Based on an operetta by Franz Lehar, The Merry Widow is Erich von Stroheim working in a similar space as his contemporary Ernst Lubitsch (who made his own version of the same story nine years later). von Stroheim doesn’t have the same light touch as Lubitsch, but he was a graceful, detailed, and ornate filmmaker who tried for deeper emotions. The material isn’t the same kind of source of deep emotions as something like the novel McTeague that inspired von Stroheim’s Greed, but the director does manage everything well in his own way, providing an entertaining, if light, look at love and royalty in an invented Central European nation.
Prince Danilo Petrovich (John Gilbert) is second in line for the throne of Monteblanco, and he’s having fun. He’s a military man and womanizer who likes to pursue romantic conquests whenever he’s not leading his troops out on maneuvers. His cousin, the Crown Prince Mirko (Roy D’Arcy), is a sniffling worm of a man who is determined to punish a subordinate officer when he finds pigs near his hotel. At this same hotel comes a dancing troupe led by Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray), a pretty dancer who immediately catches Danilo’s eye. He orders his men to help him hide his identity as a prince to help seduce the pretty Irish lass, and it steadily works on her. She grows in affection towards him, and he does the same to the point where they do genuinely fall in love with each other. Over the objections of the Crown Prince, King Nikita I (George Fawcett), and Queen Milena (Josephine Crowell), the Prince plans a wedding with Sally, but he gets talked out of it with talk of duty to the state. Broken hearted, Sally accepts the marriage proposal of the wealthy Baron Sadoja (Tully Marshall) who dies on their wedding night, leaving her incredibly wealthy with Monteblanco money and a year to grieve.
von Stroheim is one of those storytellers that really puts in the effort early in his films to really establish and round out characters. In Greed the storytelling was broad enough to create all of the supporting cast, but in The Merry Widow the storytelling is more tightly focused around the two main characters. Those two, Danilo and Sally, end up quite well realized especially at the hands of Gilbert and Murray. Gilbert has a great moment where he has to quietly accept that Sally doesn’t want him, and Gilbert just stares off, crestfallen. It’s one of the most effective emotional moments in the film. Murray is also quite good, though she has the one “big silent acting” moment of the film where she rends off all of her clothes in anger at the news that Danilo won’t marry her. Outside of that moment, though, she’s really good. She’s something of an cynic at the beginning, watching Danilo try to woo her, and carries that over in a different form in the film’s second half when she comes back from her year in seclusion and some time in Paris, decked out in jewels and ready to return to Monteblanco in style.
This second half of the film is the real meat. The first half was just the setup, and the second half is where the work establishing everyone in the first act comes to fruition. The big sequence of the second half is around a ball designed to introduce Sally to Moneblanco society where Mirko starts his plans to marry Sally for her money. There are a pair of great closeups where Sally vanishes from the frame, leaving only her jewels twinkling against the light. She ends up playing up her attraction to Mirko in order to wound Danilo, and I was kind of surprised at how things were playing out for a time. There was a surprising amount of earned pain. It wasn’t deeply moving, but it was working.
And then its finale wraps everything up in a nice, melodramatic bow where everyone good is happy and everyone bad gets their comeuppance. It’s nice, but there seemed to be a darker undercurrent working that suddenly got snuffed out.
After the expansive and epic Greed, The Merry Widow is a much less ambitious film that von Stroheim handles well. He overspent like always, added a fair amount of sex, and apparently changed some libretto enough to anger MGM enough to decline to ever work with von Stroheim ever again. It’s really too bad that von Stroheim had such problems working with other people (the tales of him clashing with Mae Murray were part of the whole package as well) and couldn’t control his budgets, because he really was a quality filmmaker. The ambition he showed in terms of physical productions was really incredible while he could manage very good performances from actors and tell convincing stories. The Merry Widow might not be one of the great silent films, but it is a very nice one nonetheless.
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