With its uber-glamorous intercontinental wit and sophistication set to the tune of Franz Lehr’s immortal lilting melodies, Ernest Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow (1934) remains a champagne cocktail of chic good taste – a movie musical par excellence and the definitive version of this much beloved, and frequently resurrected operetta. That MGM’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg should desire to make his own version of this classic tale (it had been filmed twice before during the silent era and would again be shot, this time in Technicolor at MGM in 1952) is perhaps not surprising. Apart from his overbearing creative passion Thalberg was a man of immeasurable erudition, possessing an intuitive appetite for making movies the public was clamoring to see even before they knew it. Thalberg’s vision for all that the movies could become was undeniably grand. But not even studio boss, Louis B. Mayer could argue with his success.
Wooing Lubitsch and co-stars Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier away from Paramount, Thalberg had hoped to make MGM the imprimatur of European elegance. But Chevalier proved quite ambivalent. Evidently, independence to choose his own projects was more of an incentive to Chevalier than money or fame. So, while Lubitsch and MacDonald both signed long-term contracts with MGM, Chevalier agreed to make The Merry Widow - period. The film’s modest success and Chevalier’s stubbornness to return to the fold under MGM’s guidelines resulted in his fallow period away from the movies.
Chevalier, however, was far from absent from the entertainment scene. He cut records, appeared on radio and toured in live concerts; inadvertently contributing to his own growing animosity in English-speaking countries when he sang in Germany during WWII. Accused of ‘collaborationism’ – a relatively polite term to suggest he openly embraced Hitler’s National Socialism (an erroneous allegation) Chevalier reemerged from this largely self-imposed isolationism as an even grander figure in MGM’s Gigi (1958) two decades later. Today, Maurice Chevalier is still regarded as the epitome of the courtly, polished and devilishly sly boulevardier; an artist who, even as the caricatured candlestick ‘Lumiere’ in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, remains instantly recognizable to movie audiences.
In The Merry Widow Chevalier is very much in the full flourish of rapscallion, cast as the deliciously artful Count Danilo, captain of the Royal Guard. The year is 1885; the country – that perennial Ruratanian never-never-land of Marshovia; a proud but penniless principality overseen by its benevolent, though bumbling King Achmed II (George Barbier). The widow, Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald) is first admired by Danilo during a military parade; stunningly attired in black from head to toe and wearing a heavy dark veil to obscure her eyes. Danilo, a notorious playboy whose effervescent charm has thus far managed to absolve him of all responsibility to his own small army of paramours, decides to romantically pursue the widow as his next conquest. She has retreated to the relative safety of her villa, ensconced in all her obvious bereavement to be serenaded by a mournful choir of balalaikas and violins.
Sonia, however, is not so easily swayed. Moreover, she maintains the Marshovian custom of wearing a heavy black veil to conceal her face from strange men. Thwarting Danilo’s advances, Sonia is later stirred in the wee hours of dawn, confused and sexually frustrated – opting on a spur of the moment impulse to flee to Paris while she considers her affections and her options. As Sonia’s estate dominates Marshovia’s economic prosperity her frantic exile alarms Achmed. The King implores his Queen, Dolores (Una Merkel) to set about finding a rich suitor who will bring the wealthy widow back to their shores.
In the meantime, Dolores entertains Danilo for herself, a romantic détente interrupted by Achmed. To punish them both for their indiscretion, the King orders Danilo to France to woo and marry Sonia. Danilo begrudgingly accepts the assignment. After all, it’s either this or prison. So, Danilo goes to Paris, unaware that he has already met the prospect for his own matrimony. But before reporting to the Marshovian Embassy Danilo decides to indulge in a final night of lusty diversions at Maxim’s; the much beloved cabaret where, to quote the man "it is wrong not to do something wrong"; where can-can girls madly twirl and anything – but everything – goes.
Sonia, who has been quite unable to rid herself of the memory of the dashing Danilo, follows him to Maxim’s where he accidentally meets Ambassador Popoff (Edward Everett Horton) to whom he reveals his ‘top secret’ mission. But Danilo’s fidelity to this governmental errand is put to the test when the can-can girls flock to seduce him. Sonia pretends to be just another chorine, flirting with Danilo and encouraging him to take supper with her in one of Maxim’s private dining rooms.
