Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Merry Widow (John Gilbert and Mae Murray, 1925)

Good morning!

First of all, HAPpy birthday to my husband, Matthew, who turns the big 32 today! I love teasing him because he's three years and some months older than me, which created the following hambone running joke from yours truly: "Gee! You're so much older than me! When I'm thirty two, you'll be...[feigns mental addition] a hundred and thirty two! And when I'm fifty, you'll be...[counting on fingers, mouthing numbers] a hundred and fifty! And when I'm...." (ad infinitum). He was a good sport to drive me across the frozen tundra this morning (I'm kidding, the roads are still clear, but it is one degree outside this morning! One!) even though it is his birthday, and I am happy I get to spend another year with my cutie, even at his advanced age. :) We're going to have a special birthday dinner later, but for now, it's time to talk oldies!

In specific, Mae Murray and John Gilbert in The Merry Widow. Take it in, y'all...this is the stuff that dreams are made of:

Disclaimer: I'm on a SUH-HERE-IOUS silent movie kick lately. It's funny, because when I initially got into silent movies in high school, there were only a handful of them available on special Kino company VHS's at the library, along with beaucoup de books and biographies and overviews of the pioneer, pre-talkie days of Hollywood, USA. Starting with a coffee table book called Mary Pickford Rediscovered, I fell head over feet into the world of the nineteen-teen's and twenties' movie industry-- all the Cinderella stories of hardworking troupers who left regional theaters and traveling musicals and dance hall engagements for a shot at success in this new fangled field, the "flickers". While I could tell you where they fit into the stars' and directors' filmographies, and give a decent synopsis of the plots, there are a lot of movies I'm familiar with but have just never seen. The Merry Widow was one of these until yesterday afternoon. And folks! What a picture!! It was worth the 10 year wait!

Directed by Erich von Stroheim, The Merry Widow is a 1925 MGM release based on a 1905 operetta by Franz Lehár (which, in turn, was based on a 1861 play by  Henri Meilhac...let's just say the story was not new even in the twenties'!). Von Stroheim transported the drama from Monaco to a fictional meso-European country where Prince Danilo (the ever-dreamy John Gilbert) is visiting one of his principalities with a group of fellow royals, including his particularly Snidely Whiplash looking cousin, the Crown Prince Mirko (frequent Gilbert co-star Roy d'Arcy). Former Ziegfield Follies dancer Mae Murray gets top billing as Sally O'Hara, part of an American traveling troupe who are stranded in the Bavarian town in between bookings, and e-e-e-every eligible male in the royal procession is taken by her winsome blonde good looks and tiny, tiny feet (von Stroheim does no less than I think five cutaways to those tiny tootsies in gorgeous satin twenties' shoes, so it must be some kind of thing). At first, womanizing Danilo only seeks to add her to his list of extracurricular conquests. He tries to seduce her in his above-the-Bavarian-speakeasy pied à terre, but faced with Sally's great beauty and surprising virtue, he instead falls madly in love with her. Danilo intends to marry her, but his position in the regency forbids his marrying a commoner, and he stands her up on their wedding day, Danilo, how could you. His mother sends ol' Snidely Whiplash to offer Sally money; predictably, he is nothing less than insulting about the whole thing. No kidding, this kind of stuff finds me mutely cussing at the screen and literally wringing my hands. I get way too wrapped up in the story!

In a state of inconsolable grief over the Danilo affair, Sally is laying prostrate on the floor of her room crying as this ancient old man, who happens to be the richest guy in something like four countries, offers to marry her instead. He stays for some time, giving reason after reason that she would be wise to accept his proposal, until finally she relents. On their wedding night, Sally sitting around in a to-die-for-lace peignoir with train, biting her lip about having to lose her maidenhood to this 3,000 year old mummy, when said mummy up and dies on the spot, making her...the richest woman in whatever-the-name-of-the-not-Monaco-country-is! She goes to Paris to forget her sorrows, decks herself out in the finest, swankest, bird-of-paradise clothes, and accepts an invitation to a royal ball back in kinda-Bavaria. That'll teach that no-good Danilo!

Poor, no-good Danilo, however, is in fact eating his heart out over his lost love. Between pining and drinking himself into a forgetful stupor, he's dissipated from the gorgeous young royal he was at the beginning of the movie to the unsteady-on-his-feet perpetual inebriate of the fourth reel. His love was true! He's dying of a broken heart! Danilo shows up late, drunk, to the imperial ball, only to be greeted by Mirko on the throne at the head of the ballroom and exactly who at the dastardly next-in-line-to-the-throne's right? His lost Sally, dripping in diamonds, looking like the Queen of Sheba!

