Erich von Stroheim turned his singular talents to a classic operetta and the resulting film was the biggest hit of his career. It’s all about central European royalty (natch), an empty treasury and an extremely wealthy widow. I can’t imagine what will come of this.
Nudge nudge, wink wink…
The Merry Widow was a blockbuster but what went on behind the scenes is just as interesting as what ended up on the screen. The film featured three top-tier talents who were washed up as power players within a decade, done in by changing tastes, studio politics or hubris.
Those three talents were, of course, von Stroheim, Murray and Gilbert.
Erich von Stroheim’s decadent and spicy visions were unsustainable under the studio system. Mae Murray was a superstar but bad business decisions and a difficult temperament destroyed her career. John Gilbert was a wildly popular leading man who, despite rumors to the contrary, possessed a perfectly good speaking voice but fell victim to studio politics, poor story choices, audience whims and alcoholism. (The story that Gilbert decked MGM exec Louis B. Mayer is a complete myth. That being said, the two men loathed one another.)
I have to make a confession now: I am not exactly Erich von Stroheim’s biggest fan. He had an unmatched talent for pomp, splendor, decay and rot but the films sometimes make me feel like I am trapped in a three hour version of Monty Python’s Nudge Nudge Wink Wink sketch.
Second confession: I am also not exactly May Murray’s biggest fan either. Of course, I must qualify that statement by mentioning that relatively few of her films survive and even fewer are available to the general public. Murray was famous for her bee-stung lips and did she ever love to show them off with an expression we now call duckface. Her performances (at least the ones available for viewing) are affected and stagy.
Von Stroheim and Murray had one important quality in common: They liked to be in charge, absolutely, of any film they worked on. Can you smell conflict? Me too.
Von Stroheim was out to prove that he could be a team player and that he could deliver a film on time and in budget. He didn’t succeed but this was about as close he ever came to it. (The numbers are questionable and von Stroheim maintained that MGM had played hanky-panky with the books in order to do him out of his share of the film’s profit.)
Mae Murray simply wanted to continue her reign of popularity at the box office with an elaborate confection based on a popular property, in this case, the famous operetta The Merry Widow.
It was open war from the start. Von Stroheim was not about to let his star tell him what to do and Murray wasn’t about to let her director tell her “no.” The whole thing dissolved into shouting matches with Murray declaring herself the queen of MGM and von Stroheim a dirty Hun. Von Stroheim was nearly fired at one point but a revolt among the extras assured his return.
The filming of The Merry Widow was a miserable experience for both director and star but it also produced Murray’s best surviving performance and von Stroheim’s most accessible film and biggest hit. It also helped burnish the star status of the up-and-coming John Gilbert.
(You can read more details of the films difficult creation in Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips by Michael G Ankerich and Von – The Life and Films of Erich Von Stroheim by Richard Koszarski.)
The story takes place in Monteblanco, a small central European nation. The kingdom has a king (George Fawcett), a queen (Josephine Crowell), an heir (Roy D’Arcy) and a spare (John Gilbert). The heir is Mirko, a real pill made worse by D’Arcy’s outrageous overacting. The spare is his cousin, Danilo, is a lady killer of the first water but not a bad guy overall. Assuming you are not one of his discarded conquests, of course.
Monteblanco is so tiny that it does not actually have its own treasury. Most of the country’s money is actually the property of Baron Sadoja (Tully Marshall), an old reprobate whose body is ravaged by syphilis but who still possesses a wandering eye.
Into this mix wanders a troupe of dancers from the old U.S. of A. The prettiest and mouthiest is Sally (Mae Murray), who attracts the attentions of both Mirko and Danilo. The princes conceal their royal heritage in hopes of… befriending Sally. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.)
Sally, of course, prefers Danilo because he does not act like a crazy person. Well, not too crazy. I mean, by von Stroheim movie standards, Danilo is stone cold sane.
We are shown Sally’s dance routine (this is a Mae Murray film, after all) and see that a new suitor has been added to the mix. Sadoja loves Sally– and her shoes. (Nudge nudge, say no more, say no more, wink wink.)
