Featured: Top of Home Page

'The Merry Widow' (1934)

Lip service.

The Merry Widow

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald
Distributor: Warner Archive
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1934
USDVD release date: 2013-05-29

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.





The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.