Released November 2, 1934.
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
Produced [uncredited] by Irving Thalberg and Ernst Lubitsch.
110 minutes. (Current running time: 103 or 99 minutes. See “Censorship Cuts” below)
French version: Filmed simultaneously in English and French versions. See next chapter, La Veuve Joyeuse.
American TV title: The Lady Dances (to avoid confusion with the 1952 Lana Turner remake).
Based on the operetta Die Lustige Witwe with music by Franz Lehár, book and lyrics by Victor Leon and Leo Stein. Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda. Contributions to script: Ernst Lubitsch and Lorenz Hart. New Lyrics: Lorenz Hart and Gus Kahn. Photographer: Oliver T. Marsh. Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Frederic Hope. Sets: Edwin B. Willis and Gabriel Scognamillo. Editor: Frances Marsh. Assistant Directors: Joseph Newman, Joe Lefert. Costumes: Ali Hubert. Miss MacDonald’s Gowns: Adrian. Sound: Douglas Shearer. Musical Adaptation: Herbert Stothart. Orchestrations: Charles Maxwell, Paul Marquardt, and Leonid Raab. Dance director: Albertina Rasch. MacDonald’s Waltz Instructor: Bob Spencer.
Lehár’s operetta premiered in Vienna on December 30, 1905. It opened in New York on October 21, 1907 at the New Amsterdam Theatre, produced by Henry W. Savage and starring Ethel Jackson and Donald Brian.
First adapted to the screen in 1907 as a 14-minute Swedish short, The Merry Widow has been filmed at least five times in the United States. In 1912, there was a one-reel version starring Wallace Reid and Alma Rubens for Reliance Majestic. Essanay did a two-reeler in 1913. The famed Erich von Stroheim silent in 1925 starred Mae Murray and John Gilbert. Both the 1925 MGM silent and the 1934 MGM film were photographed by the very talented Oliver T. Marsh, brother of the great silent actress Mae Marsh. MGM remade The Merry Widow in 1952 in Technicolor, with Fernando Lamas as Danilo and Lana Turner as a non-singing American Widow. Joseph Pasternak produced and Curtis Bernhardt directed. Una Merkel, who had played the Queen in the 1934 version, appeared as Miss Turner’s companion.
The trailer for the 1934 film version is a visual and historical delight. It contains footage of Franz Lehár himself wielding a baton and begins with an entrancing shot of Danilo and Sonia waltzing atop a spinning earth against a star-studded sky.
In a companion promotional short, Lehár addresses American audiences in English: “I greet you on the thirtieth anniversary of my Merry Widow!” We also see behind-the-scenes footage or production of the film.
American TV prints and the commercial video of The Merry Widow have five major cuts, made by television censors in the early 1960s. Missing are:
1. In the garden, Danilo boasts that there isn’t a window in Marshovia he hasn’t jumped out of, not a husband he hasn’t gotten around, but here he is bluffed.
2. Danilo produces his own key to leave the Queen’s locked bedroom. (He can still be seen pocketing it as he emerges.)
3. Danilo asks a Maxim’s girl, “Do you still cry when you love someone?”
4. A close-up of Lulu’s garter and its inscription, “Many Happy Returns”
5. Sonia explains that Fifi’s method of “committing suicide” was to take a cold bath: “You’d be surprised what a cold bath can do.”
Fortunately, the 1993 Laserdisc version has restored these missing segments.
