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The Merry Widow

The Merry Widow(1934)

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teaser The Merry Widow (1934)

SYNOPSIS

The tiny European country of Marshovia is in a crisis when the richest woman in the land (Jeanette MacDonald), a widow owning 52 percent of their wealth, decides to take her riches to Paris in search of a new husband. The only man who can win the widow and keep the wealth in Marshovia is Count Danilo (Maurice Chevalier), a notorious Casanova whom the king has just discovered in his beautiful young wife's bedchamber. But as the music and the champagne flow, the widow discovers Danilo's plot in the midst of a blossoming love affair with him.

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda
Based on the operetta Die Lustigue Witwe by Franz Lehar, Victor Leon and Leo Stein
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Editing: Frances March
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Fredric Hope
Music: Franz Lehar, Herbert Stothart
Cast: Maurice Chevalier (Count Danilo), Jeanette MacDonald (Sonia), Edward Everett Horton (Ambassador Popoff), Una Merkel (Queen Dolores), George Barbier (King Achmet), Minna Gombell (Marcelle), Sterling Holloway (Mischka), Henry Armetta (Turk), Donald Meek (Valet), Akim Tamiroff (Maxim's Manager), Herman Bing (Zizipoff), Katherine Burke [Virginia Field] (Prisoner), Leonid Kinskey (Shepherd), Billy Gilbert (Fat Lackey).
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Why THE MERRY WIDOW is Essential

The third film version of Franz Lehar's 1907 operetta, The Merry Widow (1934) was the first talking version, and thus the first to take full advantage of Lehar's glorious music. Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope won the film's only Oscar® for their sumptuous set design. It was the last great example of the "continental" musical that had made Maurice Chevalier a star. Its combination of European operetta with a witty, sophisticated script hinting at more sexuality than it ever shows was typical of such musicals as The Love Parade (1929) and Love Me Tonight. (1932). Many critics have hailed it as the best of its kind.


Wittily directed by Ernst Lubitsch, The Merry Widow is a rich Viennese pastry of a movie, perfectly cast with a sparkling Jeanette MacDonald as the widow and a roguish Maurice Chevalier as the playboy prince. It was MacDonald and Chevalier's fourth and final film together, and their only one at MGM. Yet as perfect as their romantic pairing seemed, they actually disliked each other intensely. He thought she was a prude, and she called him "the biggest bottom-pincher I have ever come across." They had made three films together at Paramount, with MacDonald taking second billing to Chevalier, who was a much bigger star. Then she went to MGM, and her star was on the rise. MGM Producer Irving Thalberg, trying to entice Chevalier away from Paramount, offered him The Merry Widow. Chevalier was interested, but only if Thalberg would promise that he would not have to co-star with MacDonald. Thalberg agreed, signed Chevalier...then reneged on his promise. To add insult to injury, he gave MacDonald equal billing to Chevalier. Chevalier was furious, and his fury extended to Ernst Lubitsch as well.

Somehow, none of these animosities showed onscreen. The Lubitsch Touch, the delicacy with which director Ernst Lubitsch deflected sentimentality and hinted at sexuality, was in full flower in The Merry Widow. He keeps the film light and lively by filling it with witty and comical supporting characters whose lines and reaction shots provide a sophisticated context for the action. They also offer reactions that suggest what's really going on behind the famous closed bedroom doors in his films.

Because of his ability to alter the meaning of a scene with a single reaction shot or by focusing on one detail, Lubitsch is one of the key directors in the development of the auteur school of film criticism, the theory that the director is the true author of the film who communicates his personality through the way in which he films scenes.

