalberg, although it does illustrate Thalberg’s recognition of “genius” and a filmmaker’s vision of the material and why the filmmaker was hired in the first place.
Inexplicably, this film has never been released to DVD. Inexplicable, because the film exists; it is not one of the lost films of the silent era. The print I saw was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies with a synchronized score compiled and performed on a Mighty Wurlitzer organ by renowned silent film accompanist Dennis James. The print itself was not pristine, but it looked as good as or better than some prints of films broadcast by TCM or released to DVD through Warner Home Video or the Warner Archives Collection. The Merry Widow was premiered at a film festival in Venice, Italy in October of 2009 with a newly recorded full orchestral score by Maud Nellissen. Could we see that, please? UPDATE: Warner Archive released this film on DVD in July 2011.
This film is one of the acknowledged masterpieces of American and, by extension, world cinema. However it has yet to receive a DVD release anywhere in the world. By all means, if it shows up at a film festival near you or on Turner Classic Movies, see it! I couldn’t get this film out of my head once I’d seen it. Hence this review.
Acknowledgements: The author gratefully acknowledges the following sources: The production anecdotes and quotes come from Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince by Mark A. Vieria (2010: University of California Press), Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger (1999: Knopf) and Dark Star by Gilbert’s biographer and daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain (1985: St. Martin’s Press).
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