Maurice Chevalier (Count Danilo)
Jeanette MacDonald (Sonia)
Edward Everett Horton (Ambassador Popoff)
Una Merkel (Queen Dolores)
George Barbier (King Achmed II)
Minna Gombell (Marcelle)
Ruth Channing (Lulu)
Sterling Holloway (Mischka, orderly)
Henry Armetta (Turk)
Barbara Leonard (Sonia’s maid Melissa)
Donald Meek (Valet)
Akim Tamiroff (Maxim’s manager)
Herman Bing (Zizipoff)
Lucien Prival (Adamovitch)
Luana Walters, Sheila Mannors [later Sheila Bromley], Caryl Lincoln, Edna Waldron, Lona André (Sonia’s maids)
Barbara Barondess (Frou Frou, Maxim’s girl)
Eleanor Hunt (Margot, Maxim’s girl)
Patricia Farley, Shirley Chambers, Jeanne Hart, Maria Troubetskoy, Dorothy Wilson, Dorothy Granger, Jill Dennett, Mary Jane Halsey, Peggy Watts, Dorothy Dehn, Connie Lamont (Maxim’s girls)
Charles Requa, George Lewis, Tyler Brooke, John Merkyl, Cosmo Kyrle Bellew (Escorts)
Roger Gray, Christian J. Frank, Otto Fries, John Roach (Policemen)
Gino Corrado (Waiter)
Perry Ivins (Waiter)
Katherine Burke [later Virginia Field] (Prisoner)
George Baxter (Ambassador)
Paul Ellis (Dancer)
Leonid Kinsky (Shepherd)
Evelyn Selbie (Newspaper seller)
Wedgwood Nowell (Lackey)
Richard Carle (Defense Attorney)
Morgan Wallace (Prosecutor)
Frank Sheridan (Judge)
Arthur “Pop” Byron (Doorman)
Nora Cecil (Woman with goat in court)
Winter Hall (Priest)
Matty Roubert (Newsboy)
Ferdinand Munier (Jailer)
Dewey Robinson (Fat lackey with spray)
Russell Powell (Lackey)
Billy Gilbert (Lackey)
Arthur Housman (Drunk in carriage)
Johnny [Skins] Miller (Drunk)
Hector Sarno (Gypsy leader)
Bella Loblov (Gypsy violinist)
Jan Rubini (Violinist)
Jason Robards Sr. (Arresting officer)
Albert Pollet (Headwaiter)
Rolfe Sedan (Gabrielovitsch)
Jacques Lory (Goat herd)
Lane Chandler (Soldier)
Extras: Joan Gale, Earl Oxford, Florine McKinney, Arthur Jowett
Actors listed with the Screen Actors Guild who do not appear in release print:
Claudia Coleman (Wardrobe mistress)
Lee Tin (“Excited Chinaman” [sic])
Tom Francis [Tom Herbert] (Orthodox priest)
Oscar for Interior Decoration: Cedric Gibbons and Frederic Hope.
The Merry Widow was presented on “The Railroad Hour” (radio), 3/7/49, with Jeanette and Gordon MacRae.
The Merry Widow was the world’s first hit musical. The tremendous acclaim that accompanied its premiere in Vienna on December 30, 1905 brought instant fame to its thirty-five-year-old composer, Franz Lehár, and began an international success. In the century since, there has scarcely been a night without a performance somewhere in the world.
Working in the genre of “little opera” begun by Von Suppé and brilliantly perfected by Johann Strauss Jr., Lehár turned out a musical romance centering on the obligatory waltz theme. However his waltz and its staging were different from the “production number” types so in vogue. “The Merry Widow Waltz” begins slowly, sensuously, teasingly, as the hero takes the reluctant heroine in his arms and moves her around an empty stage. Only when she responds does the waltz break into dazzling gaiety. It was a moment audiences waited for, and, when Donald Brian took Ethel Jackson in his arms each night in the American production, there was an audible sigh of fulfillment.
Nor was The Merry Widow’s popularity limited to its music. The enormous picture hat worn by Ethel Jackson swept the fashion world, so much so that editorials and sermons decried it and several local governments passed ordinances against “Merry Widow hats” as unsafe, unhealthy, and immoral. (Mae West, in her evocation of the Gay Nineties, ignored the tiny hats actually worn and used the giant “Merry Widow” hat of a decade later.)
The Widow plot was slender enough not to intrude on the glorious melodies that have become part of the musical heritage of half the cultures of the world. Not since the works of Gilbert and Sullivan had the theatres of the Western world seized on a musical entertainment with such delight. Exact statistics are nearly impossible to come by, but when releasing the 1934 version, MGM boasted that the Widow had played over a quarter of a million times in twenty-four languages and, in one year, racked up eighteen thousand performances. The saga of the Widow deserves a book in itself.
The fantastic popularity of the Widow and the equally fantastic opportunity to make lots of money from the show brought about an incredible maze of pirated productions, overlapping rights, and ownership disputes that would keep some lawyers busy for their lifetimes. It also made formulating international copyright laws an absolute necessity.
Lehár, Fritz Stein, and Victor Leon had sold “forever all rights to make motion pictures” of The Merry Widow to Herman Tausky of Paris. He sold this right in 1923 to New York producer Henry Savage (one of Jeanette’s early bosses). Savage, in turn, sold the rights to MGM, who made an extravagant silent version in 1925, directed by Erich von Stroheim and starring Mae Murray and John Gilbert. MGM looked forward to a sound version, but the courts ruled with illuminating ingenuousness that “talkies” were not necessarily “motion pictures.”
MGM repurchased the rights in 1929 from Lehár, Stein, Leon B. Hershmensky, and Ludwig Doblinger. But these rights concerned only the stage story and the “Doblinger score” used on the Continent. Slightly different scores were being used in England and America. If the motion picture used a note of these other two scores, they were warned, they could be sued.
MGM had already been sued successfully by a real Prince named Danilo when the 1925 Widow was released. The Prince had collected $4000 for libel and was still living modestly near Nice when the remake was planned. Libel suits were a sore point for MGM since Prince Youssoupov had collected $250,000 from them for allegedly defaming his wife in the biographical Rasputin and the Empress in 1932. To save any legal action, Prince Danilo became a mere captain and the date of the story was changed from 1905 to 1885.
