With this 2011 Warner Archive Release, most of Erich von Stroheim’s “personally directed” films have been released with the inexplicable, frustrating exclusion of his legendary, mutilated Greed (1924). Only von Stroheim could have taken Franz Lehar’s 1905 giddy operetta “The Merry Widow” and turned it into a silent fetishistic melodrama. The Merry Widow stars Mae Murray and John Gilbert. Murray’s screen persona alternated between virgin and vamp . Here, she is the virgin who becomes the much sought after prize. Despite having unique on-screen charisma, Murray, one of early cinema’s true divas, was among those who could not make the transition to sound, and her off-screen life was not afforded a happy ending. She married a real-life Prince who forced her to leave MGM, then divorced her, and took custody of their children. Years later, Murray, homeless, was arrested for sleeping on park bench in NYC. She died, forgotten and in poverty, in a nursing home in 1965. Gilbert’s decline into alcoholism is, of course, far better documented.
Quite surprisingly, The Merry Widow was a critical and box office success for von Stroheim. The film was so successful that it was remade in 1934 by Ernst Lubitsch (as a musical, replete with the Lubitsch touch, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald) and in a best-forgotten 1952 version starring Lana Turner. Despite a studio mandated, ill-fitting happy ending, von Stroheim’s silent version is, predictably, the most bizarre. The director added much to the story, stamping it with his idiosyncratic touch and causing the film to go considerably over schedule and over budget. The previous year’s Greed had nearly bankrupted the studio and sent producer Irving Thalberg to the hospital. After The Merry Widow, von Stroheim would not direct a film for three years.
The story is aptly set in the fairy tale kingdom of Monteblanco (visually realized by the lush cinematography of Oliver Marsh and surrealistic mattes). Prince Mirko (Roy D’Arcy) is heir to the throne . Second in line is Mirko’s womanizing cousin, Prince Danilo (Gilbert). Enter the American chorus dancer Sally O’ Hara (Murray) whose legs are immediately noticed by all the attending males. It is the first of many such scenes with burning gazes. Baron Sadoja (Tully Marshall) is the elderly perv who bankrolls the kingdom. Sadoja’s gaze focuses on O’Hara’s feet, and von Stroheim takes the route of delirious excess in visualizing the Baron’s foot fetish (one orgy-like fantasy sequence glides over rows of shoes, a scene that outraged Thalberg. The director nonchalantly explained that the character had a foot fetish, to which the producer replied, “And you have a footage fetish.”) Mirko envisions O’Hara as a Venus de Milo torso and, he will only home to her arms when, they are adorned with jewels. Danilo’s leer fixates instead upon O’Hara’s bee-stung lips. He objectifies her, but after pulling a bit of prankster deception on her he later feels guilty for his lust for a sincere maiden. He quickly proposes to her, and then he cowardly jilts her after the King and Queen persuade him not to marry a commoner. Devastated, O’Hara rebounds by marring Sadoja who, after merely kissing his wife’s shoulder in the bridal chamber, falls in the ultimate climax of death. Now widowed and the wealthiest woman in the kingdom, O’Hara becomes the booty. Mirko and Danilo duel over her. Danilo loses, but survives with a minor wound (!) Of course, being an MGM production, a happy ending is called for, and it nearly wrecks the film.
Mirko is von Stroheim’s sadistic Prussian antagonist, a part the director relished and understandably wanted to play himself. Unfortunately for von Stroheim, Thalberg rejected the director as actor, prompting the casting of D’Arcy. D’Arcy’s florid portrayal reaped praise aplenty from critics and audiences, turning him into a villainous star. Unlike his co-stars, D’Arcy survived sound but his acting style was stylistically baroque and dated quickly, relegating him to “B” films and serials, such as Shadow of the Eagle (1932) opposite John Wayne and Whispering Shadow (1933) opposite Bela Lugosi. Contemporary audiences may find D’ Arcy’s acting dated, but appealing in its otherworldly expressions (overt leering, a seemingly frozen, malevolent grin). It is easy to see how he walked away with the film.
Part of von Stroheim’s excesses in the filming included costly Prussian underwear, worn by D’ Arcy underneath his costume (and therefore never seen) merely to get the actor in the right mood. Still, it’s hard to sympathize with Thalberg’s sense of frustration. Having worked with von Stroheim numerous times, Thalberg knew the his penchant for opulence and, rightly, felt the film needed this director’s brand of genius. Von Stroheim’s own comment, comparing his Merry Widow to Lubitch’s more conventional remake, is telling: “Lubitsch shows the king on the throne first, then in the bedroom. I show him in the bedroom first so you know what he is when you see him on the throne.”
Years later, upon meeting von Stroheim, Orson Welles complimented him by assuring the director that he was “ten years ahead of his time.” Von Stroheim retorted, “twenty.” Seen today, von Stroheim’s films certainly stem from silent film stylization. However, his uncompromising sense of vision and aesthetic commitment show von Stroheim as still being ahead of his time. Of all von Stroheim’s films, the director liked this one least, feeling that he had compromised too much with Thalberg. In a way, he was right, but regardless, the director’s surreal hedonism personally soaks the film, albeit in a subdued light. No serious film student should bypass the works of Erich von Stroheim, and The Merry Widow is the essential starting point to a richly unique oeuvre.