Danilo and Mirko take the opportunity to sneak into Sally’s dressing room in hopes of winning her over. Danilo gets there first, teases Mirko into retreating and then falls asleep on Sally’s bed using her negligee as a pillow. Sally is annoyed by this at first but soon agrees to dinner at his club.
Danilo manages to pour soup into her lap, forcing her to don a bathrobe while her clothes dry. I can’t imagine what he is planning to do. A street smart girl like Sally really should have anticipated this. I mean, the guy was just using her underwear as a pillow one scene ago, I think we can all assume that his intentions are less than honorable. (Obviously, I am not saying that anything that happens is Sally’s fault. Rather, that the movie has an intelligent character act like an idiot just to move the story along.)
But then we get to one of the more irritating tropes of silent films. Here’s the setup: Guy attempts to force himself on Girl. She bursts into tears and Guy feels like heel. He begs for her forgiveness and seeing his repentant attitude makes Girl fall in love with him.
My problem with this is that the heroine is grateful to the man for saving her from a crime he himself is committing. That’s not how it works, people. I mean, let’s try the routine with a different crime. “Oh, you were going to hack and drain my bank account but decided against it? Marry me!” “You were about to burn down a homeless shelter but my tears stayed your hand? Come to me, lover boy!” “You planned to bribe a congressman but I got hysterical and so you didn’t do it? My heart is yours!”
You see? Silly.
But back to the story.
Danilo pops the question to Sally, who accepts after a bit of persuading. However, the king and queen are horrified at the thought of a dancer in the royal line. The queen uses her best maternal arguments and Danilo is nothing if not an auntie’s boy. He agrees to break things off with Sally. The queen sees to it that his apologetic letter gets mislaid.
Sadoja enters once again. He knows what has happened and he means to profit by it. Sadoja may be a dirty old man but he does what neither of the princes are prepared to do. He is ready and willing to marry Sally. And her shoes. He is also completely honest with her, he offers her his title and wealth and the chance to flaunt her newfound power before the royal family who had scorned her. Sally considers it a fair deal and accepts his proposal.
The wedding night scene in von Stroheim’s initial draft had so much of the Von touch (we are way beyond nudge nudge at this point) that it had to be considerably reworked before it could be shot. Sadoja dies of a heart attack before he can do much more than embrace his bride. Sally is now the proud owner of most of Monteblanco’s assets.
Sally has been treated like a piece of meat for the first half of the film but now the, er, shoe is on the other foot. She has all the power, every bit of it, and she means to enjoy wielding it. This is where the title of the film comes into play. Sally relocates to Paris where she is known as the Merry Widow. She is fashionable, charming and the most eligible woman in Europe.
The film The Merry Widow considerably changes the original Lehar operetta (which was, in turn, based on the 1861 French play L’Attache d’ambassade and adapted for the musical stage by Leo Stein and Victor Leon). The operetta opens with the Sally character (called Hannah) already a widow. Her past romance with Danilo is discussed but not shown. There is also a subplot involving Mirko (an ambassador in that version) and his flirtatious wife. It is all very light, as befits an operetta.
Showing Danilo’s romancing of Sally is an improvement, in my opinion, but the film’s ending (spoiler for the remainder of the paragraph) in which the king dies of movie-itis and Mirko is conveniently shot by an assassin, smacks of deus ex machina. I preferred the story’s original ending, which had Danilo unwilling to marry Hannah lest he be considered a fortune hunter. She tricks him into proposing by saying that she will lose all her money if she remarries. After he pops the question, she elaborates: she will lose her fortune because it will go to her new husband.
Oh, and thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, I cannot listen to the Merry Widow Waltz without thinking of serial killers.
Erich von Stroheim has my complete respect for managing a feat long thought impossible: He drags a natural performance out of Mae Murray. All those fights and tears and shouting matches resulted in her stage affectations falling away and leaving an honest-to-goodness human being.
In Murray’s other films, her acting was basically like so: Dance dance, hop hop, POUT, spin spin, hop hop, pose… POUT! (Marion Davies’ impression of Murray in The Patsy is devastating.) For the most part, von Stroheim keeps the spinning and hopping under control. Murray is only able to indulge in her love of (girlish?) bouncy behavior when her character briefly wears a tutu. The frilly skirt was clearly more than she could resist. However, she is kept in sensible plaid skirts, bathrobes, sleek riding habits and elegant gowns for the majority of the film. Even von Stroheim, though, could not stop her from falling into the occasional pout.