In the midst of these obstacles came a claim by von Stroheim to ownership of certain plot features that he and Benjamin Glazer had written into the silent version. Thus the 1930 talkie version, which had scheduled Sidney Franklin as director and Albert Lewin and Ernest Vadja as adapters, was scrapped. The lawyers went back to their toils for three more years, safely missing the musical Sahara of the early thirties. When the Widow finally made her sound film appearance, it was under nearly ideal conditions.
The Lubitsch Widow comes close to being one of the most perfect film musicals made, flawed only by Lubitsch’s overwhelming tendency to “third act” his films. (See One Hour With You.) The film has been described as both “an enormous success” (The Hollywood Musical by Clive Hirschhorn) and a “flop” (American Magazine, September 1937), and it was both. Critically it was acclaimed, and it stands today as the summit of the Lubitsch-Chevalier-MacDonald triumvirate. Financially it was less than box-office dynamite. While giving Miss MacDonald some of her funniest lines, it did not yet put her in the permanent “star” category. Had The Merry Widow been her last film, she would be remembered today by a small but enthusiastic cult of “sophisticates” who treasure the more obscure joys of the past.
MGM, one of the most prominent studios in the closing days of the silent era, had been getting stiff competition from Paramount. They responded by hiring away Paramount talent, including Miss MacDonald, Chevalier, and Lubitsch. Chevalier was an established international star and as such was not rushed into a second-rate vehicle as Miss MacDonald had been.
MGM had always planned The Merry Widow as a major musical film, and now, finally, all legal obstacles were cleared away. For the title role, Chevalier wanted Grace Moore. She was probably the only woman in history to accomplish a musical career “backward”—from music hall to true eminence in grand opera (a feat Miss MacDonald would later try to repeat). Miss Moore’s increased stature in the music world plus her blonde beauty and elegant carriage made her an ideal “prestige” candidate for the world-famous role of the Widow.
Born in Tennessee in 1901, she had appeared in several musical comedies as well as several editions of The Music Box Revue (1923 and 1924) on Broadway. There she attracted the attention of Otto Kahn, Chairman of the Board of the Metropolitan Opera, who helped to finance a year’s study for her in Europe. She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1928 as Mimi in La Bohéme. Irving Thalberg, always seeking “quality” performers for MGM, wanted a genuine prima donna from the Met. Miss Moore was more attractive than most, and the voice that introduced “What’ll I Do” and “All Alone” in The Music Box Revue of 1924 did have appeal. She made her screen debut in a fictionalized Jenny Lind biography, A Lady’s Morals (1930). Although she sang two arias from the Lind repertoire, “Casta Diva” from Norma and “Chacun le Sait” from La Fille du Regiment, with great competence, the film was a disaster.
As a second film, she and Lawrence Tibbett were costarred in a bizarre version of New Moon (1930) with a contemporary Russian setting and shorn of much of its original score. Thus ended Miss Moore’s early Hollywood career. Three years later, considerably slimmed down and with a Broadway musical success (Millocker’s The DuBarry) behind her, she returned to Hollywood and once again interested the movie moguls. She wanted most of all to do The Merry Widow, which was about to go into production at MGM. Chevalier approved, but Thalberg remembered the early fiascoes.
Miss Moore’s very revealing autobiography, You’re Only Human Once, describes how she spent an afternoon trying to persuade Irving Thalberg, even offering to do the role for nothing. “Finally Thalberg told me bluntly that Lubitsch didn’t want me, didn’t believe in me, was sold on another girl…Thalberg tried to ease the blow by offering me an option on a future picture….Well, they should have believed me. The Merry Widow was a flop.”
Chevalier’s version of the incident was that billing presented an insoluble problem. He wanted no more than star billing in his first MGM picture, and Miss Moore would take no less. We can appreciate Chevalier’s refusal to surrender status. (As Spencer Tracy said when asked why he always insisted on billing over his female costar: “This isn’t a lifeboat. It’s a Goddamn movie.”)
We can also see from our vantage point how Chevalier’s continued insistence on noncompetitive costars frequently led to weak pictures, a hubris he shared with Mae West. He was very reluctant to “team” again with Miss MacDonald, fearing the loss of identity that, ironically, would befall Miss MacDonald when she latter teamed with Nelson Eddy.
So Grace Moore signed with Columbia Studios and made One Night of Love, a box office hit and an Oscar nominee. This film almost single-handedly made opera acceptable in general entertainment pictures. At a time when even the most successful films seldom played more than one week first-run engagements in a metropolitan city, One Night of Love played the same theatres for months.
