Extravagant though the production may be, writer-director Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow is also sardonic and incisive. Inspired, of course, by Franz Lehar’s 1905 operetta, it was largely dismissed by Stroheim, who may have found its resounding financial success ill-suited to his self-image; but, surely, the idea of a silent work based on any sort of a musical suggests the ironical bent of Stroheim’s intentions. Another technique bolstering this impression is Stroheim’s unmerciful undercutting of a key romantic scene between the hero and the heroine, Prince Danilo (John Gilbert) and American dancer Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray). Alternating full-screen closeups of the two have us lost in a reverie of sublime intimacy; but, eventually, Stroheim provides a lateral view of both, seated at table, and the distance between them seems immense. I suspect not coincidentally, the distance between them is what this brilliant, essential film is about.
Sally and the Prince meet and fall in love when the latter, himself, is pretending to be a commoner. When Sally discovers the truth, she feels that the Prince has been mocking her; when he fails to show up for their wedding, she marries instead his evil cousin, the Crown Prince, who drops dead, as does the King, making Prince Danilo the new king. Sally thus becomes his Queen.
In one of the film’s key scenes, Prince Danilo forgoes his first wedding with Sally because his mother tells of her own long-ago love for a commoner, which she had to forgo out of duty to the state. At best, Mother is turning the screws of guilt to wed her son to her idea of duty; how can he marry for love when his own mother sacrificed such love for this duty? At worst, of course, the Queen may be making up the story of her impossible past love in order to manipulate her son. In any case, we see how these royals are locked into their robes and roles. At the end, the Coronation finds Sally and Danilo united but, ironically, very possibly loveless, and retroactively we begin to question Sally’s feelings from the start. Regardless, from here on in they will become their royal roles; in effect, they will be suffocated by the lavishness of their insular lifestyle. With their diminished individuality and humanity, they will no longer be who once upon a time seemed to be very much in love. For them, as for us regarding them, love has turned out to be an illusion. Reality is what their ultimate royalty confers on them: authority, power, endless responsibility, obligation. Forever after they will stand, as they finally appear in the film, side by side rather than in one another’s arms.
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