She lies to Danilo and tells him her name is Fifi, but thereafter runs hot and cold toward his advances. In one of the film’s best loved flirtations, Chevalier’s guileful count exclaims, “You’re the freshest Fifi I’ve ever known. Your right eye says ‘yes’. But your left eye says ‘no’. Fifi! You’re cockeyed!” Sonia delights in toying with the playboy – believing that she has bewitched his unconquerable heart. However, her pride is wounded when Danilo (who still does not know who she is) confides that he prefers girls of her ilk to stoic widows because he never has to worry about ‘tomorrows’ and can indulge in ‘tonight’ without retribution or even responsibility.
After Sonia storms out, Danilo is befuddled. He decides to console himself by getting quietly drunk. But when Danilo fails to show up at the embassy ball he is attended to by his ever-loyal orderly, Miska (Sterling Holloway), before confessing the real purpose of his visit to the can-can girls, who drag him to the ball under protest. Popoff threatens Danilo with court-martial if he refuses his duty. Begrudgingly Danilo, who has fallen in love with the widow – whom he still believes is a chorine named Fifi – prepares to meet Sonia. When he discovers that they are one in the same he is overjoyed. But the widow, having decided to teach this scamp his lesson, publicly rebukes Danilo with her own playful badinage before taking to the dance floor with a myriad of licentious suitors.
Admonished but undaunted, Danilo valiantly pursues Sonia. Although his intentions have shifted from duty to love, Sonia is bitterly disappointed when she overhears Popoff tell Danilo that the Marshovian newspapers intend to print a story already announcing their pending marriage. Believing she has been the unwitting pawn to their scheme all along Sonia denounces Danilo as a savage gigolo. Having miserably failed, Danilo is tried and convicted of treason to the state and sentenced to be hanged. Awaiting his date of execution the fallen Lothario is visited by Sonia in prison. Despite her reservations she has willingly decided she cannot sacrifice the one man she truly adores for the sake of her own honor. Danilo reveals his love to Sonia and the two embrace.
The Merry Widow is an exemplar of the musical/comedy. The strengths of its Ernest Vajda/Samuel Raphaelson screenplay go far beyond the usual ‘boy meets girl’ scenario concocted for movie musicals of this or any other vintage. The story is told bittersweet and tender, with revealing and uniquely sincere glimpses into the human heart. These insightful bouts, peppered in between the songs, yield to an even richer tapestry of froth and merriment; sustainable only through director Lubitsch’s intangibly light touch, encouraging the audience to look beyond the laughter and the music. MacDonald and Chevalier strike just the right chord together; his playful self-indulgence the perfect elixir to her serene, yet stately tartness.
If only this Warner Archive release had matched the superlatives in Cedric Gibbons’ art direction then this disc would really be something to crow about. As it stands, we’ve another middling - to just slightly 'less than' effort put forth on a film that deserves so much better. For starters, the disc appears to have been improperly coded during its ‘burn on demand’ rendering, so as to call up video based chapter stops and encryption as soon as the disc is inserted. These video-based icons intrude over the roaring lion at the start and are distracting to say the least. But the image that follows is, at times, equally disappointing. Lack of consistency is regrettably more the norm than the exception. The gray scale is solidly balanced in general – no blooming whites or muddy gray blacks. Contrast too is generally good. But grain can appear quite thick at times, while virtually nonexistent elsewhere.
The image quality waffles between moments of remarkable clarity and other instances where Oliver T. Marsh’s softly diffused cinematography becomes a blurry ugly mess, as in Jeanette MacDonald’s poetic solo, ‘Vilia’ – shot on a balcony at night – that virtually obscures the actress’ face in a fuzzy ghost-like smear in long shot. I am also not appreciative of the slight in-frame wobble from left to right plaguing a good portion of the second act, or the disturbing/ringing halo effect that distracts during the entire sequence between the King and Queen’s discussion of amiable suitors for the widow and thereafter continues to infrequently pop up throughout this transfer. The Merry Widow’s audio occasionally suffers from a slight hiss and pop, but on the whole is remarkably clean and well purposed. Too little/too late.
It is high time Warner Home Video took a more proactively aggressive approach toward the preservation and restoration of a good many titles thus far dumped into the Archive and onto the consumer without so much as an afterthought for the longevity of their importance as cinema art! Bottom line: The Merry Widow is exceptional entertainment. One would never guess as much by viewing it on this disc!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)