I have nothing but praise for John Gilbert. Von Stroheim had wanted Norman Kerry for the lead but was overruled by Louis B. Mayer and Mae Murray. They were absolutely correct. Kerry had starred in some famous films but he was (my apologies for being so harsh) a middling actor without much charisma. Gilbert, on the other hand, was a walking slice of movie charm. Danilo is a cad (and a pretty creepy one, too), a bounder and something of a weakling. Gilbert’s charisma is the only thing that stands in the way of the audience hating his character. It is more than up to the task.
(Von Stroheim is said to have admired the Danilo character and at one time hoped to play him. When Danilo leaves a note for Sally, it is von Stroheim’s handwriting.)
Von Stroheim manages to poke a bit of fun at the very concept of a royal class. Danilo and Mirko are the chief rivals for Sally but their royal station also leaves them more than a little infantilized. They are always dressed in matching clothes, they fight and fuss and the queen has to play mother to both of them and break up their tussles. It is only during the final scenes of the film, when Danilo has well and truly rejected Mirko, that they abandon the matching outfits. (Danilo also avoids being matchy-matchy when he proposes to Sally in front of Mirko.)
In the end, the royal family only survives by welcoming the showgirl into their fold with open arms. Hardly a heroic victory for the noblesse.
Another aspect of von Stroheim’s direction that I enjoyed was the result of his infamous attention to detail. Too often in Hollywood films (and more often in the talkies), ancient kingdoms look just a bit too… shiny. Everything looks like it was unpacked in the prop room or the CGI department and polished to a sheen. Von Stroheim’s films look lived-in. There are splendid palaces and cathedrals, decadent clubs and giant ballrooms but each and every one of these places has atmosphere and character. You believe that the characters actually live, work and dance there even when the camera is not rolling.
Of course, this eye for detail came at a price. Time and treasure. Specifically, von Stroheim’s time and his studio’s treasure. This leads to an interesting debate about creativity vs. money.
The Merry Widow is often criticized (by von Stroheim, among others) as a compromise picture, a bit of MGM fluff foisted on the tormented artist that was von Stroheim. While it is certainly the most accessible of his films, The Merry Widow is also an excellent bit of entertainment in its own right. In fact, I dare say that if the von Stroheim name were obscured, it would be praised to the skies.
The auteur theory is still very much valued in film criticism and there is a tendency to view a director’s battles with his producers as some kind of holy crusade. It may not be the most popular stance but I often am on the side of the producers.
I put it to you that dealing with the front office is actually an essential talent for a director. The most successful directors were often the most skilled negotiators. The simple fact is that movies are unlike any other art form. While producers could be philistines, they also had difficult decisions to make. Money is obviously a limited resource and lavishing an enormous budget on one movie meant that other equally worthy films might not get made.
The other problem with the auteur theory is that it elevates the director at the expense of say, writers, editors, production designers, actors and, yes, producers. Is it ever applicable? In some case, certainly. But the vast majority of films succeed through corroboration, not the utter indulgence of a single person’s vision. (I have not been able to take the word “vision” seriously since it was used to describe The Phantom Menace, by the way.) Pauline Kael’s wonderful dissection of the auteur theory makes for very entertaining reading (or viewing), should you care to check it out.
The question of artist vs. producer is a fascinating one and highly debatable. Are producers always right? Not at all. What I object to is the kneejerk reaction to condemn any producer who denies a director, say, hand-embroidered silk underpants for all the extras. (Because, you know, art.) All too often, breathless tales seem less like a battle for right and more tilting at windmills.
The Merry Widow is a pearl of a silent. A pearl because it can be quite beautiful and because it was produced through an enormous amount of irritation. While some of the nudge nudge aspects had me rolling my eyes, I generally enjoyed the film and the performances.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
The Merry Widow was released on DVD-R by Warner Archive. It features an excellent organ score by Dennis James.