Tuesday 23 June 2009

The Merry Widow (1934)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Stars: Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald

To make the most notable version of Franz Lehar's operetta, The Merry Widow, Ernst Lubitsch had to outdo no less a name than Erich von Stroheim, who had made it in 1925 but apparently he did, the IMDb rating notwithstanding. Then again silent musicals are a acquired taste, and no, I'm not kidding. There were such things. To replace Mae Murray and John Gilbert, MGM cast the dynamic double act of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, who were always successful together, however much they despised each other in real life.

We're in the Kingdom of Marshovia in 1885, where almost everyone is a soldier, a pretty girl or a gypsy. Chevalier is a soldier called Count Danilo and MacDonald is a pretty girl who he has his eyes on, though she's also a widow, Madame Sonia, the richest such in the land. Because this is Marshovia, she dresses completely in black, all the way down to her veil and corset and her pet pug, and hides herself away in her mansion. Therefore the Count has to go to extraordinary lengths to meet her and proffer his love, even though he's apparently a legendary lothario that every other pretty girl in town dreams of (and probably remembers).

Now as any decent widow would, she ignores or shoots down all his advances, even the greatest one when he demands an answer that is either 'Yes' or 'When'. Count Danilo for his part behaves impeccably but when he doesn't get anywhere proclaims that the romance is over and dares her to forget him! The man has cojones. And of course, our widow finally has something to write about in her diary, a formerly busy book that has been neglected in the year since she was widowed. And soon she decides she's had enough of being a widow and off she trots to Paris.

This is a problem for Marshovia because she's so rich that she own half the country and everyone else lives off her taxes. With her in Paris and suitors lining up around the block, King Achmet II is panicked: the whole country could be bankrupted. So he tries to conjure up a suitor of his own, a Marshovian suitor who he can send on a secret mission to woo The Widow and bring her back home. He doesn't do too well until he discovers the man who has snuck in to see his good wife, the Queen, the moment he left.

Quelle surprise! It's Count Danilo! So off goes Danilo to Paris to win back The Widow, who pretends to him that she's someone else called Fifi. Naturally they're going to end up together because that what always happens in films like this, but we have a ride to get there and where it ends up is not quite where you might expect. First they have to fall utterly in love with each other, while sniping memorably at each other, but with Madame Sonia playing Fifi not herself, making life a little difficult when he has to get down to the task at hand.

What makes this one worth watching is the fact that there's much more than just songs in this one, though I should add that while these songs are not my sort of songs they are remembered fondly by those who like such things. Here there's story too, cleverly structured. There's capable cinematography and there are costumes, always costumes. The MGM costume department had a ball, even before we get to Paris and there they go hog wild at Maxim's where they dance the can can. Some of them are truly awful but they're never less than ostentatious, flamboyant and impossible to ignore.

The dialogue is especially great. The most obvious peach of a line has to be the Marshovian ambassador asking Danilo: 'Have you ever had diplomatic relations with a woman?' My favourite though is when the Count explains to Fifi about how forever is always a night, so she introduces a bevy of beauties as 'All your little tonights and not a tomorrow among them.' Even the lesser lines are rendered better by some great delivery by the excellent supporting cast: especially Una Merkel, Edward Everett Horton and Sterling Holloway, long before he'd become a Disney voice, most famous as Winnie the Pooh.

The Ernst Lubitsch touch is very much in effect, this being light and fluffy with a charm apparent throughout. The downside for me are the songs, which are to my personal taste a little pretentious; and, surprisingly as this is an MGM film, the sound mix. Given that Douglas Shearer's decades of work for MGM is unparalleled, I can only imagine that I was watching a less than superb print, this being a 1935 film after all. And then there are the leads. Maurice Chevalier is utterly charming but I don't see why a generation swooned at the sight of him. He's certainly not much to look at; maybe it's just the French accent. Jeanette MacDonald is lovely but she has a hint of that stern Irene Dunne look and it always looked as if she was coated in makeup. Regardless, they fit the material and they bring it to life magnificently.

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