Silent film isn’t exactly the sort of medium you’d imagine to be a bespoke fit to opera, but in the hands of a 40-year-old Erich von Stroheim, Léhar’s The Merry Widow finds a unique, if not new, lease on life.
The 1925 film (which plays at Film Forum on Monday as part of an expertly-curated Stroheim retrospective) came hot on the heels of Greed, based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris. The original print ran for over ten hours and was subsequently cut down to 2.5 by the newly-formed MGM studios and the director’s original cut, has been long lost.
"Greed" can be pinpointed as Stroheim’s falling-out with the studios, which he perceived to be more concerned with bottom lines and box office profits than the director’s obsessive details and artistic freedom. However, the two warring ideals met on a tentative neutral territory for "The Merry Widow," which stands today as Stroheim’s most commercially successful film. But, perhaps as a bras d’honneur to the studio system, Stroheim didn’t let Léhar’s 1905 champagne-bubbly plot about a young widow, her bankrupt fatherland and her first love get in the way of his own directorial vision.
Whereas Stroheim was meticulous with adapting "Greed," he was less so with "The Merry Widow." Hanna Glawari becomes Sally O’Hara, an American chorus girl, and much emphasis is placed on her backstory with meeting Danilo, second-in-line to the throne of Monteblanco (a stand-in for Léhar’s Pontevedro) and their failed engagement because of his royal blood and her commoner status. In response, she marries a rich baron who dies on their wedding night and the third act of the film becomes a fight over the eponymous widow between Danilo and his older brother, Mirko.
The MGM-mandated happy ending comes as a bit of a shock, which in and of itself is striking since anything but a joyful reunification at the end of Léhar’s Widow would be unthinkable (though I’m sure somewhere there is a director—probably in Germany—devising a finale in which Hanna and Danilo do each other in with battle axes to the lilting waltz of “Lippen schweigen”).
For the rare operetta refusenik, Stroheim does in fact make the champagne-bubbly story into a more three-dimensional, humanistic plot. Some of the shots — from peasant- and pig-choked cobblestone streets to an interaction between a young boy and a black man that makes for some awkward viewing in a 21st-century context — seem sadistic when underscored by Léhar’s music, played out of order but still resounding thematically.
This contrasts with the glittering opulence of the aristocracy, which manages to shine through despite the restrictions of a black-and-white aesthetic. And yet there are moments that still ring out as pure opera: Sally’s first husband, an unapologetic foot fetishist, dies after kissing her shoulder. Where words and singing fail, exquisitely framed shots fill in as arias and duets in their own rights. Stroheim may have hated this movie most out of his cinematic oeuvre, but it’s still required watching for any fan of the source material. In fact, whether or not you’re able to catch the Film Forum screening, it’s available on DVD (though with a far less fun score than the fully-orchestrated version seen below) and would make for a great double-feature with the Zurich Opera’s release of the Léhar operetta.
And while Stroheim’s life and work in and of itself would make for some interesting opera fodder, perhaps in that Philip-Glass–bio-opera sort of way, the lives of "The Merry Widow’s" two stars are even more dramatic and dark: Mae Murray (Sally), who at the time was married to"Widow" producer Irving Thalberg, didn’t survive the transition into talkies. She took as her fourth husband Georgian prince David Mdivani. It was Mdivani who convinced his wife to walk away from Hollywood, resulting in her blacklisting among various studios. Seven years later, when the couple divorced, Mdivani retained custody of their children. She ended her life in poverty, the nadir of which was being arrested for vagrancy while sleeping on a park bench in New York.
Likewise, John Gilbert (Danilo) didn’t let go of the silent era easily—one of his talking pictures became a source of parody in "Singin’ in the Rain"—and his death was expedited by severe alcoholism. Meanwhile, "The Merry Widow" waltzes on; sometimes sweetly, sometimes sardonically.