La Veuve Joyeuse (1934)


CREDITS
BACKGROUND
PLOT
REVIEW
RECORDINGS
MUSIC IN THE FILM


MGM.
Released November 2, 1934.
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
Produced [uncredited] by Irving Thalberg and Ernst Lubitsch.

Maurice Chevalier (Captain Danilo)
Jeanette MacDonald (Missia Palmieri)
Marcel Vallée (Ambassador Popoff)
Mme. Danièle Parola (Dolores)
André Berley (General Achmed)
Fifi D’Orsay (Marcelle)
Pauline Garon (Loulou)
Georges Davis (“L’ordonnaire” – Mischka)
Akim Tamiroff (Turk)
Albert Petit (Maxim’s manager)
Emile Dellys (Zizipoff)
Georges Renavent (Adamovitch)
Lya Lys (Maxim’s girl)
Georgette Rhodes, Odette Duval, Anita Pike, Barbara Leonard (Missia’s maids)
Fred Cavens, Sam Ash, Harry Lamont (Policemen)
George Nardelli, Constant Franke, Jacques Vanaire, George Jackson, George Renault, Marcel Ventura (Escorts)
Max Barwyn, Georges De Gombert, Arthur de Ravenne, Gino Corrado (Waiters)
Jean Perry (Valet to Achmed)
Fred Malatesta (Ambassador)
George Colega (Ambassador)
Adrienne d’Ambricourt (Newspaper seller)
Eugène Borden (Defense Attorney)
Jules Raucourt (Prosecutor)
André Cheron (Judge)
Eugene Beday (Doorman)
Juliet Dika (Wardrobe mistress)
Carrie Daumery (Woman with goat in court)
August Tollaire (Orthodox priest)
Gene Gouldeni (Priest)
Alice Ardell (Kiki)
André Verrier (Jailer)
Jacques Lory (News boy/goatman)


Background

Filmed simultaneously in Hollywood with the English-language version. All production credits as in The Merry Widow except: French dialogue: Marcel Achard. French Lyrics: André Hornez. Montage: Adrienne Fazan. Footage and characters without dialogue were, for the most part, identical in both films.


Plot

The major difference between the English and French versions of La Veuve Joyeuse is that King Achmed and Queen Dolores are demoted to General Achmed and his wife Dolores. The French version is slightly sexier, but has had all political humor and references to royalty removed. This is not surprising because the French government of the time would not have been especially sympathetic to monarchies.

After the credits, a title tells us the film is dedicated to Franz Lehár and his great melodies. The film opens with a magnifying glass revealing “Marsovie” on a map of Europe. There Captain Danilo is leading his marching men in singing “Femmes, Femmes, Femmes” (“Girls, Girls, Girls”) as a disinterested Widow sweeps by in her carriage.

Danilo pursues the Widow to her garden where he tells her he has bribed her servants and fed her watchdogs “saucisson de Constantin­ople” (Turkish sausage.) When Missia is unim­pressed and refuses to remove her veil, he com­plains that he has “lived in every armoire (closet) in Marsovie, jumped out of every win­dow, but here I’m stopped by 20 centimeters of material.” (Unlike the English version, he does not suggest that she recommend him to the Queen.)

Missia spurns him: “pas de tout ‘oh oh’, même pas ‘eh eh.’” (not at all ‘oh oh,’ not even ‘hey hey.’”) Danilo retreats over the wall and tells his “ordonnance” Mischka: “La romance est termineé” (the story is ended.)

On her balcony, Missia sings “Vilia.” After learning that Danilo is well known to her maids, she seizes her diary—“Mon Journal”—and writes as she sings:

Mon coeur est las, mon coeur est lourd.
Vainement, jour apres jour, j’attends l’amour.
C’est un reve que je poursuis.
Il m’enchante et puis s’enfuit.
Il vaut mieux souffrir d’amour
Que souffrir d’espérer pour toujours.
[My heart is weary, my heart is heavy.
Vainly, day after day, I wait for love.
It’s a dream that I pursue.
It enchants me, then flies away.
It’s better to suffer from love
Than to suffer from hoping forever.]