At the Los Angeles premiere, Moore, never one to be modest, told Thalberg: “I bet this will top The Merry Widow.” He replied, “Try and top [this film] yourself.” She made four more Hollywood films and a French version of the opera, Louise, but she never did top One Night of Love. However, from the release of the film in September 1934, until Naughty Marietta came out six months later, Grace Moore had scored the biggest success of any film singer and was probably the best-known and most popular singer of serious music in the world. It was a type of mass fame not to be known again by an opera singer until 1951 when Mario Lanza made The Great Caruso.
The Widow was a role that Jeanette had long aspired to, having learned the entire score in French for a Paris stage appearance that never came off. If the Paris appearance had proved successful, Paramount planned a French film version, but Jeanette had to return for shooting on Love Me Tonight and the whole project was abandoned. Now she was finally The Merry Widow.
It is difficult to know how much of the tremendously exciting cross currents between Chevalier and Miss MacDonald were generated by their off-screen personalities and how much was Lubitsch. The fact remains that the film possesses the single most important ingredient for a successful sex comedy—what D. H. Lawrence called (in another context) “the dumb, dark, bitter belly-tension between a man and a woman.” Without it, we are laughing at cardboard cutouts. With it, we are laughing at ourselves.
Thalberg’s fine hand is clearly visible in the quality of all aspects of the production. Music underlines nearly every passage of dialogue, prompting the characters to pensiveness, joy, anger, or ardor. Art director Cedric Gibbons was apparently given free rein and came up with an Oscar-winning Never-Never Land of sets that might best be described as Metro-Goldwyn-Mittel-Europa.
Just as MGM had taken considerable liberties with the stage plot in their 1925 silent version (the Widow’s husband was a foot fetishist and didn’t die until the film was nearly two thirds over), so the first musical film version elaborated very effectively on the simple plot.
In the first act of the stage version, the rich Widow meets a former suitor at a ball in Paris. He had jilted her years ago for a richer girl, and she had gone on to marry and survive the richest man in Pontevedrino. She disdainfully rejects his conveniently rediscovered passion until he sweeps her into one of the several luscious waltzes. We know she won’t maintain her resistance for more than three acts.
Act II of the stage version takes place in a garden of the embassy of Pontevedrino, giving everyone a chance to dress in exotic peasant costumes and the Widow a chance to sing the simple folk song, “Vilia.” She also piques Danilo’s interest by trading places with a married woman who is trapped in the gazebo with her lover. Act III takes everyone to Maxim’s for a can-can and a conclusion. In between, the action is stopped frequently for comic interludes between various eccentric government officials who seek to promote the Widow’s marriage to a Pontevedrinian so that her money will stay in the country.
Mae Murray, the 1925 film Widow, played Sally, an American dancer. The original Widow name, Hannah Glawari, probably wasn’t considered glamorous or pertinent enough. The 1952 version found Lana Turner playing a songless Widow, also an American, named Crystal. (Her Danilo, Fernando Lamas, delivered the traditional soprano aria, “Vilia.”) In Jeanette’s French-language version of the Widow, she is called “Missia Palmieri,” possibly a way to explain her accent.
But our 1934 Lubitsch heroine is named Sonia and she is Marshovian through and through. And where is the kingdom of Marshovia?
Following the credits, we are shown a map of Central Europe. No Marshovia. A large magnifying glass swings into place, and there it is.
The smaller the country, the gayer the uniforms, for we next see the resplendent troops of Marshovia marching through the winding cobblestone streets, pushing reluctant cows out of their way as they sing the spirited “Girls, Girls, Girls!” The girls are there to applaud not the tune but the dashing captain. Squeals of “Danilo! Danilo!” and we see our star (Maurice Chevalier) as he leads his men in song. Not everyone is appreciating our handsome hero. A carriage sweeps by, bearing the mysterious, veiled Widow. Danilo gives her his most dazzling smile, but she turns away, perturbing him no end. He must do something about this.
It is night, and a glorious MGM moon illuminates the garden of the Widow’s white château. The simple folk are gathered, humming a haunting melody underlined by a cimbalom. Sadly, the Widow Sonia (Jeanette) wanders through this scene of what must have been her past happiness. Her widow’s weeds are immensely becoming, depicting vaguely the 1880s. (To costume designer Adrian, this meant a soft, bias-cut thirties evening gown with a delicate bustle beginning four inches lower than any self-respecting nineteenth-century bustle. And no corsets, of course.)
The Widow’s reveries are interrupted by a visitor who leaps over the garden wall. The handsome officer has brought her a confidential letter. She reads with growing amazement: “Madame Sonia—if you should ever meet Captain Danilo, let me tell you, he is terrific.” Modestly the officer confesses that he is Danilo and begs her to remove her veil. She tells him to leave immediately or she will report him to the King. “Let me stay,” he pleads, “and you can recommend me to the Queen.”
