This is the kind of comedy that can be called "defiantly enjoyable." That is, strictly speaking it's no classic, and yet if it hits you in the right mood you may just catch yourself enjoying it. Someone determined to prove that The Merry Widower is a weak film could go through it scene by scene and point out where the gags are lame, the performances are over-the-top, or the plot twists don't make sense, and all of that may be true, but ultimately it doesn't matter. The film possesses an attitude that says 'What the hell, we know this is kind of dumb, but we defy you not to laugh.' It worked for me. I enjoyed the movie in spite of itself, and expect most silent comedy buffs will find things to enjoy here, too.
The Merry Widower was made at the Hal Roach Studio, and for aficionados of that's a big selling point in itself. The Roach product of the mid-'20s has a feel all its own, a house style that lends even the weaker entries a special quality. While the filmmakers at the Mack Sennett Studio specialized in frenzied gag-riots with no time for subtlety, the Roach comedies slowed the tempo and introduced elements of satire, whimsy, offbeat characterization, and (as in this film) a strain of the macabre.
Squint-eyed Jimmy Finlayson is featured here in the central role. Personally I prefer Finn in supporting parts, as his shtick is rather limited and doesn't wear all that well under prolonged exposure, but in this film he's oddly sympathetic, at least in the second half. Finlayson plays a guy named Julius who spends most of his time on extended hunting trips, neglecting his wife. When she is lured away by an enterprising "He-Flirt" (played by dapper Tyler Brooke) Julius tries to fight at first, then gives up, attempts suicide, and winds up drinking heavily in a sleazy waterfront dive. Just when the story's getting depressing, Charley Chase shows up for a brief, uncredited appearance as a bizarre hobo in a top-hat, to perk things along. Ultimately Julius cooks up a scheme to impersonate a fortune teller, and thereby manipulate his wife and her lover into doing his bidding. At first he wants vengeance, but once he's lured the couple to a graveyard he and his wife find common ground once again, amid some eerie goings-on.
Stan Laurel was the assistant director on this film, and although he didn't get a writing credit something tells me he contributed some of the weird gags that highlight the graveyard finale, such as the giant caretaker who exits skipping like a "pansy" (to use the period term). Other gags suggest the Sennett approach to comedy, such as the use of tiny animated stars swirling around a performer's head after he gets clunked, or the conveniently located vat of whitewash that turns Finn into a "ghost." This was the sort of familiar shtick that the better Roach comedies were leaving behind, but somehow in this case it's punched across with such panache it's not stale but amusing. All told, The Merry Widower is an enjoyable diversion, and a pleasant comedy for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
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