September 15, 2014
The Merry Widow (1934)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Stars: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Edward Everett Horton

What it's about. This romantic comedy and musical is set in the mythical small central European kingdom of Marshovia, probably the homeland of Fez from "That '70s Show". The movie once again pairs opera singer Jeanette MacDonald and thickly accented French comedian Maurice Chevalier. The former is a wealthy and attractive widow, the latter is a dashing and promiscuous military officer.

Their first encounter begins a lengthy series of misunderstandings, a plot device also prevalent in Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films of the era. Those movies also sometimes had bumbling Edward Everett Horton in a comic supporting role, his specialty. Horton is a Marshovian diplomat whose orders are to make Chevalier marry MacDonald, before her wealth leaves Marshovia into the arms of a French opportunist.

Never mind that Chevalier is so obviously French. In this movie, he is Marshovian. As is portly blowhard king George Barbier and his much younger wife Una Merkel, who is always anxious to know the king's schedule so that she may cheat on him during his absence.

Other familiar faces show up, always in comic roles, such as future Winnie the Pooh voice Sterling Holloway, and the aply named Donald Meek, the hapless liquor salesman from Stagecoach.

As expected, the romance between Chevalier and MacDonald reaches its inevitable closing reel climax (i.e. marriage) despite the usual speed bumps of pride and honor. We never really understand why the forty-something Chevalier is such a ladies' magnet, but it must have something to do with his irrepressible desire to flirt with every female under fifty, and a remarkable memory for every face, name, and past romantic triumph.

At least MacDonald is wealthy enough to hire an unpleasant bouncer to accompy Chevalier when he leaves the estate, to ensure that he does not get into any further trouble. This never-made sequel would likely be as entertaining as The Merry Widow itself, especially if master director and producer Ernst Lubitsch is in charge.

How others will see it. This was the third and final film featuring the talented trio of Lubitsch, Chevalier, and MacDonald. Viewers had seen the formula before, perhaps why the movie landed only a single Oscar nomination despite its costly production.

Chevalier was apparently bored with the routine as well, since he returned to Europe and ended up performing for the Nazis during World War II. But that is another story for another day.

Today at, The Merry Widow has a respectable 1661 user votes and a high user rating of 7.5 out of 10. As expected, women over 45 like the movie best (7.9), but even men under 30 award it a 7.4

How I felt about it. My website indicates that I saw the 1925 silent version of this movie four years ago. I must have liked it considerably, since I graded it 82. Nonetheless, I remember nothing about it offhand. There is also a most unpromising 1952 version starring Fernando Lamas that, hopefully, I will not live long enough to see.

The present 1934 version, though, is quite a pleasure, especially the choreography of the few dance numbers. The 1930s was the high water mark of Hollywood choreography, and The Merry Widow is one reason why.

As for the chemistry between Chevalier and MacDonald, they are more like oil and water than Romeo and Juliet. Chevalier prefers chasing women with French poodle names like Fifi and Frou-Frou, and MacDonald would rather play dress up with her foxy attendants, when she is not shattering glasses with her trembling soprano.

The movie works anyway, partly because Lubitsch is in charge, but mostly because the would-be lovebirds are compelled by patriotism to do the right thing: wed. Chevalier has the further motivation of a court martial, and perhaps MacDonald will take masochistic pleasure in Chavalier tugging at his invisible (but real) ball and chain.