The next thirty minutes leave us on pins-and-needles as to whether or not Sally and Danilo will put aside their respective foolish pride(s) and get back together! A two-step of denial starts between the two of them, neither one wanting to be the first to wave the white flag of a truce. The Crown Prince, in spite of his earlier rudeness to Sally, now wants to marry her to keep her fortunes in the country, and Sally cruelly plays along to punish Danilo for leaving her high and dry at the altar. It goes all the way to a duel in the next to last scene, and being as this is Erich von Stroheim, a notably grave and serious (though admittedly brilliant) director, I didn't know until the last scene whether or not Danilo was going to make it! I was sitting at my desk preparing myself for tears. You'll have to see the movie for yourself to find out how it wraps up, but don't worry, I was only a little bit bleary eyed in time for my after-lunch shift yesterday.

I was blown away, how even in the taped-off-tv-onto-VHS-then-duped-to-digital copy of the movie uploaded to Youtube, how effective the closeups were in this movie. Mae Murray, who seems to constantly be doing some kind of chipmunk-open-mouth-teeth-baring thing in her publicity stills (as you can see on this page), is all lithe prettiness, and dances effortlessly through her on-stage scene as well as during the climactic "Merry Widow's Waltz" in the second act. Her blue eyes, framed in her face by a white halo of blonde hair, pierce through the screen as intensely as you could wish for in her solo scenes, and in spite of what all the contemporaneous (or should we say, contemptuous) press of the time says, she actually acts! And well! Gilbert, for his part, cements his role as a silent-screen-heartthrob in the Valentino mold, as he is killing you with his smoldering gazes during the after-break-up parts of the movie, and with his easy, natural smile. Von Stroheim's sumptuous costume details and epic crowd scenes were sadly lost on me through this print, but I'm hoping my DVD copy from Warner Archive will boast a better transfer than the YouTube version I watched. Lord knows I want to see it again! This movie is romantic drama of the silent era at its best.

Of course, I was interested to see what Photoplay year of our Lord 1925 has to say about it, and found these clippings:

The "tell the children" not to go to The Merry Widow clause is in there in the last line of this review because there is S-E-X sex throughout the first half of the movie. I'm talking double entendres, single entendres-- a major portion of the narrative has to do with people trying to bed-and-not-wed eligible females in the vicinity. Mae Murray is in a tutu and tap pants for one scene (looking good for 36, lady! Dang!), and nearly nude in a body-suit in another. Gilbert's trying to kiss her on a bed, while blindfolded musicians giggle in the background, for one steamy scene! People forget that silent movies were not rated under the strict Hayes code of the talkies' period, and while yes, there were plenty of Pollyanna type movies out there, the sophisticated sexy comedy or drama were well-established genres of the motion picture screen.

Speaking of unspeakables, Mae Murray appeared in Photoplay showing off the delicate French lingerie she bought for her next film in Germany, in front of this stock photo of people with trunks. She's clothed in this photo, but we clearly see her underthings in the next:

I'm not even sure how these work! What are we looking at here?

Thankfully, a more understandable fashion spread follows. Do you love how the captions describe in detail the color and texture of each outfit! Thank goodness, you know how I hate guessing in black and white!

Listen to this mean spirited letter from the write-in column, "Brickbats and Bouquets", in the front of one Photoplay. Lou and John must not have seen The Merry Widow!

Last but not least, here's a still from a color test Mae Murray did for Kodak in 1922, three years before The Merry Widow was released; one Gilbert biographer described Murray as looking her most affected but most beautiful, and ain't it the truth? You can see the whole thing here; she comes in at about the halfway mark.

So! Seen any good movies lately? Are you a silents fan? What kind of stuff have you seen from "the dawn of the motion picture industry"? How dreamy is John Gilbert? Did you survive last night's cold front? Let's talk!

That's all for today, but I've added the video of Merry Widow to the bottom of this post-- if you get a chance, watch it and tell me what you think! If you can get past the bad quality transfer, I promise you, there's a top notch movie underneath! Either way, stay warm and I'll see you tomorrow! Til then.



  1. Pandora's Box is on Hulu+. I'm a silent movie fan ( you know how I feel about Gloria Swanson) and you have GOT to watch Louise Brooks destroy men with a big (Cherryvale)Kansas smile on her face.

    1. I love Louise Brooks! I once cut my hair to match hers in a fit of passion for "Pandora's Box"...no one told me it would help if you didn't have 36 cowlicks and a widows peak. I flat ironed them as best I could! I forgot she was from your neck of the woods, how neat is that? I need to watch that movie again, I was seeing some clips of it on an interview she did called "Lulu in Hollywood" (to go with her book??) and she's just shockingly gorgeous, even three quarters of a century later. I just found out "Beggars of Life" (a movie she did with Wallace Beery and Richard Arlen) is on Youtube! The (user added) soundtrack is dumb, but mute it and put on some hot jazz and it's not too bad! Here's the link. Here's the link.

  2. What a great blog you have!!! Thanks for stopping by.



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