10 October 2004 | Ron Oliver
They Had Faces Then
A romantic Prince from tiny Monteblanco attempts to woo THE MERRY WIDOW who once loved him when she was a poor dancer.
Erich von Stroheim, the Teutonic genius who marched through Hollywood's Silent Days like a conquering general, had his final directorial stint at MGM Studios producing this lavish & brilliant film based on the operetta by Franz Lehár. The visuals are striking, with sets that look like actual locations--a mountaintop village; the Castellano Cathedral; Maxim's in Paris--and the occasional bizarre touch--the blindfolded musicians sharing the Prince's seduction bed, for example--which von Stroheim relished. The acting is flawless, with no need for dialogue. The actors' faces speak all that need be said.
Mae Murray & John Gilbert portray the passionate lovers whom Fate (and the plot) contrives to keep apart so successfully. Miss Murray (she and the director loathed each other) powerfully portrays a street-wise performer who, through a series of heartbreaks, becomes a vastly wealthy woman. Gilbert expertly plays a prince whose charm has always gotten him his way. Their scenes together, most particularly the waltz sequences, fairly blaze with unrequited sensual longing and desire.
While it is entertaining to wonder what von Stroheim would have done with the role, it is difficult to imagine anyone better than Roy D'Arcy as the simpering, lusting, sneering Crown Prince; he is pure villainy personified and his eventual fate is absolutely justified. Josephine Crowell gives a fine performance as the Queen. Tully Marshall, one of von Stroheim's favorite character actors, adds another portrait to his gallery of grotesques, this time playing a crippled baron with a foot fetish.
The wonderful organ score which accompanies the film was arranged & performed by Dennis James.
MGM would tackle THE MERRY WIDOW again nine years later and produce a vastly different film, this time directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Maurice Chevalier & Jeanette MacDonald.