She then exhausts the inkwell, telling her diary of this strange, new agitation. Days go by, and, she writes, she is still forgetting Danilo. Finally it is too much. She announces to her maids that they are all leaving for Paris. “Toute veuve a ses limites!” (“Every Widow has her limits.”)

As she dresses she sings: “I want to laugh, I want to live, I want to be courted, told silly things.” (English title: “Melody of Laughter”)

Next, a scene not in the English version: The camera shows the portrait of a baby, then pulls back to reveal the name plate on the frame: “Maximilien III de Marsovie.” A title tells us “Le roi Maximilien s’interessant plus à sa jolie nourrice qu’à ses dames d’honneur, c’etait son Excellence le général Achmed qui gouvérnait la Marsovie.” (“Since King Maximilien is more interested in his pretty nurse than in ladies-in-waiting, it is his excellency General Achmed who governs Marshovia.”)

The valet brings General Achmed his suspenders and tells him that the street sweepers are talking of sweeping away the government. (The sweepers are “shepherds” in the English version.) “Are they boulevard sweepers or side-street sweepers?” asks Achmed. “Left bank sweepers.” “Ah!,” snorts Achmed, “Let them talk.”

Achmed is getting ready for a council meeting where a man will be selected to lure the Widow back from Paris by making love to her. His wife Dolores, “Madame la Generale,” watches him from their sumptuous bed. She dismisses both his suggestions, Sinkovitch and Gabrielovitsch.

Danièle Parola as Dolores is much slicker than her American counterpart, Una Merkel, very Parisienne, and has a more specific background. While Achmed dresses, she insists on knowing the time he will return “within 15 minutes.” Achmed is annoyed: “If you don’t shut up, I’ll send you back where I got you.” Dolores is unconcerned: “If you wish, I can go back to the circus. I can still do the trapeze de la mort and carry a man with my teeth.” (She addresses her husband with the formal “vous,” which is unusual.) This is serious, Achmed tells her: “If the Widow takes her wealth out of the country, even France won’t lend us money.”

Achmed leaves, but returns for his sword and finds Danilo in his wife’s bedroom. In his rage he threatens to have Danilo’s tongue cut out (English version: “ears cut off”). “I need time to find a punishment,” Achmed roars. Danilo replies “Take your time. Patience is a soldier’s virtue.”

“You have cost me my reputation,” Achmed tells Dolores. “I wanted to be ‘Achmed the Great.’ Now I’ll be called ‘Achmed the Little’ because of you.” Dolores struggles to explain: “But I can’t find the words in the language of the court (high-class language).” Achmed sneers, “You can’t say anything in the language of the court.”

Suddenly, Achmed realizes he has found the best man to send to Paris. “Can you speak French?” he asks Danilo. This works easily in the English version, but, in French, Danilo replies that he speaks Marshovian, German, Russian, French and English. “Say something in English” orders Achmed.

“Her ladyship is the most marvelous woman I ever saw. I’m telling you, she is just gorgeous,” replies Danilo in English. He departs for Paris via a montage of French advertising signs seen from a train window.

In Danilo’s hotel room, Mischka tells his master that two women were talking about Danilo on the streetcar: “They were so funny that two other ladies asked for your address.”

“We’ll have to move again,” sighs Danilo. He must report to the Marshovian ambassador, but first he is off to Maxim’s. As he sings the praises of the Maxim ladies—“Je m’en vais Chez Maxim’s” (I’m going to Maxim’s)—the English “Lolo, Dodo, Joujou, Cloclo, Margo, Froufrou” which don’t sound French to the French, become “Manon, Ninon, Lison, Franchon, Suson, Toinon.” In her nearby hotel room, Missia reprises “Melody of Laughter”:

Je veux être l’oiseau que l’on délivre.
Je veux rire. Je veux vivre.
Adieu peine et tristesse, adieu Marsovie.
Quel bonheur de connaître la grande vie.
Je veux qu’on me courtise, qu’on me grise,*
Qu’on me dise des bêtises,
Car je veux être adorée.
[I want to be the bird that you set free.
I want to laugh, I want to live.
Goodbye sorrow and sadness,
goodbye Marshovia.
What happiness to know the good life.
I want to be courted, dazzled,*
Told silly things,
Because I want to be adored.]

