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.
|Dastardly Roy D'Arcy|
|Danilo and Sally's stunning waltz|
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|
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|
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...|
|Admiring the view|
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|
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|
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.
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.”