During a recent showing on TMC it was stated that Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier did not get along on this film. He called her a "prude" and she called him "a bottom pincher". Their relationship had been deteriorating for some time and this was the last film they appeared in together.
Maurice Chevalier avoided any confrontations with Jeanette MacDonald and Ernst Lubitsch throughout production. He did, however, blow up at his assistant, Robert Spencer. Spencer had relayed the director and co-star's invitation to Chevalier to help them plan the wrap party and provide gifts for the crew. The actor handed the assignment to Spencer, but when Spencer presented him with the bill for the gifts, which came to about $1,000, the notoriously stingy actor screamed at him. After thinking about it, and realizing that the cost of the gifts was not out of line with current Hollywood custom, Chevalier apologized.
This was the only film teaming Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in which they never sang together. Aware that her classical style was poorly matched to his popular vocalizing, Ernst Lubitsch even inserted a joke about the musical mismatch. At one point Chevalier seemed to be serenading MacDonald with a cultured baritone voice, only for Lubitsch to reveal the voice belonged to one of his orderlies.
Biographers have suggested that one reason for Maurice Chevalier's good mood on the set was his romantic involvement with one-time Paramount star Kay Francis. The actor had been married when they first met, but by 1934 he had divorced his wife. He and Frances were so serious that Newsweek announced they were getting married but they never did.
Censors from the film industry's Production Code Administration objected to a scene at Maxim's in which Danilo carries Sonia to a couch, drops her there and then sits beside her. They only passed the scene when the stars managed to contort their bodies so she could keep both feet on the floor. That taken care of, PCA head Joseph Breen passed the film.
When the film premièred in New York City, Will Hays, and Catholic publisher Martin Quigley, one of the Production Code's authors, were horrified at what they considered the introduction of filth into a harmless operetta. Breen had to come to New York, where he met with MGM executives and members of the Catholic church's Legion of Decency until 2 a.m. working out cuts to tone down Count Danilo's Casanova image and the suggestion that Maxim's was a glorified brothel. Since the film had already been sent to distributors, each distribution office had to cut the prints itself before they could be sent to theatres. Fortunately, the studio kept all the cut material and the film was restored as censorship restrictions relaxed.
A French-language version was filmed simultaneously, with Chevalier and MacDonald in the starring roles. (As a trained opera singer, MacDonald spoke and sang excellent French.) However, the rest of the cast was replaced with French-speaking actors. Marcel Vallée played the Ambassador (who is played by Edward Everett Horton in the English version).
As in the 1925 and 1952 film versions, almost the entire plot is changed from the stage version, though several of the characters are basically the same. Only the made-for-TV versions have used the original plot and characters.
As he had done at Paramount, Ernst Lubitsch continued to play practical jokes on Jeanette MacDonald. During one romantic musical number, he had left in her view on the set a Hollywood Reporter story announcing that MGM had imported English soprano Evelyn Laye as a threat to her. The star ran from the soundstage in tears.
With the financial failure of the film, Maurice Chevalier did not move on to better, more ambitious roles at MGM. The only parts Irving Thalberg offered him were more Gallic charmers, first in The Chocolate Soldier (1941), then in Her Cardboard Lover (1942). The former would have finally paired him with Grace Moore, who had moved to Columbia Pictures and scored a hit in One Night of Love (1934), but Chevalier wanted to return to France. When Thalberg informed him that in order to borrow Moore from Columbia he had had to promise her top billing, a clear violation of Chevalier's contract, the French star claimed breach of contract and left. After only one more film in the U.S. (Folies Bergère de Paris (1935)), he returned to France until after World War II.
When MGM released the 1952 remake of The Merry Widow, the studio ceased further distribution of the earlier versions so as not to compete with the remake's box office take. The 1925 silent film disappeared entirely for decades, not to be seen again until it was reclaimed by Turner Classic Movies. The 1934 version turned up on television with a new title, A Lady Dances, to minimize confusion, as the more recent 1952 version was also leased to local television stations.