25 January 2010 | bkoganbing
The Trophy Widow
The Merry Widow was first seen by American audiences on Broadway during the 1907-08 season where it ran for 416 performances. For those of us who know it primarily from the sound films with first Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald and later Fernando Lamas and Lana Turner, this version will be quite interesting. Let's just say that what was put in the talkies was a lot closer to the stage production. Erich Von Stroheim who directed this film added quite a bit to the story. In fact in the end it isn't quite so merry.
Most of the film is taken up with just how Mae Murray became The Merry Widow. She's an American dancer who is stranded in the remote Balkan kingdom of Monteblanco which is ruled by King George Fawcett. In line for the throne is the rakish Roy D'Arcy, a Snidely Whiplash villain if there ever was one. Behind him is his cousin John Gilbert playing Prince Danilo.
Murray comes to the attention of both men, Gilbert actually falls for her, D'Arcy would like an occasional roll in the hay, but marry her? There's a third guy out there in Tully Marshall who is the wealthiest man in the kingdom and it's principal banker. He leaves and the whole place goes into receivership. Marshall's an old dude with some alternative sexual interests that Von Stroheim exploits to the fullest on screen and he'd like a young trophy wife and Murray fills the bill.
She does become a wife ever so briefly and then of course the Merry Widow having had her fill of royalty. But now that she holds the Monteblanco purse strings, D'Arcy has taken a renewed interest in her and maybe she just might be a suitable queen.
I think you can see where this is going though Von Stroheim does tease us a bit with some possible alternatives before the film concludes. The audience of 1925 saw one lavish production that nearly broke the new Metro-Goldwyn studio. We only see about half the footage he shot if that.
One thing that Metro did not have to worry about was a soundtrack. The music of The Merry Widow was very familiar to the American public and it's played on the organ throughout the film. Young contract players Joan Crawford and Clark Gable are extras in the ballroom scene and good luck in spotting them. Although in the Citadel film series book on The Films Of Clark Gable there is a still from The Merry Widow where Gable is pointed out.
I'm sure John Gilbert little dreamed that in six years Gable would be supplanting him as the number one leading man at MGM. But in The Merry Widow he's a stalwart and resolute Danilo and Mae Murray actually does suggest a bit of what Jeanette MacDonald's performance would be in the first sound remake.
In the fate of what happens to D'Arcy's character, Von Stroheim opts for some realism in terms of the European scene of the past 25 years or so before the film debuted. In fact very little of the happy tone of The Merry Widow is preserved here. The film given how Murray got her millions ought to be retitled, The Trophy Widow.
Still it's an interesting alternative to the normal operetta productions we're used to seeing.