The Merry Widow was Erich von Stroheim’s greatest commercial success, but throughout his career he expressed nothing but contempt for the film. “When you ask me why I do such pictures I am not ashamed to tell you the true reason: only because I do not want my family to starve,” he said at the time. For the rest of his life he did his best to distance himself from what he thought of as a real stinker, once even ordering the house lights turned on after the duel scene because (he claimed) the happy ending had been forced on him. But critics disagreed. In the annual Film Daily poll of industry, fan magazine, and daily newspaper critics, The Merry Widow tied for third place with Don Q, Son of Zorro, behind only The Gold Rush and The Unholy Three (leaving The Last Laugh, The Freshman, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Big Parade behind in the dust). A few years later this film would have been certain Oscar-bait, but in the tangled and tortured world of Erich von Stroheim’s Hollywood it proved to be one more step down the slippery slope to oblivion.
This was not the way it was supposed to happen. Just a month after being fired by Universal’s Irving Thalberg midway through production of Merry Go Round, Stroheim had signed a new contract with the Goldwyn Corporation. Sam Goldwyn had been forced out the year before, which was part of the problem. With no experienced film people at the helm, the suits who ran the studio decided that all they needed to do was hire the best directors they could find and turn them loose. The names were impressive—Victor Sjöström, Maurice Tourneur, Marshall Neilan, King Vidor—but the results never lived up to expectations. Goldwyn’s one talented production executive, June Mathis, was supposed to be supervising all these egos but spent most of her time trying to set up their production of Ben-Hur. I once saw a studio copy of the Greed script which was the size of a telephone book. It was marked “O.K., June Mathis.” Had she even read it?
The train wreck that followed was inevitable. To make a long story short, by March of 1924 Stroheim was screening a four-hour cut for his friends while the studio was already assembling a separate version of its own. Cut off from any connection to the film, Stroheim turned to the next project called for in his contract, The Merry Widow, which had been put aside while he concentrated on Greed. The family needed to be fed, and Stroheim was counting on a twenty-five percent share of the profits. In any case, he had long been attracted to the show, which he claimed to have seen at its 1905 premiere in Vienna. Franz Lehár, he said, was an old friend.
While he had followed the plotline of Frank Norris’s McTeague religiously, Stroheim decided to keep only the basic idea of The Merry Widow—a wealthy Ruritanian widow living it up in Paris must be seduced into a state marriage so her fortune can continue to support the crown. The opportunity to revisit the marriage/money plot was irresistible, and the rest of it could be fixed. But even before he began work on the script Goldwyn merged with the rival Metro Pictures Corporation, and instead of a distracted June Mathis, Stroheim again found himself under the thumb of Irving Thalberg.
Originally, Stroheim had no intention of employing any movie stars and planned to cast the film with relative unknowns (and possibly even himself). Mae Murray, a Ziegfeld headliner who had danced with Vernon Castle and Rudolph Valentino, was now a big Hollywood star, just aching to have her way with the Merry Widow Waltz. Her name was floated early on, but she worked at another studio and, since 1916, almost always with her husband, director Robert Z. Leonard. But that studio was Metro, and after the merger it was a foregone conclusion that The Merry Widow would become a Mae Murray picture. For a time it even seemed that Stroheim would lose the entire production to Robert Z. Leonard, and in July Variety reported that he and Louis B. Mayer had almost come to blows over the assignment. But even the Goldwyn brass had realized that another director “would not give this story the effervescence which it requires.” The fact that Murray and Leonard’s personal relationship was also dissolving only sealed the deal. They divorced in 1925 and never worked together again.
Stroheim had already split the male lead in two. Danilo would be the film’s handsome prince (a prototype for his character in The Wedding March) while his degenerate cousin Mirko would be a sneering echo of the “man you love to hate” characters that Stroheim himself had now left behind. The Goldwyn contract allowed Stroheim to appear in his own pictures, but Thalberg had learned his lesson on Foolish Wives. Norman Kerry had proved an acceptable Stroheim surrogate on Merry Go Round, but Thalberg had no interest in promoting the career of someone under contract to Universal. Against the director’s protests Thalberg put the up-and-coming John Gilbert into the role. According to Gilbert’s daughter, Stroheim immediately got off on the wrong foot by telling Gilbert that he had never wanted him on the picture. Crown Prince Mirko would be played by Roy D’Arcy, a Stroheim discovery working in his first film. The San Francisco native claimed to have been educated in Berlin and Vienna, and could wear a monocle.
There was still more to fix. The operetta takes place entirely in Paris. Of 477 scenes in the final shooting script, 308 take place before the action even gets to Paris. But at least that draft included a waltz scene. A month earlier Stroheim had submitted a draft that left out the waltz but included some 169 scenes documenting First World War battle action between “Monteblanco” and Austria, in which Mae Murray appears as a nurse and the U.S. Marines put in an appearance. It did, however, climax in a Technicolor wedding/coronation, indicating that the ending he later found objectionable was his own idea.
Viewers should remember that all during the summer and fall, while Stroheim was working on the script and preparing design sketches, he knew that somewhere else on the lot a nameless editor, “on [whose] mind was nothing but a hat,” was whittling away at his masterpiece. Greed opened in New York on December 4, to some of the most negative reviews in film history. The Merry Widow had gone before the cameras just three days earlier; production continued under a very dark cloud.
The waltz finally made it into the picture, beautifully photographed and edited. This somehow happened despite Valerie von Stroheim’s claim that when the time came to shoot the waltz her husband turned his back on the action and refused even to watch. She also remembered that when he tried to direct Mae Murray in the scene the star went into a rage, tearing off her plumed headdress and screaming, “You dirty Hun! You think you know everything!” That was par for the course. Stroheim, while explaining to the press that Murray did have “a real capacity for feeling,” also insisted that to reveal it her “self-consciousness and cuteyisms had to be torn away.” Ouch.
Incentive clauses had recently been built into Stroheim’s contract in order not to tie up Mae Murray indefinitely (Greed had shot for 198 days). He would receive a bonus of $5,000 if filming was completed in eight weeks, but the fourteen-week shoot didn’t even come close. Five weeks after the end of production, months before the release of The Merry Widow to great critical and popular acclaim, Stroheim’s contract was cancelled by mutual consent. And he never received his piece of the profits, either. In a 1930 accounting, MGM claimed that the losses on Greed more than offset the profits of The Merry Widow. (The figures shown to Stroheim indicate far less income for The Merry Widow than those given in the Eddie Mannix notebooks, considered reasonably accurate by historians. But that’s Hollywood.)
It is understandable that all this insult and injury left a bad taste in Stroheim’s mouth, but for audiences nearly a century later the film seems to require little in the way of apology. Now is a good time to sit back, luxuriate in Maud Nelissen’s remarkable orchestral setting, and watch Stroheim do the impossible. Tasked with turning an operatic warhorse into a viable silent film he managed to please his audience, dazzle the critics, and even impress Franz Lehár. It seems that the only one who wasn’t happy with the results was the director himself.
Presented at SFSFF 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Maud Nelissen at the piano conducting the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (Rodney Sauer, Britt Swenson, David Short, Brian Collins, Dawn Kramer, Andrew Brown, Emily Lewis, Kate Polera, and Naomi Smith)