The Merry Widow (1934)

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Time once again for the monthly Pre-Code Crazy pick from me and my blog friend Karen of Shadows & Satin, when we each choose one gem from this era that’s showing on TCM.

This time I’m combining my PCC choice with a movie that’s also on my “Blind Spot” list of 12 Classics to watch this year. I had such fun with Love Me Tonight, my pre-Code pick for December, that I didn’t want to wait long to see another Maurice Chevalier/Jeanette MacDonald team-up, The Merry Widow, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. As I expected, it’s a witty and pretty delight.

MacDonald plays the titular wealthy widow, whose taxes are the only thing keeping the miniscule kingdom of Marshovia operating. When her period of mourning is over (the moment is captured in a wonderful scene where her black clothing and dog magically turn white, and her collection of veils all become white hats), the Royals worry about her going to Paris and taking her fortune with her. King Achmed and Queen Dolores (George Barbier and Una Merkel) devise to send their chief flirt and playboy Count Danilo (Chevalier) to romance Sonia back to Marshovia before she marries some foreigner. The comical complications come when Danilo falls in love with his “one last fling” before the mission, who happens to be the independent Sonia out for her first fun evening in ages, and whom he’s mistaken for one of the party girls at Maxim’s nightclub.

The mixups and frustrations unfold with perfect timing and some memorably grand and beautiful spectacles, like the Embassy Ball scenes and the Merry Widow Waltz. It’s all so sophisticated and captivating, such elegant, complex and dainty lace. Edward Everett Horton as the French Ambassador uses his signature anxious tics and startled expressions in a hilarious bit where he tries to decipher a naughty and ominous message from the King. Royals Barbier and Merkel are priceless, somehow managing to be desperate, dim-witted, canny and scheming all at once, and the leading couple sparkle and charm their way through great songs, zany situations and risque dialogue.

That Lubitsch touch is in top form, creating character and humour with marvelous efficiency. I loved the bit with the bored Sonia reviewing a year’s worth of her diary entries, a few moments that bring us up to speed on her brief marriage, disproportionate period of mourning and the wry, independent spirit just waiting to re-emerge. First we see one page after another of her apathetic notes like “nothing to write…[page turn]… nothing…” [page turn]…[lots of empty pages]. Then, once her emotions and desires have been reawakened, she sings while scribbling, using up a whole bottle of ink to record her thoughts and plans. One of many scenes that make this one a joy to watch and one I look forward to revisiting many times.

Watch The Merry Widow on TCM Feb. 17th, and now please click here to see which Pre-Code film Karen has picked for your viewing pleasure.

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…and you can see many bloggers’ movie discoveries in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan McNeil of The Matinee.

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7 thoughts on “The Merry Widow (1934)”

  1. Glad to see you appreciated this tasty morsel! It has been a couple of decades since I’ve seen it, but I still have fond memories — albeit without the detail. Also recommend The Smiling Lieutenant if you haven’t seen it. I need to go on an early Lubitsch sound binge soon.

    1. Thanks– yes, I saw SMILING LT. last year and loved it too, so I have a few more to go: MONTE CARLO, ONE HOUR WITH YOU, LOVE PARADE… a fun binge for sure!

  2. One little detail I was happy to discover about The Merry Widow — in the Maxim’s scene — the great Minna Gombell, who was one of Hollywood’s finest character actresses, plays the glamorous Marcelle, who scolds Sonia for hurting Danilo’s feelings. This same actress played the awful Mimi in The Thin Man, Aunt Carrie, the madam, in Wild Boys of the Road, the sympathetic chorine who befriends Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway, and, most strikingly, Mrs Parrish, Homer’s mother, in The Best Years of Our Lives. Gombell disappeared into her roles so thoroughly you hardly realize it’s the same person playing each part,

    1. Yes, a familiar face for sure, is’t that so much fun when you can spot those faces in so many great movies. Character actors like that are MVPs of the movies.

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