For over half a century there’s been debate over the best way to watch silent films – Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque française insisted on no accompaniment at all in the 50s – but one can be certain that the Turner Classic Movie Festival will come up with something a little more special. And so Saturday night’s presentation of Eric von Stroheim’s 1925 comedy The Merry Widow, was introduced by the incomparable Kevin Brownlow and a wealth of anecdotes, and played to a brand new score, a North American premiere no less, by Maud Nelissen, conducting the Von Stroheim Virtuosi, a small and largely competent ensemble of strings, woodwind, percussion and a very useful accordion.
- Director: Eric von Stroheim
- Script: Erich von Stroheim, Benjamin Glazer
- Producers: Erich von stroheim, Irving Thalberg
- Camera: Oliver Marsh
- Cast: John Gilbert, Mae Murray, Roy D’Arcy, Josephine Crowell, George Fawcett, Tully Marshall, Edward Connelly
In the almost non-fictional kingdom of Monteblanco there are two princes, cousins, malicious stiffneck Mirko and goodnatured Danilo. The latter falls hard for visiting American chorus girl Sally but Mirko’s mischief and his own princely duty dissuade him from marriage. When Sally marries a wealthy capitalist who dies, she becomes an eligible match and Danilo has to contend with Mirko as a now-serious rival, as well as the unresolved misunderstanding of his previous rupture with Sally.
Stroheim claimed the film was butchered by the studio of course (“The man who cut my movie had nothing on his mind but a hat” – turns out Brownlow has a pretty neat Stroheim impression). But he also claimed the ending was a spurious addition, despite his having written and shot it himself. The film’s very inception – a commercial project accepted on the grounds that he had to include two specific scenes (including the waltz) but could otherwise do what he liked – betrays the lack of personal investment. The legendary obsession with realism is present, naturally, as is the discretely specific mise-en-scène, but in service of what? A flippant tale of two princes, comically dissimilar, and the dancehall girl who inflames the passion of one and the malignancy of the other. Roy D’Arcy is hilarious as the cartoonishly villianous Mirko, all toothy rictus and monocle, but he’s pure caricature. All the better for him, as the leads are not even granted that dignity – the real prince Danilo of Montenegro sued MGM for defamation, with some justification, as Gilbert’s prince is little more than a carousing, good-natured simpleton (imagine the reaction to his screen counterpart’s first appearance, chuckling in all too worldly a fashion at pornographic photographs his chum got from his barber). Mae Murray fares little better, her character confined to the standard-issue 20s thatch of a hairstyle, bowtie lipstick and petulance, and most of the scenes between the two descend into (hard-fought!) eye-goggling contests.
There’s plenty of amusing incident and splendidly bizarre touches: the final wedding takes place beneath a monstrously large crucifix; the capitalist is a drooling foot fetishist; and snippets of Stroheim’s outlandish orgies remain in tantalisingly brief glimpses. Certainly some amusement comes from character, but the comedy is generally broad enough to overwhelm the human content (this is a film made by someone who finds a prince in military uniform kicking his servant in the rear deeply hilarious). The separation of Danilov and Sally is a sequence of some desolate power, and the misunderstanding that prompts the climax would be genuinely moving if the rest of the film weren’t so trivial. Plenty of amusement, moments of startling oddness, but little of substance, a charming but rather disappointing frippery.