Silent Sunday: The Merry Widow (1925)

Erich von Stroheim could be accused of many things, but making an “irresistible romantic soufflé”? That doesn’t sound right, and yet those are the very words on the packaging of Warner Archive’s DVD-R release which I picked up recently. Certainly didn’t square with my admittedly dim recollection of the film as being rather heavy, unexpectedly so for a film avowedly based upon the Lehar operetta. I’ve still never actually heard that, or seen the 1934 version by Lubitsch, but Stroheim’s film took me aback cos I was expecting something comparatively light. On re-inspection, my memory turns out to have been rather more accurate than the back cover blurb; if this was meant as any sort of comedy, it’s one with a singular lack of lightness and a thick vein of bitterness and spite… the first hour does contain material that could be described as comic, but I didn’t get the feeling of it being played for comedy. And it’s easy to imagine the story—Ruritanian-type prince falls in love with American dance hall girl but can’t marry her cos she’s a commoner; she marries a rich old baron who conveniently dies on their wedding night, leaving her alone again but also obscenely wealthy and available—being played as a comedy, but Stroheim plays it straight. Interesting to see Roy D’Arcy again in his first big role as the loathsome crown prince; again he lets the teeth and moustache do most of the work, but he clearly revels in playing this ghastly individual and owns the film. John Gilbert is the good prince, though even he displays some bad behaviour, and Mae Murray’s widow turns out to be something of a hard bit of work herself. Impressive but overlong and hard to love, but still worth seeing again; amazingly it was an actual hit, somehow. After all, if Stroheim was going to film an operetta, he was going to make an Erich von Stroheim film out of it, not an irresistible romantic soufflé…

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