Sunday, 6 October 2013

Erich's pop opera… The Merry Widow (1925)


After the huge cost and commercial failure of Greed, somehow Irving Thalberg entrusted Erich von Stroheim to make another film and the result was the director’s biggest hit. It is also one of the few films he made after Blind Husbands that was not cut to bits by the studio and survives almost as he had intended… which makes it all the more surprising that von Stroheim later professed it his least favourite film.

Whatever the compromises Erich may have felt necessary, The Merry Widow still emerges as a tribute to his ability and one which has more than a little sense of the unease which he seemed to revel in. There’s an undercurrent of decadence and fetishist obsession as the nobility indulge themselves – doing as they wilt. There’s an exclusive club called Fredericks where scantily-clad, musicians play blindfolded in locked boudoirs whilst in Paris, Maxim’s plays host to all manner of jazzy debauchery.

John Gilbert
Then there are the leads: Roy D'Arcy’s Crown Prince Mirko face twisted in a semi-permanent malevolent teeth-baring grin almost steals the show whilst Mae Murray’s unique presence makes for a quirky love interest for the classically handsome John Gilbert – that’s not to say that she isn’t wonderful.

Dastardly Roy D'Arcy
But, it’s not quite what you’d expect of an opera adaptation and, indeed, von Stroheim, focuses only the latter third of his film on the widow who is making merry and the initial sequence on how she came to be. In doing so he made a gently subversive film that is loaded with smuggled meaning as well as being a testament to his sheer cinematic skill.

Danilo and Sally's stunning waltz
The story is so well framed with shot after winning shot all in sumptuous lingering detail. The camera pulls in and out of these glorious settings although there’s not too much lateral movement until late in the film when a superb sequence of tracking shots at just above head height, show off Murray and Gilbert's waltzing… as if von Stroheim had saved it up for just this moment.

It’s light years away from Greed’s grinding realism and yet, scratch the surface and the same grotesque human frailties are all there. Even Murray’s Sally O’Hara is cruel as she punishes Gilbert’s Prince Danilo for jilting her, almost to his death in fact whilst Danilo is a smiling sexual predator at least at the film’s start. That you find such qualities in the heart of a comic opera says much about von Stroheim’s smarts as well as the continuing appeal of this film.

D'Arcy, Murray and Gilbert
Orson Welles told von Stroheim that he was ten years ahead of his time whilst the director retorted that it was twenty… he’s still just about keeping pace though with as much darkness as light.

The film starts in made-up Monteblanco – a bit like the overblown eastern European kingdoms later to be found in Marx Brothers films – with a grand procession for King Nikita I (George Fawcett) and his Queen Milena (Josephine Crowell) from their loyal subjects (a title card hints at the reality).

Gilbert, Murray and D'Arcy
The next in line to the thrown is the nasty Crown Prince Mirko (D'Arcy) followed by his cousin the devilishly charming Prince Danilo (Gilbert) and underpinning the regime is the vast wealth of Baron Sixtus Sadoja (a brilliantly un-hinged Tully Marshall).

Into the debauched world of the princes arrives a travelling troop of American performers led by Sally O'Hara (Mae Murray) and as the two vie for her attention, there can only be one winner.

And she can dance...
Sally performs at the local theatre and we see Murray’s dancing background put to good use in a performance that beguiles the nobility. Von Stroheim saucily shows their binoculars focusing on various elements of Sally’s anatomy, Baron Sadoja can’t get enough of her feet, Mirko leers at her torso whilst Danilo aims higher, gazing at her face… are you watching Mr Hitchcock?

Admiring the view
Danilo is initially only playing games with Sally and orders his men not to reveal his regal standing to add extra spice to the pursuit. But, as he gets close to his goal, in a private room at Fredericks, Sally breaks down and he realises that she means more than just another notch on his many bedposts.

Jealous Mirko gate-crashes their moment with a host of revellers and Danilo faces them off by announcing that he will marry Sally.

Face off: George Fawcett and John Gilbert
Now this of course not good at all and Mirko is joined by both King and Queen in trying to persuade him that he cannot marry a mere commoner. Overwhelmed by the Queen’s appeal to put country before feelings he leaves Sally all dressed up with no wedding to go to…

Baron Sadoja is on hand to offer her a way forward and she accepts his proposal if only to spite the royal family who depend so much on his wealth. Sadly for Sadoja, he doesn’t make it any further than a kiss on the shoulder on their wedding night… Now Sally begins to enjoy her payback spending her inheritance living it up in Paris.

Greed: Part Two
Attempting to secure these funds for the Crown, Mirko sets off in pursuit followed by a crushed and confused Danilo… we think we know how this will all play out but Sally is set on some revenge and the question is how far is she prepared to go to get it…


Von Stroheim reportedly wasn’t happy with Gilbert and Murray’s performances but this is rightly regarded as a great showing from the latter and the director certainly lavishes enough camera time on his star in lingering close-up. One feels a little protective of Murray given how cheap the shots still are concerning her fall from grace post marriage and MGM walk-out. This is possibly the after effects of the MGM publicity machine – shooting anyone down who stepped out of line (I believe Mr Gilbert had the same experience…) – here, judging from her exuberance, was an off-beat actress with a decent heart.

Mae Murray
I watched the Warner Archives DVD which is available direct or from Amazon. It comes with a lively accompaniment from Dennis James played on the Moller Pipe Organ in the Atlanta, Georgia Fox Theatre: the authentic sound of twenties cinema.

Trivia… Exotica legend Xavier Cugat plays the Orchestra leader at Maxim’s whilst some folks named Joan Crawford and Clark Gable were extras in the ballroom dancing scenes.


Talking of the differences between his film and the1932 re-make, Von Stroheim said: “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.”

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