Sonia assures him that she would remove her veil if there were the slightest temptation—but there isn’t. Perhaps, Danilo splutters, she can’t see him very well. The Widow sweeps grandly from the garden, pausing at the door. “Not terrific…not even colossal,” she says. Danilo runs after her and shouts that their romance is over.
Pensively, the Widow returns to her boudoir. A maid in simple peasant frock of satin and chiffon takes her widow’s veil and hangs it in a cupboard full of similar black bonnets. Another maid places her black dress in a closet of black dresses. Her black shoes and corset join their confrères, and finally her little black lap dog takes his place on a cushion. The french doors to the balcony are thrust open to reveal Sonia in a filmy black negligee, reclining on a chaise lounge, her golden hair loose on her shoulders.
The throb of the cimbalom rises from the garden. Standing on the moonlit balcony, Sonia sings “Vilia,” perhaps the best-known song in the score. (Interestingly, in no version of The Merry Widow does “Vilia” have any bearing on the plot, being a pseudo-folk song dragged in for its sheer beauty.) As Sonia sings, a distant tenor voice joins her, and she clutches her heart in a surge of emotion. The tenor is revealed to be Danilo’s homely valet, Mischka (played delightfully by Sterling Holloway). Danilo obviously hasn’t given up his conquest, as he “conducts” Mischka’s bobbing Adam’s apple (and dubbed voice).
Retiring to her fantastic white satin bed, the Widow starts to dismiss her maids. As a seeming afterthought, she asks that they check the address of a certain count—oh, yes—Danilo. Gleefully the trio tells her his street, house number, and floor—“Apartment B.” Danilo, it seems, is very democratic.
Alone, Sonia takes out her diary. She flips slowly past a year’s worth of empty pages that have accumulated since her widowhood, then rushes to her writing table. Hours later the book is full, the inkwell empty, and the Widow muses on the irony of love: “Tonight Will Teach Me to Forget.”
This was Miss MacDonald’s first experience with miming (“lip-syncing”) to a prerecorded soundtrack, and she had considerable trouble starting at precisely the right moment. Lubitsch finally got a long stick and gave her legs a sharp whack under the table at the moment she was to begin. Prerecorded songs freed the performer from worrying about vocal production while emoting and made possible infinitely more complex “numbers” in terms of camera movement. The process also deprived the musical film of the “live performances” that made so many early musicals more exciting than later, glossier productions.
Days pass. The Widow’s diary announces, “I have forgotten him” and then “I am forgetting him…” It is too much! Sonia orders her servants to get everything ready. She is going to Paris as soon as possible: “There’s a limit to every widow.”
In a burst of music, the closet of black widow’s weeds dissolves to brightly colored gowns, the black veils to gay bonnets, even the little black dog is replaced by a white one. We get our last on-screen glimpse of Jeanette MacDonald in lingerie as she dresses. Then, in a dazzling taffeta gown and ravishing little hat, the Widow sweeps off to Paris.
To King Achmed of Marshovia (George Barbier), the departure of Marshovia’s richest citizen is a source of imminent disaster. His valet (Donald Meek) warns him that the shepherds have been grumbling. If conditions don’t improve, they are talking of organizing a black sheep movement. The King learns that they are east-side shepherds and dismisses them contemptuously as “intellectuals.”
Achmed’s beautiful wife, Dolores (Una Merkel), is more interested in how long her portly husband will be away than in national bankruptcy. A telegram from Paris warns that the Widow may marry one of her many suitors and leave the country flat broke. Achmed is off to a cabinet meeting to select a Marshovian to meet foreign competition—someone charming and irresistible, so that the Widow will fall in love with him and return to Marshovia. Dolores wrinkles her pretty nose at the various candidates that her husband puts forth, especially Gabrielovitsch. They will have to do better than that!
To a purposeful reprise of “Girls, Girls, Girls,” Achmed departs for the cabinet meeting. The guard on duty, Danilo, salutes as he leaves, then lets himself into the queen’s boudoir. The doors close softly.
Halfway down the grand staircase, Achmed realizes that he has forgotten his sword and belt. He returns to the boudoir, and the doors close behind him as the music swells in agitated warning. Seconds pass. The door opens again and Achmed reappears, carrying a sword belt. The music relaxes as he starts down the stairs again, trying to buckle the belt. He is baffled to find that the belt is too small.
Slowly, a light of understanding spreads across his face. He races back to those perfect “Lubitsch touch” doors, throws them open, and bursts inside to confront the lovers. His fury is quickly dissipated when he realizes that he has found the perfect candidate for the Paris assignment. He tells the Queen that, “With my brains and your contacts, Marshovia can’t miss.”
