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This is Cheshire, reporting from the 2004 Sydney Film Festival, where Erich von Stroheim's Merry Widow was just given a resounding hurrah! It was the darling of the festival! Never have i heard such hooping and cheering. Our enjoyment of the film was no doubt enhanced by the wonderful print and live piano, violin and brass accompaniment we were treated to.
I know Stroheim only went to Hollywood because he wanted to inject a bit of reality into the movies - and i think he did that superbly with Greed and those pictures before it. But the thing i loved most about Foolish Wives, for instance, my favourite Stroheim film so far (keeping in mind i'm yet to see Blind Husbands), was not how natural and real its performances were, though this was incredible, but Stroheim's wickedly subversive sense of humour. Foolish Wives is divine black comedy - and Merry Widow continues that tradition, not Stroheim's dream of realism. I can't believe Stroheim was depressed at how successful this film was, because he abandoned any attempts at "realism" to make it.
I think he achieves something better. I'm not one of these fellows who insists a picture hold a mirror up to reality to be good - if i was interested in reality, i'd watch a documentary, or perhaps sit on a park bench and watch the thing itself! I go to the pictures to see a different world, with a reality all its own. Its why i love the work of Fellini, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Kubrick and Co. They give us something better than reality! I think that's what Stroheim does here, and despite the fact that he didn't respect what he did, I think its among his greatest achievements. For modern audiences, The Merry Widow is one of the most delightful pieces of black salacious comedy available before the last twenty years (along with Bunuel's priceless L'Age D'Or). Such intelligent, aware humour - we all had a great laugh at the State Theatre in Sydney.
John Gilbert looks marvelous on screen, and MY what a fantastic actor he was. But the show is all but stolen by Roy D'Arcy, as Stroheim's beloved evil cousin figure. His salacious grin is a thing to behold. He cracked the audience up throughout. Seems D'Arcy is a great unsung hero of the cinema, from looking at his credits list. Perhaps a rediscovery of La Boheme and Bardleys the Magnificent might rejuvenate his memory, not to mention a beautiful DVD edition of The Merry Widow... or even a VHS edition! Who are we kidding here, guys! This is not only one of the most enjoyable silent films i've ever seen, its just a darn tootin' good comedy!
For all the talk of the "boundless shots of shoes" i'd heard were in this movie, i was expecting it to be a two-hour long shoe-store commercial. Whoever went on like that about this movie, including Irving Thalberg, must SO not have even heard of foot fettishism. Its so obvious when you see the picture. There are probably six shots of shoes in the picture total (!), and four of them are to illustrate one of the B-characters as a foot fetishist, which is fairly obvious, since he licks his lips and virtually salivates when he looks at feet! This is also ironic for this character, because his feet are the location of his disability: he walks with comic difficulty on two replacement feet, crutches. The remaining shoe shots are part of a delightful scene involving a game of footsies, which i won't spoil for you, but they are most certainly justified by the narrative.
Look, this is the sort of film i'd love to have on a pretty DVD edition (attention Kino!) as part of the wonderful Erich von Stroheim Collection sitting next to my bed so i can watch it to send me off onto a nice sleep. Its the most fun of Stroheim's films, but he in no way sells out, in my opinion. The humour is satirical, subversive "let's see what i can get away with" comedy - a treat!
For the record, i recommend to you in this order:
1. Foolish Wives 2. The Merry Widow (when its released some time soon, or at a film festival near you) 3. Greed 4. The Wedding March 5. Queen Kelly
(the only other surviving Stroheim picture i'm yet to see is Blind Husbands, and he only directed some scenes from Merry-Go-Round, which you can see on the doco The Man You Love to Hate - they're pretty great!)
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