Silents Please: The Merry Widow (1925)

Mae Murray is the Merry Widow

The Merry Widow (Warner Archive)

Erich von Stroheim was the auteur of unapologetic decadence in the silent era and he fills this old world fantasy, an adaptation of a popular operetta, with fairy-tale European kingdoms, arrogant royals and aristocrats and lives of uninhibited attitudes of entitlement that allow—nay, encourage—the most wanton behavior in its princes. That includes the devil-may-care Prince Danilo Petrovich (John Gilbert), “the world champion of indoor sports,” in words of his cousin the Crown Prince (Roy D’Arcy), a nasty, weaselly Prussian twit with a perpetual grin held in place so long it has settled into a rictus grimace of sadistic delight.

These competitive cousins vie for the affections, or at least the physical pleasures, of gorgeous American showgirl Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray) who arrives in their kingdom with The Manhattan Follies, a travelling show apparently doing the provincial circuit of Old Heidelberg and points beyond. Murray, a silent movie superstar long forgotten to an era represented by only a few icons to even most film buffs, is a spicy dash of American spunk in this world of high manner and base impulses, a mix of urban worldliness, romantic innocence and American practicality, with a snap of sass reminiscent of Ginger Rogers. When she notices the ravenous attentions of the wolfish European officers whooping it up as she adjusts her stocking (if this film is anything to go by,  the tease of ankles and calves are the most arousing zone of female anatomy for this crowd), her response is wonderful: a flash of embarrassment quickly replaced by exasperation and resignation to the nature of man-boys the world over.

Gilbert is far more charming than his sneering cousin but otherwise not much different, at least in endgame of his wooing. Stroheim revels in the mind-blowing decadence of the playground of royal existence: a private dinner where the beautiful young minstrels are half naked AND blindfolded, to offer spectacle and privacy at the same time (not to mention a certain fetishism that von Stroheim so loved to toss into his films), high-end brothels that are the playground of the Crown Prince and his private army of uniformed sycophants, a walking corpse of a millionaire banker who buys his way into a wedding night with a young beauty. Add to this the ruthless nature of sexual competition between the cousins, where rivalry is twisted into a game of humiliation, and the vengeance of Sally becomes an equally delicious tease that hides the sense of betrayal she feels toward Prince Danilo and the broken heart she is still nursing. Because beneath the wicked decadence and lascivious behavior, The Merry Widow is an operatta with the sensibility of a 19th century melodrama. Stroheim delivers the necessary romantic complications and flamboyant gestures of love and revenge without betraying his vision of love as a game of sex and desire and power.

The Warner Archive disc is a preserved but not restored edition. There is minor damage and some sequences where the print skews slightly off center and the sprocket holes are barely visible at the edges of the frame. That aside, it looks fine and it features a pipe organ score arrange and performed by Dennis James, a silent movie musician dedicated to keeping the traditional art of silent film accompaniment alive through period-authentic scores. This is, I believe, the sole silent film score performance by James currently available on DVD.

Available on the Warner Archive website here