Critics loved The Merry Widow, and predicted a big hit. But the film had cost $1,600,000, and it ended up losing money. By 1934, it must have seemed old-fashioned to audiences dazzled by the art-deco sleekness of RKO's Astaire-Rogers musicals, and Warner Bros.' Busby Berkeley films. Regardless, Jeanette MacDonald's performance convinced MGM that she was more than just a classically trained singing actress. They saw her star potential and started grooming her, which would lead to her pairing with Nelson Eddy for her next film, Naughty Marietta (1935). As for The Merry Widow, it shows remarkable durability. Today, its charm, wit, and style seem not quaint, but ageless.

by Frank Miller & Margarita Landazuri

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teaser The Merry Widow (1934)

Pop Culture 101 - THE MERRY WIDOW

Initial critical reaction to The Merry Widow put Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn in search of an operetta of his own. He signed Grace Moore after MGM dropped her for weighing too much, put her on a diet (some suggested that he even put her in his bed, too) and starred her in One Night of Love (1934). The film ended up a bigger hit than The Merry Widow, even bringing Moore an Oscar® nomination.

Moore's success and MGM's faith in Jeanette MacDonald inspired a new spate of American operettas starting with Naughty Marietta (1935), the first film to team MacDonald with her most popular co-star, Nelson Eddy. MacDonald and Eddy would become stars in decidedly more sentimental offerings that played better in small town America.

Director Ernst Lubitsch's sophisticated treatment of the battle of the sexes and screen romance were a tremendous influence on other directors. Both Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder -- writer-directors from Lubitsch's home studio, Paramount -- would credit him as an inspiration. Even international filmmakers tried to emulate him, most notably Jean Renoir in La Regle de Jeu (1939) and Ingmar Bergman with Smiles of a Summer Night (1955).

MGM made yet another version of The Merry Widow in 1952, with Fernando Lamas as Danilo and a non-singing Lana Turner as the widow. The film did well at the box office but poorly with critics. It won Oscar® nominations for Art Direction and Costume Design. To avoid confusion with the remake, the 1934 version was re-titled The Lady Dances for television showings.

The Merry Widow was accepted into the operatic repertoire in 1978, when the New York City Opera mounted a new production starring Beverly Sills and Alan Titus. Although opera stars had appeared in the show prior to that, those productions had been confined to theatres doing musical comedy.

Other versions included a German film in 1962, a television broadcast of the Sills production and an Australian video starring Peter Martins and Patricia McBride, with a guest appearance by Joan Sutherland.

by Frank Miller

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teaser The Merry Widow (1934)

Trivia and Other Fun Stuff on THE MERRY WIDOW

When the film's 1925 version appeared, a real Prince Danilo turned up and sued the studio. He agreed to drop the complaint when they paid him $4,000.

Cinematographer Oliver Marsh had also worked on the 1925 version.

To create a language for Prince Danilo and Sonia's native Marshovia, the lyrics to the "Russian Dance" were written in gibberish.

The 24 gowns Adrian designed for Jeanette MacDonald were so lavish it took 12 seamstresses four months to build them.

This was the first film on which MacDonald had to lip synch to her pre-recorded song tracks. MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier shot a French-language version of the film at the same time as the English one. French audiences were suitably impressed with her handling of the language, even down to subtleties in her line readings. Russian actor Akim Tamiroff, who plays the manager of Maxim's in the American version, took on the larger role of Turk for the French film. He was the only other cast member to appear in both versions. The French version is now lost.

The famous ball scene featured 500 extras dancing through mirrored rooms that made the crowd seem even larger.

The ballroom set featured 1,000 gas chandeliers. It took two hours to light them.

Chevalier's assistant and good friend Robert Spencer did a bit in the film as the man Chevalier cuts in on so he can dance with MacDonald.

For the versions released in England and Belgium, where gibes at the monarchy were considered offensive, King Achmet was turned into a general.

Una Merkel, who plays Queen Dolores, is the only performer to appear in two different screen versions of The Merry Widow. She played the role of Kitty Riley, the widow's traveling companion, for the 1952 version.

by Frank Miller

Famous Quotes from THE MERRY WIDOW (1934)

"Are you pretty? Or beautiful?"
"Gorgeous." -- Maurice Chevalier, as Prince Danilo, and a veiled Jeanette MacDonald, as Sonia.

"Love calls to love and my heart is your own." -- Sterling Holloway, as Mischka, serenading MacDonald, as Sonia, on behalf of Chevalier, as Prince Danilo.

"So they're blaming me, huh?"
"For everything. They're even telling jokes about your majesty."
"Are they funny?"
"No."
"That's bad." -- George Barbier, as King Achmet, discussing his failing country with Donald Meek, as his valet.