Danilo glories in his return to Paris. His valet Mischka urges him to report immediately to the embassy, but Danilo has other plans. Tomorrow is soon enough. Tonight is his; he’s going to “Maxim’s”.
In another room of the hotel, we find Sonia also preparing for a big evening when she hears Danilo singing of Maxim’s in the street below. She echoes his song wistfully to the horror of her waiting escorts: “Her face must not be shown there, and we are too well known there.”
Maxim’s is a burst of gaiety and music, complete with a seductive can-can. Danilo is hardly in the door when he is greeted with a kiss by a flashily dressed girl named Lulu (Ruth Channing) on the arm of an elderly gentleman. The gentleman takes exception. Words are exchanged, then blows. Lulu rushes off for a policeman, “My seconds will call on you,” announces the irate gentleman (Edward Everett Horton), and they solemnly exchange cards. As they glance down at their respective cards, each bursts into a happy smile. They are hugging and kissing when Lulu returns with a gendarme. “I wouldn’t bother,” he advises her.
Ambassador Popoff (for it is Ambassador Popoff) drags Danilo into a private lounge and begins outlining Danilo’s duties. “Tell me, have you ever had diplomatic relations with a woman?” Danilo is to meet the Widow the following night at an embassy ball, but tonight belongs to the ladies of Maxim’s. With squeals of delight, they leave their “dates” and swarm around him. “Oh, it’s great to be in love,” he cries.
Sonia enters, having eluded her strait-laced escorts, just in time to see Danilo in their midst. The headwaiter (Albert Pollet) mistakes her for one of the girls and instructs her to join a customer and order lots of champagne. Marcelle (the magnificent Minna Gombell) also takes her for a fellow employee. “Any Americans tonight?” she inquires, surveying the patrons. Meanwhile Danilo is literally being carried onto the dance floor where he breaks into an impromptu can-can.
Spotting his old friend Marcelle, he dances over to her and kisses her soundly. Marcelle brandishes the souvenir of their last meeting, a jeweled garter inscribed “Many happy returns.” Sonia is mortified, but Danilo has turned his attention to her and she cannot escape. She decides to go along with him, telling him her name is Fifi. Isn’t he the man who gave her this bracelet? she asks sweetly, pointing to one of the dozen on her arm.
Danilo persuades her to join him at a table, even though, she tells him, she was just in the mood for a banker…which he is not. Danilo is completely disconcerted by this uncooperative Maxim’s girl, but he decides to have a go. He steals her slipper and retreats upstairs to a private dining room. Not too reluctantly, she limps after him.
Alone with him, she struggles with her own feelings as the violins throb “Tonight Will Teach Me to Forget.” Danilo grows tired of her indecision and storms out. The strains of “The Merry Widow Waltz” are heard below. Danilo returns for his drink and sits sullenly as Sonia begins dancing sensuously around him, dipping, bending, brushing past him until he can ignore her no longer. Rising suddenly as she passes, he takes her in his arms and they dance together. Sonia sings the world famous “Merry Widow Waltz” as they glide around the room.
Danilo gently guides Sonia to the velvet covered couch and they sink into an ardent embrace. (The Breen Office concluded reluctantly that M. Chevalier could lie on top of Miss MacDonald on a couch as long as she kept one foot on the floor-out of camera range!) “Do you love me?” murmurs the willing Sonia. “Certainly,” he replies absently, nibbling her neck. Sonia realizes her great moment means nothing to him.
She rushes to the door and furiously calls in all the other girls. “Here they are,” she tells him. “All your little tonights … and not a tomorrow among them.” (Note the lady in the black dress, a prominent Broadway actress named Barbara Barondess who was obviously intended for a speaking part which got lost in the editing.) As the ladies try to console him, Danilo realizes he really wants Fifi. But she has driven off in her carriage, singing of her disillusionment.
A printed title announces the embassy ball. Sonia has recovered her composure and is dazzling the assemblage, singing as she waltzes with each of the officers present. All except Danilo. Poor Mischka is at Maxim’s attempting to dress Danilo who has tried to forget Fifi in champagne bubbles. The girls all pitch in to help, commiserating with Danilo for being ordered to marry. “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” mutters one girl, “and I’ve been with the army all my life.” Another girl tells him that if Fifi really loves him, she’ll come back. “But she’s a lady…” protests another. “Aw, I once knew a lady who came back twice.”
Learning that Marshovia will be broke and Danilo shot if he doesn’t marry the Widow, the girls load him into a carriage and drive him to the embassy. There Ambassador Popoff works frantically to sober him up while Danilo declares that he can’t marry the Widow. He is already in love. Nevertheless, Danilo is brushed, groomed, sprayed with cologne, and made ready for the big moment.