*NOTE: “grise” literally means “drunk,” but has alternate meanings such as tipsy, light-headed, exhilarated—“it goes to my head.”

Meanwhile, Danilo reprises “Maxim’s”: “It’s a happier place than the Comédie Française.” Missia’s maids warn her in song not to follow: “That’s where ladies smoke cigarettes!” (In English: “dance the can can.”) Missia completes the song: “To please the men, we need to be rag dolls!”

Danilo arrives at Maxim’s and flirts with an old girl friend, Loulou (Pauline Garon). Her escort is outraged, and a fight follows until each discovers the other’s identity: Danilo has been slapping the Marshovian ambassador, Popoff (Marcel Vallée). They hug each other enthusiastically, just as Loulou returns with a gendarme who consoles her: “In your place, I wouldn’t bother your gall bladder.” The hat check attendant asks Loulou: “Who is that old camel?”

Popoff tells Danilo how he will introduce Danilo to the Widow at the Embassy the following night. In the English version, he concludes with “And you come over the garden wall!” There is then a dissolve to Danilo entering Maxim’s. The French version continues the scene for several more unnecessary lines. “I’m not too sure about climbing the wall,” Danilo replies. Popoff says, “Then you can arrive by car and ring the bell. The butler will take your saber. You wait in the anteroom, and I will introduce you to the Widow.” Popoff and Danilo exit into the main room.

Danilo’s arrival thrills the Maxim girls, but a Turkish gentleman (Akim Tamiroff) is disconsolate. He tells his pretty companion: “I had a very well-equipped harem. Then I invited Danilo. He killed my married life—twenty-seven times.”

Danilo greets his favorites and some of the exchanges are different from the English:

Danilo: Did you fix the springs in your couch? (Girl nods.)
Girl: I gained five kilos!
Danilo: I’ll help you lose them!
(to another) Does your landlady still take as long to answer the door?”

Missia follows Danilo to Maxim’s and is mistaken for a Maxim girl. One of the ladies, Marcelle (Fifi D’Orsay), shows her a garter Danilo gave her which is inscribed “Joyeuse Pentecôte.” (Happy Pentacost—in English it was “Many happy returns.”) This is a somewhat remote double entendre, possibly referring to the Feast of the Ascension and Danilo’s ability to rise to the occasion.

Missia tells Danilo her name is “Fifi,” and they are soon in a private dining room upstairs. However, Missia suddenly gets cold feet, and Marcelle finds Danilo sulking in the hall. Irate, Marcelle storms in and denounces “Fifi”: “Listen to me. I’ll have you boycotted because you must know you can’t come and disgust the clients with an honest woman’s tricks!”

Missia relents and, as the magic strains of “The Merry Widow Waltz” fills the room, she lures Danilo to dance with her:

L’heure exquise m’a conquise,
Brusquement tu m’emportes,
Que m’importe si tu mens.
Car…Je sens tout à coup
Que rien n’existe non plus,
Rien que nous.
[This magnificent moment overwhelms me.
Suddenly I am carried away by you.
It doesn’t matter if you are lying,
For all at once I feel
That nothing exists anymore,
Nothing except us.]

In the French version, Danilo carries Missia to the couch. In the American version, she walks. (It may be censorship, or perhaps the French version was filmed first, and Chevalier declined to lift the healthy Miss MacDonald a second time.)

As their love scene progresses, Missia switches from the intimate “tu” to the formal “vous,” indicating she wants Danilo to stop being playful and reply seriously to her questions. Danilo rises. “Now I know who you are not. May I ask who you are?”

Missia realizes he doesn’t love her. She runs to the door and summons the Maxim’s girls. She tells Danilo: “Toutes vos petites amies d’un soir—aucune parmi elles ne songe au lende­main.” (“All your little evening friends—none of them is thinking about tomorrow.”)

Missia leaves Maxim’s in tears, singing a tribute to its girls in a reprise of “Maxim’s”: “Your hearts are made of cardboard.”

At the embassy the next night, Missia is being courted by all of Paris. As she dances she sings: “A man who insists that his wife has wit, he will always be rich.”