"Put Gabrielovitsch and Sienkovitsch together, and what have you got? Gabrielovitsch and Sienkovitsch." -- Una Merkel, as Queen Dolores, dismissing rumors of her infidelity.

"Have you ever had diplomatic relations with a woman?" -- Edward Everett Horton, as Ambassador Popoff, making sure Chevalier, as Danilo, is up to the task of seducing MacDonald, as Sonia.

"Your left eye says yes, and your right eye says no. Fifi, you're cockeyed!" -- Chevalier to MacDonald, when he thinks she's one of the girls at Maxim's.

"I'm a soldier. My duty is to fight. I'm willing to die on every battlefield. But I'm not going to drink another cup of coffee!" - Chevalier.

Compiled by Frank Miller

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teaser The Merry Widow (1934)

The Big Idea Behind THE MERRY WIDOW

The Merry Widow was one of the 30 operettas composed by Austrian Franz Lehar. It was a hit first in Vienna in 1905, then traveled to Broadway in 1907, where it played 416 performances. It was such a big hit in the United States that it led to the import of other European operettas and even inspired a line of promotional tie-ins: Merry Widow hats, gowns, cigarettes and corsets. The name became iconic, with "Merry Widow" used ever after to describe a particular type of corset.

The operetta was filmed twice during the silent era, first as a two-reeler in 1912, starring Wallace Reid and Alma Rubens. In 1925, director Erich von Stroheim treated it as a discourse on decadence, freely adapting the original libretto to create one of MGM's biggest early hits. John Gilbert starred as Prince Danilo, with Mae Murray in the title role. Eagle-eyed film fans can spot Clark Gable as an extra.

MGM first considered re-making The Merry Widow in 1930, only to learn that most of the plot elements they hoped to use in the new version had been added by von Stroheim, who had maintained the rights to them. It took three years for lawyers to straighten out the rights issues.

When MGM first considered making the film, opera singers Grace Moore and Lawrence Tibbett were announced as the stars. Then publicity suggested the studio would borrow Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald and director Ernst Lubitsch from Paramount. It would take four years, however, to put that package together.

Chevalier and MacDonald had made four films together by the time MGM lured her away from Paramount in 1932. At her previous studio, she had never gotten the star treatment that MGM promised her. She did well with her first film there, The Cat and the Fiddle (1934) and was ready for more ambitious assignments. In 1933, Thalberg managed to steal Chevalier. Although he had been one of the biggest stars in the movies in the early '30s, Chevalier was facing a box-office decline that he attributed to his typecasting as a bon vivant song and dance man. MGM production chief Irving G. Thalberg promised him the chance to expand his range.

Chevalier and MacDonald had not gotten along together on their earlier films. She considered him a first-class bottom-pincher, while he thought her a prude. He also resented the grande dame persona she assumed on the set and her condescending air. When he signed with MGM, he made Thalberg promise that he would not have to work with her again.

With Chevalier finally under contract, Thalberg announced that his first MGM film would be a new version of The Merry Widow. The role was similar to those Chevalier had been playing, but when Thalberg arranged to borrow Lubitsch from Paramount and promised the star more diverse roles afterwards, Chevalier agreed.

Chevalier's personal choice to co-star with him was Moore. Her earlier films at MGM, New Moon and A Lady's Morals (both 1930), had not performed well at the box office. In addition, she was having trouble keeping her weight below the 135 pounds dictated by her contract. Lubitsch didn't care for her either, and even though she offered to play the role for free, Thalberg decided to look elsewhere.

Meanwhile, MacDonald's next scheduled film, I Married an Angel (1942), was put on hold because of problematic content in the screenplay that would have trouble getting past the censors. MGM would end up selling the rights to Broadway where Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who had been working on the score for them, turned it into a hit. MacDonald would finally film the project, with perennial co-star Nelson Eddy, in 1942, when it flopped at the box office.

Lubitsch had discovered MacDonald in a musical production in Chicago and recommended her to executives at Paramount Pictures for the female lead in his first film with Chevalier, The Love Parade (1929). He kidded her relentlessly on the set to keep her from getting too haughty.