Popoff sweeps in with the Widow to “accidentally” discover Danilo in the drawing room. Danilo also discovers that the woman he must marry is his lost Fifi. Their conversation is understandably cryptic. Sonia is an immovable iceberg. She tells him Fifi is dead. She committed suicide by jumping into a cold bath. The horrified Popoff runs off to send a telegram to King Achmed, leaving Sonia and Danilo alone. Sonia spurns all attempts at reconciliation until, again, the strains of “The Merry Widow Waltz” do their magic.
Swaying slowly, gently, they come together, then, faster and faster, they waltz as the music builds. In one of the most exciting dance sequences of the screen, they swirl through a deserted ballroom, until suddenly dancers burst through every doorway, sweeping in great circles around them. Again in a mirrored hall they are alone until a veritable formation of waltzers come revolving over the marble floor, echoed and reechoed in the mirrors as the music soars. The rhythms of music and movement blend into brilliant patterns over and over, until, at last, Danilo and Sonia are alone. They cling to each other as the violins softly complete the melody.
Popoff gets an angry telegram from the King saying that all Europe knows what Danilo told the Maxim’s girls, a tribute to their stamina and contacts. If the Widow finds out, everything is lost. She and Danilo must be married tonight!
Sonia has just decided to believe Danilo and trust him. Just then, Popoff is heard in the nearby ballroom announcing their engagement. Danilo angrily denounces Popoff, but Sonia realizes that it has all been a plot. She has been made ridiculous before everyone. Never again can she believe anything Danilo says. Sadly but proudly, Danilo takes his leave, tells the crowd the engagement was a mistake and marches off under guard to take his punishment.
Brushing the tears from her eyes, Sonia rushes laughing onto the dance floor. As the camera speed slowly accelerates, she swirls from one partner to another, her wild laughter echoing through the empty entrance hall as Danilo is led away to prison.
Our “third act” takes us back to Marshovia where Achmed and Dolores, fearing the worst, are packing. Wrapping his crown in old newspapers, the King is startled by cannon shots. The new guardian of the King’s bed chamber, Count Gabrielovitsch (whose lovemaking the Queen had disparaged), tells them that it’s not revolution, just the opening of Danilo’s trial.
Danilo is led into the courtroom to the applause of all the ladies present. He thoroughly enjoys this acclaim as the bailiff unlocks his gold handcuffs, engraved “Dolores to Danilo.” The evidence is interrupted by the Widow herself who has come from Paris to “defend” Danilo. He lied to her and deceived her, she tells the court emotionally. They shouldn’t put him in jail. They should give him a medal! Danilo pleads with Sonia to believe he loves her, but she is adamant.
Angrily, Danilo turns to the courtroom and “confesses” in an emotional speech. “Any man who can dance through life with hundreds of women and is willing to walk through life with one, should be hanged!” The men in the courtroom rise to applaud him.
In a rather weakly motivated finale, the Widow comes to jail to visit Danilo. She finds his cell empty. He is busy elsewhere. “There’s a party in the women’s ward,” one pretty inmate tells her. When Danilo returns, he and Sonia exchange barbed comments until they find themselves locked in. Outside, Achmed, Popoff, and the entire cabinet have gleefully assembled. We view the reconciliation alternating between the suppositions of those outside and the reality inside the cell. A gypsy orchestra is brought in to play…“The Merry Widow Waltz.” Iced champagne is sent through the revolving food shelf. Cologne is sprayed through the peephole.
Once again, the waltz softly invades the room. Danilo and Sonia ignore each other, pacing aimlessly about the small cell until, inevitably, they come together. A minister’s face appears in the peephole. “Captain Danilo, do you take…” “Certainly,” murmurs Danilo. “Of course,” sighs Sonia. The music rises as they kiss.
The Merry Widow was to be Lubitsch’s last musical until That Lady in Ermine, just started when he died in 1947. It also represented a turning point in Chevalier’s career. His disputes with the studio had earned him the reputation of being difficult. He left MGM and made one more Hollywood film, but his appeal was waning. Nearing fifty, he moved and looked like a man of thirty, but that wasn’t enough. Youth was taking over, rejecting the favorites of their elders. He returned to undiminished stardom in France, not to make another American film until he played Audrey Hepburn’s father in Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon in 1957. In 1958, his U.S. star status was solidly reclaimed with the musical Gigi.
In 1937, an article in American Magazine noted the irony of the respective MacDonald-Chevalier careers. In 1929 Chevalier had been an international star, Miss MacDonald an unknown. Now eight years later she was one of the ten top box-office stars of the year while Chevalier was “through.” Thirty years later, their positions would again be reversed.
The prestige publications rushed to heap glory on The Merry Widow. The New York Times described it as “witty and incandescent…heady as the foam on champagne, fragile as mist, and as delicately gay as a good-natured censor will permit.” They said that Chevalier “has never been in better voice or charm,” and that Miss MacDonald “is in the twin possession of a captivating personality and lyric voice.”
