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It may be a matter of taste but as much as I like and admire Erich Von Stroheim work before and behind the camera, his reputation as a `genius' doesn't seem justified by the films themselves.
Certainly Merry Widow is filmed with great style and the opulent design is certainly diverting. Also the decision to turn the story from light opera to fairly heavy drama is completely in keeping with Von Stroheim 's own rather cynical outlook. But I find his obsessive dwelling on details can make for a slow and even tedious viewing experience, especially in the first half which seems to spend an inordinate amount of time setting the relationship between the dashing, irreverent but humanist Prince Danilo Petrovich (Gilbert - in wonderful form) and the pompous, tight lipped and distinctly perverse Crown Prince Mirko (Roy D'Arcy).with scenes prolonged far longer than their dramatic weight justifies. Also where the film attempts a lighter tone, the effect is of a concrete soufflé, with every glance and double entendre painfully spelt out.
However this is still a satisfying film as a whole, especially in the second half where we finally have some DRAMA. Here in sequence after sequence we finally start to understand Von Stroheim's reputation as he examines the decaying Royal family under a particularly unflattering microscope. The tryst with the blindfolded musicians is a particularly memorable scene.
Having heard of Mae Murray's terrible treatment of the Von and others in her career, I had a tough time warming to her in this, but I have to admit she gives a great performance as Sally O ' Hara, an innocent who's mistreatment at the hands of the family almost ruins her life. Roy D'Arcy makes an indelible impression as the creepy Mirko, his every gesture filling one with disgust.
But for my money it's Gilbert's work that makes this film worthwhile. One of the very finest of silent actors, the expressiveness of his eyes, the tenderness of his playing and bearing throughout make his character completely convincing and his torment over loosing Sally a felt and poignant loss.
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