With Lubitsch's full support behind MacDonald, Thalberg finally decided to cast the actress rather than a non-singing star like Joan Crawford, who was briefly considered (others mentioned for the role were stage star Peggy Wood and silent screen siren Gloria Swanson). Chevalier complained to gossip columnist Louella Parsons, triggering a war of words between himself and Lubitsch. The director told Parsons, "I can only think when he was so determined not to have Jeanette MacDonald that he was afraid of her great popularity abroad...if MGM intends to keep Lehar's music and really make a musical play, there should be someone who can sing" (quoted in Edward Behr, The Good Frenchman: The True Story of the Life and Times of Chevalier). In the face of such a public thrashing from his director, Chevalier backed down and agreed to make the film with MacDonald. Legally, he couldn't sue, as Thalberg's promise about the casting only appeared in an informal letter, not his contract.

Lehar himself contributed new music to the film and new lyrics were written by Lorenz Hart and Gus Kahn. Because MGM had hired Hart and composer Richard Rodgers as a team, they had to give Rodgers a credit as well, although he never worked on the film.

The screenplay was written by Ernest Vajda, who had written The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) for Lubitsch and Chevalier, and one of Lubitsch's favorite writers, Samson Raphaelson, who worked on such classics as Trouble in Paradise (1932) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

by Frank Miller

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teaser The Merry Widow (1934)

Behind the Camera on THE MERRY WIDOW

Shooting started in March 1934.

The Merry Widow was the only film teaming Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in which they never sang together. Aware that her classical style was poorly matched to his popular vocalizing, director Ernst Lubitsch even inserted a joke about the musical mismatch. At one point Chevalier seemed to be serenading MacDonald with a cultured baritone voice, only for Lubitsch to reveal the voice belonged to one of his orderlies.

Chevalier avoided any confrontations with MacDonald and Lubitsch throughout production. He did, however, blow up at his assistant, Robert Spencer. Spencer had relayed the director and co-star's invitation to Chevalier to help them plan the wrap party and provide gifts for the crew. The actor handed the assignment to Spencer, but when Spencer presented him with the bill for the gifts, which came to about $1,000, the notoriously stingy actor screamed at him. After thinking about it, and realizing that the cost of the gifts was not out of line with current Hollywood custom, Chevalier apologized.

Biographers have suggested that one reason for Chevalier's good mood on the set was his romantic involvement with one-time Paramount star Kay Frances. The actor had been married when they first met, but by 1934 he had divorced his wife. He and Frances were so serious that Newsweek announced they were getting married but they never did.

As he had done at Paramount, Lubitsch continued to play practical jokes on MacDonald. During one romantic musical number, he had left in her view on the set a Hollywood Reporter story announcing that MGM had imported English soprano Evelyn Laye as a threat to her. The star ran from the soundstage in tears.

Censors from the film industry's Production Code Administration objected to a scene at Maxim's in which Chevalier carries MacDonald to a couch, drops her there and then sits beside her. They only passed the scene when the stars managed to contort their bodies so she could keep both feet on the floor. That taken care of, PCA head Joseph Breen passed the film.

When the film premiered in New York City, Breen's boss, Will Hays, and Catholic publisher Martin Quigley, one of the Production Code's authors, were horrified at what they considered the introduction of filth into a harmless operetta. Breen had to come to New York, where he met with MGM executives and members of the Catholic church's Legion of Decency until 2 a.m. working out cuts to tone down Count Danilo's Casanova image and the suggestion that Maxim's was a glorified brothel. Since the film had already been sent to distributors, each distribution office had to cut the prints itself before they could be sent to theatres. Fortunately, the studio kept all the cut material and the film was restored as censorship restrictions relaxed.

With a $1.6 million budget, The Merry Widow was the most expensive musical of its day. It was also MGM's most expensive film since Ben-Hur (1925).

