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|Internet Movie Database|
The history of cinema is littered with enough tales of martyrdom to fill Culver City
several times over, but for many film purists and devotees of trampled and trod-upon
visionaries, the creme de la creme of any batch begins and ends with Erich Von
Stroheim. A native of Vienna, the man you love to hate hustled his way into
Hollywood, playing bit parts in early Biograph Co. pictures and assisting D.W. Griffith
behind the camera. After making a name for himself playing menacing, monocled Prussian
officers in a host of movies, Von Stroheim eventually moved into directing films like Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), post-Victorian era comedies of
manners brimming with European decadence and boundary-pushing sexual farce.
But it was Stroheims ambitious take on a pet project that cemented his position as the patron saint of mutilated masterpiece-makers. Already considered a bona fide terror to producers thanks to his budgetary extravagancies and obsessive attitude regarding a productions details, the director infuriated his new employer, MGM, by turning in an unwieldy seven-hour cut of his new film Greed, a painstakingly dense adaptation of Frank Norris novel McTeague. The film was taken away from him by legendary boy wonder Irving Thalberg, who eventually released it in a bare-bones two-hour version that hardly did justice to the directors vision. Those who saw Stroheims original cut claimed it was one of the great masterpieces of the cinematic art. When Von Stroheim himself finally saw the release print in Paris some twenty-six years later, he commented that it was like looking into a tiny coffin (to find) a lot of dust, a terrible smell, a little backbone.
For most people, becoming established as someone difficult within one of Tinseltowns most powerful studios, and becoming disillusioned with the process of studio filmmaking, meant the end of a career in Hollywood. Surprisingly, however, Von Stroheim was asked back to MGM the following year to begin working on another film for the studio, a take on Franz Lehars operetta The Merry Widow. And heres where the tale gets even more twisted: The notoriously long-winded auteur delivered the film at under two hours running time and on budget, albeit with a few characteristic quirks. Other than tacking on a happy coda to the directors original bleak ending, the studio left most of the finished product alone and the film became a huge success.
Itll be easy to see why when Turner Classic Movies runs a rarer than rare showing of the long-out-of-circulation movie, an answered prayer for many of Stroheims fans. With its bawdy story of sex, romance and betrayal amongst the aristocracy of Monteblanco (a stand-in for Viennas decadent Hapsburg society), the directors European touch seems tailor-made for transferring the tale to the screen. Though it lacks any of the gritty realism that Von Stroheim introduced in the cinematic lexicon with Greed, the movie is chock full of the directors signature touches. The films visually lush intimacy amidst epic scopes and lecherous designs amongst its tale of morality is as rich a Viennese pastry as the maverick madman ever produced.
The stiff-necked, monocled Crown Prince Mirko of Monteblanco (Roy DArcy, in a role Stroheim had intended to play himself) and his cousin, the playboy Prince Danilo (John Gilbert), both set their sights on visiting showgirl Sally OHara (Mae Murray). The rivalry extends from the personal to the political when OHara falls for the dashing Danilo and Mirko plays the royalty card, informing Monteblancos monarchy that the second in line to the throne is to wed a commoner. Danilo leaves Sally jilted at the altar, where she accepts the proposal of wealthy, geriatric Baron Sadoja (Tully Marshall). He dies on their wedding night (after simply kissing her shoulder), leaving her all of his fortune. Cue merry widowing in earnest.
A few years later, both Mirko and Danilo cross Sallys path in Paris, where she has bought her way into high society and remains the toast of the town. The cousins renew their rivalry for Sally's hand, giving the newly-minted debutante a chance to serve up some bittersweet romantic revenge. Soon enough, events spiral out of hand into a duel between the two suitors...but fate, as well as Monteblanco's political turmoil (and the studio honchos), will see that true love gets its just rewards.
Often, the problem with resurfacing lost films is the tendency for their reputation, inflated over years of hearsay and hype, to dwarf the actual films themselves; minor masterpieces sometimes find their strongest competition in the expectations that precede them. Von Stroheims Merry Widow, however, doesnt disappoint in the least, and even those who dont worship at the altar of thwarted genius will find much to marvel at here. The filmmakers eye for baroque compositions finds him filling the screen with dense detail and offbeat angles that lend the dated material a modern edge. The scenes of pageantry and paganistic debauchery are still impressive even in todays digitized age. Von Stroheims penchant for blending tragic melodrama, odd personal touches (such as the crippled Barons arachnid style of crutch-walking and his fetish for dancers feet) and leering sexual farce set the stage for both Josef Von Sternbergs expressionistic idolatry and Lubitschs sophisticated bedroom comedies. In fact, Von Stroheims fellow Viennese expatriate would end up remaking the operetta in 1934.
The film was a success both critically for the director and financially for MGM, but, of course, Erich Von Stroheims story doesnt end there either. He would be fired by star Gloria Swanson from his next project, Queen Kelly, and after having one more film (1932s Walking Down Broadway, recut and retitled Hello Sister) mutilated beyond recognition, he gave up on directing and sporadically took up acting jobs again. His role in Billy Wilders Sunset Boulevard as Gloria Swansons former director-turned-slave, some twenty-two years after the Kelly debacle, is one-part homage and two parts humiliation, and it was the last role hed undertake in a U.S. production. Hes known primarily today as the man who lost the battle over Greed, one of Tinseltowns true artists crushed by the bottom-dollar industry. But even as his reputation as a martyr continues to grow, many forget he was first and foremost a filmmaker, and a damned good one at that. The Merry Widow serves as a reminder that the man you loved to hate was a talented and bold artist who made films you loved to love, films that not only withstood the fickle interests of studio brass but, thanks to TCM, have proven they can stand the test of time.
- David Fear