Merry Widow, The (1925)

“What’s marriage got to do with love?”

Merry Widow Poster

Synopsis:
A European prince (John Gilbert) falls for an American showgirl (Mae Murray) but is forbidden by his parents from marrying her. Heartbroken, she weds an elderly baron (Tully Marshall) who promptly dies, leaving her free to marry again — but will the newly wealthy widow forgive Gilbert, or accept the proposal of his nefarious cousin, Crown Prince Mirko (Roy D’Arcy)?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
This little-seen adaptation of Franz Lehar’s operetta (remade in 1934 by Ernest Lubitsch) is primarily notable as the first film Erich von Stroheim directed for MGM immediately after the studio butchered his ten-hour epic Greed (1923). As Peary notes, it’s a rather “odd film”, given to “bursts of bizarre slapstick humor” and full of “weird characters” (including one with an amusing foot fetish); meanwhile, the story is relatively trite and predictable (especially given its studio-added happy ending). What’s most memorable about The Merry Widow is its visual creativity: soft matte backgrounds evoke an appropriately fairytale-like European ambience, while Oliver Marsh’s cinematography — though badly glaring and/or washed out in the print I saw — is boldly luminous, and Von Stroheim adds plenty of unique touches (a pair of blindfolded musicians lurk in the background as Gilbert romances Murray; D’Arcy sees only Murray’s glowing jewels once she’s become a wealthy widow). Gilbert — who was on the cusp of a brief rise to stardom before the arrival of “talkies” dashed his career — is a solid, sympathetic lead, while silent star Murray (a notorious diva who apparently made life miserable for von Stroheim on set) had what many consider her greatest role here. Film fanatics will likely be curious to take a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Gilbert as Prince Danilo
    Merry Widow Gilbert
  • Resplendently baroque sets
    Merry Widow Candelabra
    Merry Widow Set
  • Fairytale-like matte backgrounds
    Merry Widow Matte
    Merry Widow Matte2
  • Oliver Marsh’s luminous cinematography
    Merry Widow Romance
    Merry Widow Murray
  • Evidence of von Stroheim’s unique directorial touch
    Merry Widow Blindfolded
    Merry Widow Bracelets

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance.

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One Response to “Merry Widow, The (1925)”

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history.

    I’m not all that sure what Peary can be referring to when he calls this an odd film with weird characters (unless he means Gilbert’s two rivals, who are just kind of garden-variety repulsive). The film seems rather straightforward, if slight in narrative scope (although it does get considerable and significant extra mileage due to a single interrupted piece of communication). I imagine it was considered a solid piece of commercial entertainment in its day – mainly as it served up the romantic fantasy allure of a member of royalty with a commoner. (The characters Gilbert and Murray play are given rather liquid hearts and are, thus, forced to sway from one extreme to another. This all makes for quite the event-filled and, at times, shaky romance. As well, it must have caused quite a few audience hearts to flutter when Gilbert turns from wildly libidinous to desperately lovesick and faithful!)

    Undemanding story aside, ‘TMW’ is most noteworthy for its overall look and each aspect of its design. It’s impressively mounted, von Stroheim gets strong performances from his cast (with Gilbert rising above all others – and oddly reminding me here of Justin Timberlake!), and he makes sure that the action moves swiftly enough – with a palpable air of grandeur and style. The film also contains occasional welcome humor.

    Perhaps what has helped the film age well is the strength of its two leading characters. These are strong-willed personalities, each with a very strong sense of pride. We come to realize just how well-suited they are to each other but, boy, when their pride is hurt, it’s serious business.

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