Thursday, August 10, 2023

The Merry Widow (Erich von Stroheim, 1925)

The last waltz

Funny, if you compare the original operetta of The Merry Widow to Lubitsch' version with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier you'll find a sophisticated romantic comedy involving a rich widow and the officer from a small country ordered to woo her.

I remember that Lubitsch version and loved it for the effervescent humor, the witticisms flipped at you like little crepes; at the same time it was a lavish production-- the ballroom scene alone had hundreds of extras and a thousand gaslights, and MacDonald wore a dozen gowns. Lubitsch, apparently, could direct a big production and still keep his signature airy tone.

Erich Von Stroheim's The Merry Widow you'd hardly recognize as the same creature except for the famous waltz that plays a prominent role in the plot. He delves into the widow's backstory, building up a failed romance between the widow (Mae Murray)-- who starts out as Sally O'Hara, dancer for the traveling show The Manhattan Follies-- and Prince Danilo (John Gilbert); against them he pits Crown Prince Mirko (Roy D'Arcy), a repulsive example of royal inbreeding, all smirks and leers and hypocritical fastidiousness (he loathes flies, but laughs in agreement when Danilo calls him a swine).

Stroheim patiently accumulates detail after detail, using physiognomy to say something about character (the crown prince's parents are overweight and piggy-eyed; officers are topped with gleaming pates (heavily pomaded, if not actually shaven) and swivel on ramrod spines; the kingdom's banker--Baron Sadoja--ogles ankles and totters like an arachnid on crutches).

Crown Prince Mirko is triumph of casting-- Stroheim had wanted to play the role but was talked out of it; he was apparently happy though with the choice of D'Arcy-- if Stroheim had played it Mirko would have had a menacing monolithic presence; as D'Arcy does play him he's a rarefied dandy with a mantis streak of cruelty. When he smiles-- which is often-- he displays a wide collection of teeth; perfectly white, which makes you wonder why they inspire such feelings of disgust (he looks as if he wants to sink his teeth into whatever he's leering at).

Critics then and now lavish praise on John Gilbert as Danilo in this film (this and King Vidor's The Big Parade the same year cemented Gilbert's status as dramatic leading man) and you can see why-- early on as womanizer he's smooth and slippery, and when homing in on a woman you catch a predatory glint in his eye; later as a man in love he is by turns passionate, noble, tender.

But Gilbert's only half the equation (a third if you count D'Arcy, which I do); there's the once-famous Mae Murray-- she of a number of silent hits directed by then-husband Robert Leonard, mostly forgotten today-- as Sally. Critics hated her limited range, her cloying artificiality; some considered her performance in this the best in her career. Maybe maybe not; fact remains she's tremendous in this film. In the first half, she's the spirited Irish-American dancer; later she reveals herself to be a basically decent girl, one who's had to 'run away from a lot of dinners hungry, especially when the host got fresh.' When she falls in love, she's a luminous figure lost in her passion for Danilo-- then she's like Lillian Gish, only with more meat to her.

That said, I wonder if Gish could do what Murray does in the second half-- play the ultrasophisticated widow, the brightest jewel in the glittering Paris firmament, so scandalous she's earned the moniker 'The Merry Widow.' She carries the various extravagant gowns (and believe me with MGM and Stroheim involved they're extravagant) as effortlessly as if she wore casual (or nothing at all); she flirts with the high and mighty as easily as with girlfriends. When she again meets Mirko and Danilo with roles reversed (this time they're the beggars and she the would-be benefactor), she plays their ardor and her own feelings (of enmity, of bitterness, of reawakened desire) against each other, all the while looking devastatingly sexy.

You saw Stroheim the grim realist (with short bursts of allegorical fantabulism) in Greed; here he's the director of a superproduction and uses everything-- cast, costumes, props, sets, even miniatures and matte shots-- accordingly. The impression you get is of a teeming diorama, every shot packed full to bursting in the heedless manner of DeMille or Griffith--a deceptive impression, I think. Griffith stumbled as often as he soared, setting genuinely poignant moments alongside 19th century melodrama, and DeMille-- well, you got the impression he stuffed his pictures with more than he knew what to do with, and the overall effect could be vulgar. Stroheim doesn't stumble; when he depicts decadence it's with a surgical precision that transcends vulgarity (during an all-night orgy Mirko shoot the eyes off a stone bust for sport, the image adding an element of suspense to a later duel with Danilo (Mirko even when drunk is a deadly shot)); musicians are blindfolded so they can't witness the debaucheries; at one point a pillow fight breaks out, obscuring all in a storm of goose feathers. Stroheim seemingly knows this milieu; if he's a fraud (he added the 'von' to his name strictly for effect) he's a watchful fraud able to mimic the flaws and excesses of the upper class which makes his seeming expertise all the more impressive: a willed act of empathic imagination drawing, perhaps, as much from sharp observation as from personal fantasies.

What makes Stroheim's authority so convincing, perhaps, is the tone with which he reveals these grotesqueries-- matter-of-factly, with little of the dismay, say, of Chaplin in the otherwise admirable A Woman of Paris. There Chaplin gives us the sordid details of 'champagne and truffles'-- large black truffles floated in a bowl of alcoholic fizz--and presents this as if it were the height of European indulgence (nowadays it would make a nice little segment on the Food Network); Stroheim has similar fare-- a heap of Beluga caviar served in a block of ice-- and presents them without fuss or comment (maybe one-- Sally: 'you Europeans sure know how to do things nice').

Beyond the lurid opulence though Stroheim's clearly a remarkable talent. In his hands a huge parade is suggested by row after row of soldiers marching in a series of dissolves (he was extravagant but even in his extravagance there's a cinematic elegance, an economy of visual means, if you like); a tall window glows with unearthly beauty; the royal palace towers over its inhabitants as if over ants; shock cuts of men and women sneering or glowering or howling are inserted like an eye darting about, looking for friendly faces and finding none; an assassin's gun fires and Stroheim cuts to a high shot looking down as the victim topples into a mud puddle.

The three lovers' relationship to each other is neatly summarized by images of their feet under a dining table, rubbing or stamping on each other; the idea that Danilo may be more than a seducer is delicately suggested by closeups between Danilo and Sally (Danilo, grinning after having stolen a kiss from Sally; Sally looking hurt, betrayed; Danilo, his face softening, realizing he's wounded her; Sally looking back at Danilo in wonder, startled at the possibility that he may after all be a sensitive soul). If the film achieves a measure of dark magnificence thanks to Stroheim's obsessive thoroughness, it also achieves a measure of poignancy thanks to his focus on what matters-- the drama of human faces in passionate correspondence or conflict with each other.


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