With the financial failure of The Merry Widow, Chevalier did not move on to better, more ambitious roles at MGM. The only parts Thalberg offered him were more Gallic charmers, first in an adaptation of The Chocolate Soldier, then in The Cardboard Lover. The former would have finally paired him with Grace Moore, who had moved to Columbia Pictures and scored a hit in One Night of Love (1934), but Chevalier wanted to return to France. When Thalberg informed him that in order to borrow Moore from Columbia he had had to promise her top billing, a clear violation of Chevalier's contract, the French star claimed breach of contract and left. After only one more film in the U.S. (Folies-Bergere, 1936), he returned to France until after World War II.

by Frank Miller

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teaser The Merry Widow (1934)

The Critics' Corner on THE MERRY WIDOW

The Merry Widow cost $1.6 million to make and lost about $100,000 during its initial release. Historians have attributed the film's box-office failure to the popularity of more American musicals like the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas at Warner Bros. and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films at RKO.

"Doing it in his own way, yet refraining from committing mayhem on the lovely Lehar masterpiece, Lubitsch has turned in a winner in this Merry Widow. As the music sweeps, so sweeps Lubitsch. It's a swell picture on its own and a credit to picturedom in general." - Bige, Variety.

"The new Ernst Lubitsch confection, a witty and incandescent rendition of The Merry Widow, had its first public hearing on this earth last night, where it was presented amid the tumult and the shouting which befit important cinema openings and perhaps the coronation of emperors." - The New York Times.

"Undoubtedly this charming, tongue-in-cheek version of Lubitsch comes closest to the composer's and librettists' intentions, even though only half the score is sung and that almost entirely by Jeanette MacDonald." - George Sadoul, Dictionary of Films.

"it is Lubitsch; it is also Hollywood; it is the cream of the American bourgeois film. It is a charlotte russe." - Peter Ellis, New Masses.

"Patchy, but sometimes sparkling version." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.

AWARDS & HONORS

The Merry Widow won the Oscar® for Best Art Direction for Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope. It was the film's only nomination.

by Frank Miller

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teaser The Merry Widow (1934)

The third film version of Franz Lehar's 1907 operetta, The Merry Widow (1934) was the first talking version, and thus the first to take full advantage of Lehar's glorious music. Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope won the film's only Oscar® for their sumptuous set design.

Wittily directed by Ernst Lubitsch, The Merry Widow is a rich Viennese pastry of a movie, perfectly cast with a sparkling Jeanette MacDonald as the widow and a roguish Maurice Chevalier as the playboy prince. It was MacDonald and Chevalier's fourth and final film together, and their only one at MGM. Yet as perfect as their romantic pairing seemed, they actually disliked each other intensely. He thought she was a prude, and she called him "the biggest bottom-pincher I have ever come across." They had made three films together at Paramount, with MacDonald taking second billing to Chevalier, who was a much bigger star. Then she went to MGM, and her star was on the rise. MGM Producer Irving Thalberg, trying to entice Chevalier away from Paramount, offered him The Merry Widow. Chevalier was interested, but only if Thalberg would promise that he would not have to co-star with MacDonald. Thalberg agreed, signed Chevalier...then reneged on his promise. To add insult to injury, he gave MacDonald equal billing to Chevalier. Chevalier was furious, and his fury extended to Ernst Lubitsch as well.

Somehow, none of these animosities showed onscreen. Critics loved The Merry Widow, and predicted a big hit. But the film had cost $1,600,000, and it ended up losing money. By 1934, it must have seemed old-fashioned to audiences dazzled by the art-deco sleekness of RKO's Astaire-Rogers musicals, and Warner Bros.' Busby Berkeley films. But even after 66 years, The Merry Widow shows remarkable durability. Today, its charm, wit, and style seem not quaint, but ageless.

Producer: Irving G. Thalberg
Director: Ernest Lubitsch
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson
Art Direction: Frederic Hope; Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Oliver Marsh
Costume Design: Ali Hubert
Film Editing: Frances Marsch
Original Music: Franz Lehar
Principal Cast: Maurice Chevalier(Captain Danilo), Jeanette MacDonald (Sonia), Edward Everrtt Horton (Ambassador Popoff), Una Merkel (Queen Dolores), Sterling Holloway (Mischka).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri

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