The small kingdom of Marshovia has a little problem. The main tax-payer, the wealthy widow Sonia (who pays 52% of the taxes) has left for Paris. So Count Danilo is sent to Paris, to stop her from getting married to a stranger, so that the danger of removing the money is averted. But this is not as easy as the ambassador in Paris has planned.Written by
Stephan Eichenberg <email@example.com>
Ernst Lubitsch directed some of the sweetest and funniest sex comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. He was fortunate enough to do three films with Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald. They are all charming, but the last one may be the best. Here he took the best known operetta of Franz Lehar and turned it into a superb musical comedy, with new lyrics to tunes like "Maximes", "the Merry Widow Waltz", and "Girls, girls, girls, girls, girls" by Lorenz Hart. At the same time he maintained his marvelous sense of fun - something that may be very much missing from Eric Von Stroheim's earlier, silent film version (that became a study in Balkan politics).
THE MERRY WIDOW was composed in 1905, shortly after a major scandal involving the nation of Montenegro. This land still exists, and (with Serbia) retains the now useless joint name of Yugoslavia - the Balkan state that once faced Italy and combined eight countries. Montenegro was a kingdom in 1905, and it's ruler had a Crown Prince named Danilo, who created major scandal by his doings in Paris. Lehar, a Viennese composer (and so, one who usually made fun of the Slavic states) took the story and the name of the Crown Prince, retaining the setting in the embassy in Paris. In Lehar's operetta, the homeland of Pontrevekkio (note how it sounds like Montenegro) is on the verge of bankruptcy, unless the richest widow in the country (Sonia) marries a citizen of the state. She is being pursued by eligible Frenchmen in Paris, so the Pontrevekkian embassy decides to have Count Danillo, a member of the staff there, romance and marry her. The complications that ensue are amusing. Lehar's music is not as waltz oriented on the whole as Johann Strauss II, except for the famous "Merry Widow" number. Most of the tunes have more of a Parisian flair, and one ("Vilia") has a lovely haunting effect. It remains his most popular operetta, although he was to do "THE COUNT OF LUXEMBURG" and "THE LAND OF SMILES" as well.
Montenegro did complain (like the Japanese complained about Gilbert and Sullivan's THE MIKADO). The major change in the book nowadays is the name is usually not Pontrevekkio, but Marshovia. When Von Stroheim did his silent version, he concentrated on the Balkan politics involving the Crown Prince, his "cousin" Prince Danillo, Sonia, her rich, insane husband, and the throne. The cast in that had been quite stunning for a 1925 movie, with John Gilbert as Danillo, Roy D'Arcy as the grinning, sadistic Crown Prince, Mae Marsh as Sonia, and Tully Marshall as the sexually mad Baron who weds Sonia (and suffers a stroke on their wedding night). Full of sexual ideas (Marshall has such a foot fetish that he dies having his nose in Marsh's pumps), the highpoint was the waltz, wherein Gilbert and Marsh realize their love to Lehar's strains (the music at that point of the silent version was always the Lehar "Merry Widow" Waltz). It remains a masterpiece of silent cinema (and another proof of Von Stroheim's peculiar genius), but it is not a light hearted as the operetta it was based on.
Lubitsch is different. He has fun showing what little Marshovia is like, with sheep and goats appearing all over the streets and in the public buildings. The King (George Barbier) is aware that his wife (Una Merkle) is less than satisfied with him, and has a famous "freudian" moment when he returns without warning to get his ceremonial sword, grabs one, and finds he can't get the belt around his girth. He returns to his antechamber, and confronts Lt. Danillo with his wife. King Achmet is upset, but his solution - he'll cover up the scandal but sends Danillo to Paris.
There are many good moments: Danillo's trial for treason is one. So is Ambassador Popoff (Edward Everett Horton) having his aide (Herman Bing) translate a coded message from King Achmet, which basically calls him a blockhead. And, yes, the film chemistry between Maurice and Jeannette is retained, as in their three other movies. But they could not have made more films together. Nolan disliked Chevalier - he had a habit of pinching her. Chevalier thought she was a hypocrite, because (at the time) she was having an affair with Gene Raymond (whom she eventually married). When she was teamed with Nelson Eddy, she and Eddy happened to be quite close friends, which is why their total film output together is eight films.
I notice that Clark Gable had some kind of cameo appearance here (it is not in the billing). Two years later he and Jeanette would appear together in SAN FRANCISCO.
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