Blog Archive

05 February 2018

Pink Champagne and Diamonds: The Merry Widow, 1934

Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier as Sonia and Danilo

Probably only Ernst Lubitsch could have made a film that amounts to profound fluff. The Merry Widow is so lighthearted, so frivolous, so silly, so deeply committed to gaity and enjoyment that it's a masterpiece of froth.

The wonderful cast includes Jeanette MacDonald at her loveliest as Sonia, the widow in question, Maurice Chevalier as Danilo, the ultimate ladies' man, and supporting players Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Minna Gombell, Sterling Holloway, and George Barbier as a very jolly king of the extremely mythical country of Marshovia.

MGM was always lavish, but this production was over the top, even for them (apparently they did not make a profit, but that hardly matters now). The Academy Award winning production design, by the great Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope, shimmers in glorious black, silver, and diamond-white, with unbelievably glossy polished floors (really unbelievable -- after every shot a crew of stagehands had to scurry out and re-polish them), and soaring walls sparkling with gilt ornamentation and mirrors. And the costumes! For this film, the story is set in 1885, allowing the genius that was Adrian, arguably the greatest of golden era costume designers, freedom to romp among the feathers, poufs, gathers, and ruffles of that era. Ali Hubert, another great designer, also created hundreds of costumes. Every gown was an individual creation, and they took masses of seamstresses months to produce. In fact it seems that Jeanette MacDonald is almost drowning in ruffles; fortunately, her creamy complexion, dimples, and flaming red curls are perfectly suited to the era, and she can carry it off.
Spangles, ruffles, and curls

The plot is simplicity itself; the small vaguely Balkan country of Marshovia is strapped for cash, and the King hatches a scheme to ensure that the richest person in the country, the lovely young widow, Sonia, remains there with her money. He orders the nation's most popular ladies' man, Count Danilo, to marry her. Naturally this leads to misunderstandings and complications,

And of course all is buoyed up by the music. The original operetta, produced in Vienna in 1905, was an instant international smash hit, due to the reliably funny story and catchy, romantic, and simply beautiful music. The plot was adapted from an older German play by Leo Stein and Viktor Leon, and the composer was one of the most famous Viennese popular composers, Franz Lehar. Vienna had a particular relationship with the waltz, and still has, as witnessed by every New Year's Eve celebration, which even today includes formal waltzes. Lehar provided one of the most enduring tunes, called from the first "The Merry Widow Waltz." But (unlike a lot of Viennese operettas, it must be said) the score also includes other hit songs, including "Velia, maid of the woods," "Girls, girls, girls," and "I'm going to Maxim's."

Happily, and in keeping with the spirit of fun, the lyrics to these songs were rewritten by Lorenz Hart, (though credited to Rodgers and Hart, who had at that point what is rather cutely called a "whither thou goest so shall I go" contract, so they were always listed as a team), and you can tell it was Hart by the wit and style of his words. For example:

Let us gaze on the wine while it's wet
Let us do things we'll live to forget
Let me dance 'till the restaurant whirls
With the girls, girls, girls, girls, girls!
Where there's wine and there's women and song
It is wrong not to do something wrong
When you do something wrong
You must do something right
And I'm doing all right tonight!


I'll stay out at Maxim's
Until the morning beams
When I am feeling so good
Be sure I'm out for no good
Lolo, Dodo, Zouzou
Cloclo, Margot, Froufrou
We promise to be true
Until the night is through!

The plot is slightly changed from the original (which is just as silly but slightly more complex). One major scene is traditionally set at the famous Paris restaurant, Maxim's, which is introduced in one of the movie's major production numbers. Now, the restaurant didn't even exist in 1885, and also didn't feature the cancan, nor is it as enormous as this set, which seems to cover a city block. But who cares?

The cancan at Maxim's

The girls take to the dance floor in traditional ruffled skirts, black stockings, and feathered hats of cancan dancers, all done in black and white, the band strikes up, and the cancan begins, complete with acrobatics, cries of enthusiasm, and lacy pantalettes insouciantly displayed in the final move. 

One thing that stands out about this movie, and which it shares with Mae West's works, it its attitude to sex. Everyone enjoys sex. There is no guilt or shame or recrimination. Like Vienna, Paris was the city of art and music, famous for its sophistication and tolerance, which is one reason the Nazis hated it so much. It was a city of romance, and not too particular about who was being romantic.

Two misunderstandings in the lobby at Maxim's

One sly scene even encourages -- or at least fails to condemn -- gay romance. Danilo arrives at Maxim's and in the lobby literally bumps into the Marshovian ambassador (Edward Everett Horton), who has just come in with a lady friend. The ambassador speaks sharply to  him, and Danilo responds in kind. They snap angrily back and forth, escalating to the point where the ambassador challenges Danilo to a duel. His lady friend, frightened, rushes out to find a policeman. By the time she returns, however, all hostility has ceased and the ambassador and Danilo, having exchanged cards and realized who the other is, are laughing and embracing. Seeing this, the policeman, obviously assuming they're gay, and not at all inclined to do anything about their public display of affection, shrugs and says to the lady friend, "I wouldn't bother."

Jeannette MacDonald and Minna Gombell

When Danilo enters Maxim's he is greeted by dozens of girls of the demi-monde, all delighted to see him. They love him, and he loves them, greeting each one by name and recalling a personal quirk. The lovely brunette Marcelle, played by Minna Gombell, removes a garter Danilo gave her from her leg to show him -- it is inscribed "Many happy returns!" (This little scene was snipped by narrow minded censors, but has been restored.) Through machinations too complicated to explain (but still silly), Sonia, the wealthy widow, also arrives at Maxim's and pretends to be a lady of the evening named Fifi. She ends up in a private dining room with Danilo, and the strains of the lovely waltz are heard for the first time as they fall in love.

Sonia, the Ambassador, and Danilo

Misunderstandings abound, naturally, and when Sonia and Danilo meet at a grand ball at the Marshovian embassy (which seems to be about the size of Versailles, including a "salle de glaces," or mirrored room), they both have reason to be nettled. They come together in a beautiful waltz, argue, and separate, surrounded by a huge ballroom full of dancers in the second production number, which must include a couple of hundred dancers., the ladies gowned in black, silver gray, and white. Feathered headdresses, spangled lace fans, flaring skirts swing around and around, reflected in wall-sized mirrors.

The gorgeous Embassy Ball

Waltzing in the mirrored hallway

Eventually everyone ends up back in Marshovia, and amazingly enough, and a few more complications (all of them silly) ensue. There's a courtroom scene ("please clear all livestock from the court"), and this allows the King to help things along a bit. The good-natured monarch maneuvers Danilo and Sonia into a jail cell, locks the door, providing a wedding ring and a minister, Sonia and Danilo tie the knot. As Shakespeare put it, "Jack shall have Jill, naught shall go ill, The man shall have his mare again, And all shall be well."

This movie is such fun, so beautiful to look at, and the score is so lovely it should be recognized as one of the great musicals.

The end

Clip: The Embassy Ball

Clip: The Mery Widow Waltz

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