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So overwhelming is Erich von Stroheim's reputation -- as the actor who portrayed the villainous Hun in numerous WWI silents, or as the obsessive director who created the epic 1924 film Greed -- that his more sophisticated artistry as a director tends to be overshadowed. Of the nine films he directed, seven are romantic fables cum morality plays that parallel the works of Ernst Lubitsch and foreshadow the films of Rouben Mamoulian.
On the surface, Stroheim's romantic tales are pure Hollywood escapism, exquisitely designed, lavishly produced and set in such exotic locales as Paris, Vienna, the Alps, or mythical locales that combine elements of each. But Stroheim's films are always more complex than they appear, and though they are drenched in storybook romance, his films are also oozing with moral corruption and biting social commentary.
The most successful of these pictures, critically and financially, was The Merry Widow (1925), produced at MGM in the wake of the monumental Greed. In fact, while The Merry Widow was being shot, Greed was in the process of being drastically re-edited (some might say "butchered") to reduce its length and soften its impact. Although the project had originated slightly prior to Greed, Stroheim looked upon it as an opportunity to show the studio that he was not a tyrant, but capable of working with established stars and making the kind of picture movie-goers wanted to see.
Against his better judgment, he succumbed to studio pressure and consented to give Mae Murray the leading role. Murray was a fading icon of silent screen modernity, "The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lip," a Ziegfeld Follies girl whose reputation as a goddess dwarfed her actual talents, and whose popularity as a screen actress was on the wane. By all accounts, her working relationship with Stroheim was difficult, yet The Merry Widow is the only one of her silent films worth remembering today.
While Murray's name appears above the title in the opening credits, the true star of the film is John Gilbert, who was just rising to prominence as a matinee idol, and whose fame would be cemented with The Merry Widow and King Vidor's The Big Parade, released later the same year.
Gilbert stars as Prince Danilo Petrovich, the good-natured, womanizing heir to the throne of a tiny kingdom of Monteblanco. He enjoys a rivalry with his cousin, Crown Prince Mirko (Roy D'Arcy), a conniving, monocled villain who lacks Danilo's wit, charm and insouciance. While lodging in a tiny mountain village, they encounter a traveling theatrical troupe, the Manhattan Follies, and are bewitched by its star, Sally O'Hara (Murray). Competition for Sally's affection begins, and Danilo, not surprisingly, wins her favor. However, King Nikita (George Fawcett) and Queen Milena (Josephine Crowell) forbid them to marry. When Danilo expresses his love for Sally, the queen coldly replies, "What has love to do with marriage?" and forbids the prince to marry the showgirl. Sally, left at the altar, adopts the queen's philosophy, and agrees to wed Baron Sixtus Sadoja (Tully Marshall) a lecherous cripple (one could safely hypothesize he is syphilitic) whose considerable wealth supports the Monteblanco kingdom.
On their wedding night, with the bride significantly dressed in black lace, Sadoja collapses with a heart attack. Sally completes the requisite year of mourning, while Danilo grieves of their stolen love, seeking distraction in the wild revelry of Maxim's in Paris. In an inspired Stroheimian moment, Danilo swaps drunken tales of "the girl that got away" with a fellow jilted lover -- a beautiful cigar-smoking lesbian.
Sally now controls the millions, and the two princes resume their efforts to woo her. Rebuffed by Sally, and horrified at the prospect that she might marry his foe, Danilo challenges Mirko to a duel... and the fate of the Merry Widow's happiness is determined by the barrel of a gun.
Much of the plot is owed to the operetta upon which it is based (music by Franz Lehar, libretto by Victor Leon and Leo Stein), but Stroheim personalized it to such a degree that it barely resembles the two remakes that would follow (Lubitsch's 1934 version and a 1952 musical starring Lana Turner).
Stroheim's collaborator on the screenplay was Irish-born lawyer-turned-newspaper editor Benjamin Glazer. "I frankly acknowledge that von Stroheim did the work," Glazer said, "If he received any inspiration or ambition from me at all, it must have been from my indolence." Glazer went on to script such important films as Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Seventh Heaven (1927) and was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The repulsive Baron Sadoja is purely a Stroheim creation. He is not only a physically unappealing lecher, he is also a foot fetishist. When Sally tries to pawn him off on one of the other showgirls, he examines their footwear, and then dismisses them with a sneer, before gazing lovingly at Sally's high-heeled white silk dance shoes. After viewing all his films, it is clear that, to some degree, Stroheim himself was an appreciator of women's fine footwear.
To each his own, Stroheim seems to say, and playfully illustrates this idea as Sally's three suitors gaze upon her while she performs at the Castellano opera house. Through his opera glasses, Sadoja, of course, stares at Sally's delicate feet. The villainous Mirko wants only her body, and his point-of-view reveals only her legs and midriff. Danilo, however, is more interested in her soul, and his opera glasses reveal a radiant view of Sally's beautiful face.
This difference in romantic philosophies is echoed in a scene in which Danilo woos Sally. It occurs in a secret wine cellar catering to Castellano's ruling elite. Mirko and his cronies indulge in an orgy of sorts, frolicking with prostitutes, engaging in a drunken pillow fight, and shooting the eyes out of a classical statue. Danilo, meanwhile, serves Sally a romantic dinner in a private apartment within, while being serenaded by two scantily clad musicians, who are blindfolded lest they witness a royal indiscretion.
In creating the fantastical kingdom of Monteblanco, Stroheim relied on a number of clever techniques. Fantastical matte paintings depict the "City in the Sky" as a cozy village nestled in the mountaintops, accessed by an enormous bridge worthy of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). Matte paintings and miniature models were both used in The Merry Widow -- for both exteriors and extravagant interiors -- and the surreality of these architectural and geological impossibilities only adds to the film's twisted fairy tale charm. In a few cases, actual locations were used. The San Diego Exposition Park provided the grand staircase for the climactic coronation sequence.
The coronation was even more spectacular upon the film's original release. The final two minutes of the film were shot in two-strip Technicolor (Stroheim employed the same technique with a parade sequence in The Wedding March ). The Technicolor consultant on the film was Ray Rennahan. According to Stroheim biographer Richard Koszarski (Von: The Life and Times of Erich von Stroheim), "For years Rennahan would find Hollywood technicians who had kept small clips from the scene as souvenirs, for it quickly earned a reputation as one of the finest examples of early Technicolor." Sadly, none of the Technicolor footage seems to exist today.
Years later, Stroheim came to look upon The Merry Widow with less pride than it deserved. "I am far from being proud of it and I do not want to be identified at all with so-called box-office attractions...When you ask me why I do such pictures I am not ashamed to tell you the true reason: only because I do not want my family to starve." There is some element of truth to this. It had been a year since his last payment from the Goldwyn Studios for Greed. But the fact that he repeatedly returned to the genre -- and that he recycled numerous elements of The Merry Widow for his ambitious production Queen Kelly (1929) -- seem to indicate that his personal investment in the tales of decadence among Eastern European royalty was much greater than he was willing to admit.
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Producer: Erich von Stroheim and (uncredited) Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: Erich von Stroheim and Benjamin Glazer, based on the Operetta Der Lustige Witwe by Victor Leon, Leo Stein and Franz Lehar
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons and Richard Day
Music: Dennis James (Organ Score)
Cast: Mae Murray (Sally O'Hara), John Gilbert (Prince Danilo Petrovich), Roy D'Arcy (Crown Prince Mirko), Tully Marshall (Baron Sixtus Sadoja), George Fawcett (King Nikita I), Josephine Crowell (Queen Milena), Hughie Mack (Innkeeper).
by Bret Wood