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The Merry Widow (1934)
Characterisation
 
All Lubitsch dramas are concerned with the inner life of his characters. Actions grow from the character and are never imposed arbritrarily. There are no vilains in Lubitsch, just people acting out the hand fate has dealt them.

Mizzi (Marie Prevost) in The Marriage Cirle nearly wrecks her best friend's marriage, but she is never blamed for it. She is a flirt, and the flirtation turned into an obsession. But so what? - people are like that. And at the end of the film she shares in the happy ending. Now she has someone else to flirt with.

But Lubitsch was also aware that a persons actions are tempered by their place in society. And it is the way Lubitsch handles that which is considered here.

The precision with which Lubitsch locates characters in their social class has already been mentioned in the review of The Marriage Cirle. That was a drama, but even in a confection like The Merry Widow, class distinctions are rigorously preserved. In this Lubitsch goes against the trend.

Both the King (George Barbier) and the Ambassador (Edward Everett Horton) always addresses underlings by their surnames.

At Maxim's the girls have fun with their wealthy patrons, but of course expect payment.

Also at Maxim's, Count Danillo (Maurice Chevalier) shakes hands with a waiter who he has not seen since his last visit, but this is a very European gesture which does not infer inimacy. In the scenes that follow the waiters remain waiters, they are never friends.

Count Danilo feels free to canoodle with Madame Sonya (Jeanette MacDonald) on the sofa when he is under the illusion she is just a Maxim's girl, but he stands up immediately he realizes she is a 'lady'.

But the clearest exposition of Lubitsch's class-awareness comes in the early scene where Madame Sonya overhears music coming from the tavern. In a typical Hollywood production, this scene would have been played very differently. Sonya would have been coaxed inside, social barriers would have fallen, and she would have danced joyfully with the revellers, sharing their fun, while (no doubt) a Russ Tamblin type would have gambolled amusingly.

But that is the sort of thing Lubitsch avoided like the plague. To him - and all Europeans - that very American pretense that we are all plain folk at heart can never ring true. It smacks of the sacharine, of American self-delusion, and suspension of disbelief is an impossiblity for a European audience.

The way Lubitsch handles the scene is precise. It rings true even in a fairy-tale setting such as Marshovia.

Madame Sonya is drawn to the music she hears coming from the tavern. But when the people in the tavern become aware of her presence they stop what they are doing instantly. (And here Lubitsch evokes a marvellous effect as the silence falls.) The gulf between the people in the tavern and Madame Sonya is enormous, and they are aware of the retribution that can fall on anyone who upsets their infinitely more powerful 'betters'. They regard Madame Sonya stonily, with nothing in their eyes to betray what they are thinking.
"You may continue," Madame Sonya says graciously, but Lubitsch has chosen the words carefully. "Please continue," would sound more natural to us, but nobody in 1885 would have said 'please' to an inferior. And probably not many in 1933 when the film was made.
"Thank you, my Lady," intone the people, but they do not move, remaining motionless until Sonya has gone. As she turns away Madame Sonya casts a lonely figure, set apart by her class and her status as a widow.

Lubitsch also takes care to classify Count Danilo. Danilo might be a rake, but he is an educated rake and a gentleman.

Madame Sonya is holding the letter from Count Danilo she has been given by the officer on her balcony, unaware of his true identity.
"Who is this Count Danilo?" she asks
"Me," replies Danilo.
Sonya pauses, then:
"Who wrote this letter?"
"I," replies Danilo, where almost everybody else would have used the slipshod 'me'.

Madame Sonya's position in society is made equally clear. She has servants, and is used to giving orders, and mingles easily with her rich suitors and the guests at the ambassador's ball. But it is her use of language which defines her more presicely.

In the ambassador's garden Danilo has declared his love.

"I'm mad about you!"
Sonya reacts coolly.
"Everybody is! I've heard it one hundred times tonight! There must be something wonderfull about me. What is it that fascinates all these men? What can it be? Is it my charm? Or my beauty? Or... do you suppose it's my position?"
"You mean your money?"
"Yes."
Danilo is also playing it cool.
"With me it's strictly your money. Nothing else."
"I believe you," snaps Sonya.
"I knew you would. That's why I said it."

Danilo's line "Do you mean your money?" was probably included just to ensure everybody in the audience knew what exactly they were talking about. Sonya could easily have said "Do you think it's because I'm rich?", which would have been immediately clear to everyone. But the mention of money was considered far too vulgar by somebody in her social class. "Do you think it's my position?" is exactly the phrase a lady would have used.

In fact that little interchange helps the plot considerably. Danilo's cutting remark makes us believe he isn't interested in Sonya's money much more that a denial would have done.

Finally, we should look at how Lubitsch handled the status of the Maxim girls. A lesser director would have resorted to the we're-all-great-pals routine and avoided the issue of the girl's profession. Raoul Walsh's Sadie Thompson is a good example. There is no hint that Sadie (Gloria Swanson) is a whore, and in fact even if she is accused of being a criminal, she didn't really do it. Cue lights, cue music, cue Hollywood happy ending. But that was never Lubitsch's way.

When Madame Sonya enters Maxim's, as a unaccompanied female she is quite naturally mistaken for a professional and the waiters boss her around accordingly. One tells her not to stand in the doorway, and another orders her to go to table fifteen and order lots of champagne. But when she is seated with Danilo she is treated differently. A waiter removes her wrap, and she is served champagne as if she really were a lady.

When we first see the Maxim girls, they are enchanting. Full of fun and joie de vivre, and one can understand why Count Danilo finds them attractive. But when we see them at the entrance of the private dining room after being summoned by Sonya, they change.
"Girls!" cries Sonya. "The gentleman wants to be entertained!"
Sonja turns to the embarrassed Danilo.
"Here they are! All your little tonights! And not a tomorrow among them!"
The girls almost seem to be different people. The smiles have fallen from their faces, and they have lost their charm. They gawp vacuously. It's clear that whatever has happened in the private dining room is beyond their shallow understanding of life.
"Goodnight, Dearie," Sonya says as she takes Marcelle's hand. "I deserved your scolding. I should have known better."
Marcelle, the most worldly wise amongst them, still looks suitably befuddled.

One suspects that Lubitsch has carefully selected which actresses should be most prominent in that scene. He manages to make them look remarkably unintelligent. The character Frou-Frou was delightful in the earlier scenes, but she is transformed here. As is Dutchess (Jill Dennett), who was earlier shown as so sensitive that she burst into tears. She now elbows her way to the front, so dumb that she is oblivious of the unfolding drama.

In the earlier scenes there are are a high proportion of brunettes, which is what one would expect in Paris. But with the exception of Marcelle (Minna Gombell), all the girls clustering around the doorway are blondes. And in the mental makeup of the typical pre-war audience, blondes are always much dumber than brunettes. No doubt Lubitsch took that into account.