Time Magazine called it “the third and by far the best cinema version of Franz Lehár’s famed operetta. Lubitsch [has the] ability to improve a story by telling it as if he didn’t mean it.”
The trade publication Variety assured theatre owners that it was “undoubtedly a stick of dynamite for the box office…from now on, if the Lubitsch Merry Widow lead is followed, operetta is in the bag for Hollywood. Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald are aces as Danilo and Sonia. The former Paramount pair once again work beautifully in harness together, with this one a cinch to enhance Miss MacDonald’s already high rating as a singer and a looker and a good bet to regain much of the ground lost by Chevalier in the last couple of years.”
The New York Post said, “It is a Merry Widow Waltz in 6/8 time, brittle and continuously stimulating….it is aided by Miss MacDonald’s eminently satisfying voice and Chevalier’s delightful acting.”
Only one New York paper found fault with the film, but it was a fault that would be echoed in small town papers across the country. The New York World-Telegram reported that, “The Merry Widow, as amended for the talking and singing screen, is no great improvement on the original. Indeed, on the whole it is just a torpid affectation. Lukewarm is the best this cinema thermometer can register for it.” Although millions in middle America may not have known what “torpid” meant, they knew what they liked and stayed away from the theatres in large enough numbers to make The Merry Widow a financial albatross for MGM.
(See Discography for further information)
“Vilia” (MacDonald) English and French recordings
“Tonight Will Teach Me to Forget” (MacDonald)
“The Merry Widow Waltz” (MacDonald)
“L’Heure exquise” [“The exquisite hour”] – Merry Widow Waltz (MacDonald)
Chevalier did not record any songs from The Merry Widow.
Music in the Film
All music is by Franz Lehár and all English lyrics by Lorenz Hart (although Richard Rodgers is also credited) except where noted. In listing performers after each title, “and” denotes a genuine duet, while commas between names indicate a sequence of singers.
Lehár’s The Merry Widow is laced with dozens of familiar melodies, almost all of which are used in the film score, superbly arranged by Herbert Stothart. (The only missing melody is “Wie eine Rosenknospe.”) The English titles given below are the copyrighted 1934 titles. To indicate the original verse or chorus melody on which the movie song is based, the German first line is given also. Just about every minute of the film is richly underlined with music, so only the main themes are listed.
Overture: first few bars are identical to stage overture; then “Bei mir daheim ist’s nicht der
Brauch” from Act I; then “Es Waren Zwei Koenigskinder,” Danilo’s Act II aria. INTO:
“Girls, Girls, Girls!” (Male chorus, Chevalier) – based on “Weib, Weib, Weib”
(“Ja, das Studium der Weiber ist schwar”).
Pensive Widow in garden and humming chorus with Bella Loblov playing violin –
based on “Und nun das Glück gekommen,” Camille’s song in Act II. INTO:
“Vilia” (MacDonald, Allan Rogers dubbing for Sterling Holloway, chorus) – based on “Vilja.”
“Tonight Will Teach Me to Forget” (MacDonald) – based on “Sieh dort den kleinen Pavillion”
sung by Camille, Act II. English lyric by Gus Kahn.
“Melody of Laughter” (orchestra bridge) – based on “O Kommet doch, O kommt, Ihr Ballsirenen,” sung by Danilo in Act I.
“Maxim’s” (Chevalier) – based on “Da geh’ ich zu”
“Melody of Laughter” reprise (MacDonald, eight suitors, four maids)
“Maxim’s” reprise (Chevalier, MacDonald, eight suitors) INTO:
“The Girls at Maxim’s” (orchestral can-can) – based on “Das hat Rrrrass! / So tralalalala!,” finale of Act II, also “Rintantou, Rintantirette” from Act III.
“Girls, Girls, Girls!” reprise (Chevalier)
“The Merry Widow Waltz” (MacDonald) The section that Jeanette recorded is based on
“Bei jedem Walzerschritt.”
“Maxim’s” reprise (MacDonald tearfully leaving Maxim’s)
Embassy ball – begins with overture to Act II.
“If Widows Are Rich” (MacDonald, male chorus) – based on “Geigen erklingen,
locken so suess” from Act I.
Russian dance (Albertina Rasch Ballet) – based on “Mi velimo dase dase velisimo,”
opening of Act II. (The lyric is in the imaginary language of the Widow’s home country).
“The Merry Widow Waltz” (orchestra reprise with chorus) – employing the waltz section listed
above, plus “Melody of Laughter” and “Wie die Blumen im Lenz erblüh’n” sung by
Danilo in Act I.
“Melody of Laughter” reprise (MacDonald, male chorus)
Trial scene: underlined by overture and “The Merry Widow Waltz”
Finale: “The Merry Widow Waltz”