Merry Widow, 1934 film
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Music by Franz Lehár
Music by Richard Rodgers
- It Must Be Love (Dropped before the film was released)
- A Widow Is A Lady (Dropped before the film was released)
- Dolores (Unused)
- Muchacha (Unused)
- Little Dolores (Unused)
Lyrics by Lorenz
Music by Richard Rodgers & Franz
Produced by Ernest Lubitsch for M.G.M.
Directed by Ernest Lubitsch
Starring: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette
MacDonald ,Una Merkel and Edward Everett Horton
All the women of Marshovia dote on the dapper Captain Danilo (Maurice
Chevalier) as he marches his regiment through the streets - all except
the heavily veiled widow (Jeanette) who sweeps by in her carriage
without acknowledging his existence. Righteously indignant, Danilo
leaps over her garden wall and makes love to her. She spurns him,
but finds that he has aroused strange flutterings in her widow's breast.
She casts aside mourning and goes off to Paris, taking her fortune
Marshovia will be bankrupt! King Achmed (George Barbier) returns
from an emergency council meeting to find Danilo in the bedroom
of the Queen (Una Merkel). Being a pragmatic sort, Achmed offers
Danilo a choice: He can persuade the widow to marry him or he can
have his ears cut off.
In Paris, Danilo decides to have one last night of freedom before
reporting for duty. He sings of the joys of "Maxim's" and his song
is overheard by the fun-seeking Widow. She follows him there, and
he mistakes her for a Maxim girl, "Fifi." They end up in a private
dining room, but she rejects his too-fast advances. He sulks. Then,
relenting, she seduces him to the irresistible strains of the "Merry
Widow Waltz." However, at the last minute, she realizes that he
doesn't really love her, that she is just a "tonight." She flees.
Danilo is scheduled to meet the Widow the next night at an Embassy
Ball. Unfortunately, he has realized he loves "Fifi." Failing to
find her, he had gotten drunk and blabbed the Marshovian plot to
all the Maxim girls who have spread the story all over Paris. He
is finally located and retrieved by his valet, Mischka (Sterling
Holloway), and taken to the embassy. Again the Widow rejects him,
but this time it is she who succumbs to the eroticism of the "Merry
Widow Waltz." Their engagement is announced. Then she learns that
he has been ordered to marry her. She rejects him again, and he
is led off to jail in handcuffs.
There is a trial, Lubitsch's typical "third act" which occurs
in all his films and often marks a drop in dramatic interest. Danilo
proclaims that "Any man who could dance through life with hundreds
of women and chooses to walk with one should be...hanged!" With
minimal motivation except plot expediency, the Widow visits him
in prison and they are reconciled to lilting strains of the "Merry
All American TV prints and the currently available commercial video
of The Merry Widow have had five major cuts made by television censors
in the early 1960's. Missing are:
- 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.
- Danilo produces his own key to leave the Queen's locked bedroom.
(He can still be seen pocketing it as he emerges.)
- Danilo asks a Maxim girl, "Do you still cry when you love someone?"
- A closeup of Lulu's garter and its inscription, "Many Happy
- Sonia explains that Fifi's method of "committing suicide" was
to take a cold bath: "You'd be surprised what a cold bath can
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
Time Magazine called it "the third and by far the best cinema
version of Franz Lehar'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
Franz Lehar was thirty-five years old when his enchanting operetta
quickly became an international hit. Unlike so many operettas, the
story has a simplicity and timelessness that allows frequent revivals.
It is claimed (and highly likely) that there has scarcely been a
night since its 1905 premiere without a performance somewhere in
the world. The glorious melodies of The Merry Widow have become
part of the musical heritage of half the cultures of the world.
Working in the genre of the "little opera" begun by Von Suppè
and perfected by Johann Straus Jr., Lehar turned out a musical romance
centering on the obligatory waltz theme. However, he didn't present
his waltz in the usual big production number. "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.
The fantastic popularity of the Widow and the equally fantastic
opportunities to make lots of money from her 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.
Lehar, 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 the extravagant 1925 silent version. They looked
forward to making a sound version, but the courts ruled with illuminating
ingenuousness that "talkies" were not necessarily "motion pictures."
MGM repurchased the rights in 1929 from Lehar, Stein, Leon B.
Hershmensky, and Ludwig Doblinger. But these covered only the stage
story and the "Doblinger score" used in Europe. Slightly different
scores were being used in England and America. They were warned
that if the proposed film used a note of these other two scores,
they would be sued. (MGM was understandably nervous: they had already
been sued successfully by a real Prince Danilo after the 1925 version,
paying him $4,000; They'd also been ordered to pay $250,000 to Prince
Youssoupov who claimed he and his wife were defamed in MGM's 1932
film Rasputin and the Empress.) Erich von Stroheim and Benjamin
Glazer both claimed the rights to certain aspects of the silent
film. All these claims postponed the scheduled 1930 sound version
with Sidney Franklin directing.
After Hollywood's non-musical hiatus, The Merry Widow seemed the
perfect vehicle to launch MGM's campaign to dominate the musical
field. Irving Thalberg had lured the Paramount's musical triumvirate
-- Lubitsch, Chevalier, and MacDonald -- to MGM with the irresistible
carrot of The Merry Widow.
The Merry Widow is variously reported to have been both "a hit"
and "a flop" (American Magazine, September 1937). Both statements
are correct. Artistically, the Widow was and is flawless. However,
this very level of sophistication made it a money-loser in the hinterlands
of the U.S. With Hitler in power, European markets were starting
to close to Hollywood products. MGM had always counted on these
international markets to turn a profit on its more prestigious and
expensive productions. The Merry Widow never returned a profit.
Chevalier made only one more American film before returning to
France where he continued making film and stage appearances through
the World War II. In 1937, an article in American Magazine noted
the irony of the respective MacDonald-Chevalier careers. In 1929,
Chevalier had been an international star, MacDonald an unknown.
Now, eight years later, she was one of the ten top box-office stars
of the year, while Chevalier was "through." (Anyone not appearing
in a Hollywood film, no matter what their other activities, ceases
to exist for American movie goers!) In 1957 he played Audrey Hepburn's
father in Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon and in 1958 his star
status was solidly reclaimed with the musical Gigi. With Jeanette
more or less retired, their career positions had reversed yet again.
While studio heads tried to figure out what direction the musical
might be taking, Jeanette was rushed into another quickie film,
one that would change her life forever: Naughty Marietta.
Intriguingly the widow, who is called "Hannah Glawari" in the
stage version, has an entirely different name in the various film
versions. Mae Murray was "Sally" in the 1925 silent film. In 1952,
Lana Turner was "Crystal." Jeanette is "Madame Sonia" in the 1934
English version, but "Missia Palmieri" in the French version --
possibly a way to explain her accent.
American TV title: The Lady Dances (to avoid confusion with the
1952 Lana Turner version).
Video & DVD
Films Of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy