[24 July 2013]
Here’s the standard formula for negotiating romances between men and women. The man is dashing and experienced. The woman is lovely and virginal, or so it’s mostly presumed. The brash, outgoing male fast-talks his way into the woman’s resistance, and while his charm initially wins her over, the purity of her love also converts his previously light-hearted ways so that, to his own surprise, he’s ready to settle down and love one woman. Thus his conquest of her doubts is also a self-conquest of his own wandering feet. The honeybee will stick to one flower.
Such is the plot of Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow, set in one of those middle-European never-never-countries. It balances the field by making the heroine a widow (therefore sexually experienced) and also rich (therefore independent). She doesn’t need a man for the standard practical reasons, like saving the ranch from foreclosure by a mustachio’d villain. Unencumbered, she can desire him emotionally and sexually. She’s so rich that the prospect of her leaving the country causes a political crisis, and a Romeo is sent to woo her and keep the nation solvent. As played by Jeanette MacDonald, the widow is attractive and unaffected. She also gets to sing a couple of times, of course, but not so much as you’d suppose.
As played by Maurice Chevalier, her hero carries his French ladykiller persona with him, jutting out like his bottom lip. While the romantic couple shared a previous history in Lehar’s operetta, that’s not the case here. The script by Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson spends lots of time establishing him as the man of a thousand women in a world where adultery is not only winked at, it’s practically expected. That’s the sophistication of director Ernst Lubitsch, who could make sex outside marriage (and occasionally inside it) seem so delightfully Continental. In 1934 the Production Code was cracking down on such shenanigans, and this was the end of his sexpot Chevalier cycle; it was Chevalier’s third Lubitsch film and also his third with MacDonald.
It’s a grand one to go out on. It’s hopelessly talky by today’s standards, but the talk is so sly and light, and it’s a pleasure to hear people referring to their sexual appetites with such discreet frankness. Then there’s the amazing sequence of the Merry Widow waltz, a montage of several dazzling shots of dancers swirling about in alternating black (the men’s tuxedos) and white (the women’s dresses), including one stunning moment where they dance down a mirrored hallway as the camera looks down from overhead. It’s the visual equivalent of being drunk on champagne.
The film is now available on demand from Warner Archive; too bad the simultaneous French version isn’t included as a bonus. Time has somewhat worn the bloom off a film once universally acclaimed. Despite the fizz, it does seem a bit stagy and stuffy and drawn-out and obvious. Still, it’s full of warm comic support from the likes of Edward Everett Horton (the frantic ambassador), George Barbier (the boobish king), Una Merkel (the shameless hussy of a queen), Sterling Holloway (a beanpole), and Herman Bing (one of those who made a living off his funny accent), and if you meet it halfway, it has its heady moments.