Danilo has tried to drown his sorrows at losing “Fifi” and is tracked down in a room at Maxim’s. Mischka (Georges Davis) and the sympathetic Maxim girls carry him to the embassy. There he is sobered up and presented to the Widow. While the two lovers spar verbally, Popoff receives a telegram from General Achmed back in Marshovia. It is read to him by his aide, Zizipoff. In English this was a comic interlude of rolled r’s by comedian Herman Bing. French comedian Emile Dellys delivers this speech in a high-pitched staccato monotone, equally funny.

The brief scene in which Popoff instructs an aide to hide his bottle of poison is missing from the French film. However, the French version is more specific about how the secret of Danilo’s mission got around: “The Maxim girls told all of Paris, the French Ambassador told his wife’s maid, she told the butler, he told the Ambassa­dor’s wife, she told Sinkovitch, he told Madame Gabrielovitsch, Madame Gabrielovitsch recon­ciled with her husband, Gabrielovitsch told Dolores. Dolores didn’t know Gabrielovitsch was married so they had a big fight. Achmed walked in too early as usual.”

Missia and Danilo declare their love for each other, but her happiness is cut short when she learns he was ordered to make love to her. (It’s hard to be hysterical in another language and, as Jeanette tearfully denounces Danilo, she com­pletely loses her French accent.)

Danilo is led away to jail for failing in his duties. Missia resumes her dancing, singing with frantic gaiety: “Love is a duty in Paris; One must love in Paris.”

Back in Marsovie, the trial of Danilo begins as revolution threatens the country. The delightful scene in which King Achmed wraps his crown in newspaper is missing from the French version.

Although the Widow comes to testify on his behalf, Danilo demands punishment: “Celui qui a la chance de plaire assez aux femmes pour pouvoir en changer et est assez fou pour en aimer une seule, mérite d’être fusillé.” (Any man who has the luck to please women so much that he can exchange one for another—and then falls in love with just one—should be shot.”)

Back at the palace, Achmed and Dolores learn that the Widow has gone to visit Danilo in jail. Dolores: “I bet…” Achmed, sharply: “We don’t have time to bet!”

At the jail, Missia finds Danilo’s cell empty, but a woman appears at the window: “Tell Danilo they have good red wine in the women’s ward and lots of laughs.” (Jeanette tangles her
tongue on the French tongue twister “rigolera” meaning “will laugh.”)

Missia jumps on Danilo’s bed to escape a scurrying mouse, just as Danilo returns. She tells him she was chased by a mouse. “All the way from your estate to the jail? It must have been a rabbit!” She indignantly tries to leave, but the door is locked.

Outside the cell, Popoff and Achmed are congratulating each other. “Even Napoleon would not have thought of this,” says Popoff. Musicians arrive and begin playing “The Merry Widow Waltz.” Inside the cell, Danilo and Missia are drawn irresistibly into each other’s arms. Missia taunts him by repeating his statement at the trial: “Any man who has the luck to please women so much that he can exchange one for another—and then falls in love with just one…” Danilo corrects the ending: “should be…married!”


Review

Comedia, 2/2/34, reported [author’s translation]:

The Merry Widow—just the name is sufficent to evoke a flood of appealing memories. [It] has returned to Paris, fully as captivating, still possessing the secret of eternal youth and beauty. In the past, it succeeded in seducing all those who saw it, and it won’t fail to conquer us all yet again. This delicious idyll of Missia and Danilo is now playing at the Cinéma Madeleine. Marcel Achard has written the dialogue, sparkling with his usual talent and verve. He knows how to provide equal amounts of comedy and charm.

“Jeanette MacDonald portrays the Widow with grace and great beauty. The memory of her pretty figure and marvelous voice remain unforgettable. Maurice Chevalier has created a remarkable characterization, a dazzling Count Danilo.

“In this enchanted world, redolent with the sweet accents of wondrous music, we are soon caught up in the most intoxicating of waltzes. The Merry Widow is new again, proving the adage about ‘Precious old wine in brand new bottles.’”


Recordings

(See Discography for further information)

“Vilia” (MacDonald) both English and French recordings
“L’Heure exquise” [“The exquisite hour”] – Merry Widow Waltz (MacDonald)


Music in the Film

Identical to English version, but with French lyrics. See The Merry Widow