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The Merry Widow (1934)
Una Merkel
The question forces itself upon us. Is The Merry Widow a musical?

It certainly starts off like one. In the first twenty minutes1 we get a rousing marching song from Maurice Chevalier, a splash of Hungarian-style music from the tavern, the "Vilia" aria from Jeanette MacDonald, and then the singspiel number "Tonight Will Teach Me To Forget", also from MacDonald.

But then the film changes. For the next eleven minutes we are at the palace where the King (George Barbier) discovers Count Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) in an assignation with his Queen (Una Merkel). There is no music and we are watching a comedy.

But these two sections are merely preludes to the remaining sixty-five or so minutes of the film, which are different again. Here we get the odd snatch of song or singspiel but primarily the music is used as an accompaniment to the action.

An odd structure for a musical, so why does Lubitsch organise it this way?

In the traditional musical the plot, characters, production, etc., all support the music, which is paramount. But Lubitsch had no interest in such a mechanical approach. He had already proved himself as a director of 'normal' musicals with Monte Carlo (1930) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), although even with these his work was seen as innovative. With The Merry Widow, Lubitsch intended to continue his innovations.

As soon as the action moves to Paris we are in the film that Lubitsch wanted to make. This is not a musical, nor even a romantic-comedy: amusing things may happen around Sonya and Danilo, but their actions are always serious. This is a love story where comedy and music both play supporting roles. A glittering Lubitsch confection on the surface, but where everything is tightly controlled and always contributes to the central drama.

The action unfolds seamlessly, no scene is wasted, and even the comic scenes advance the action, for example the very funny scene when Ambassador Popoff (Edward Everett Horton) and his assistant Zizipoff (Herman Bing) decipher the telegram. So too with the music, which is used both as a backdrop to set the mood and a device to reveal the inner life of the characters.

Danilo's song "I'm going to Maxim's" is not a set piece as it would be in any standard musical, but becomes part of the action and also demonstrates his impetuous nature. Similarly, in the stage production "The Merry Widow Waltz" song ("Bei jedem Walzerschritt") is the final great aria, but Lubitsch only gives us a few verses as Danilo and Sonya waltz together at Maxim's. Not enough for it to stop the action as a traditional set piece would, but just enough to add even more glamour to that already glamorous scene.

So how do we explain the initial scenes which are much more conservative? The brevity and context of Danilo's opening lines 'Our country will never make war' is an extract from "Girls, Girls, Girls", and other extracts are heard throughout the production. This conforms with the Lubitsch approach, but both Sonya's "Vilia" ("Vilja") and "Tonight Will Teach Me To Forget" ("Sieh dort den kleinen Pavillion") are traditional set pieces.

The main reason is likely to have been commercial pressures. At the time sheet music was big business and The Merry Widow was to be used as a marketing tool. Singer and piano versions of the main numbers would be on sale everywhere, adorned with Sonya and Danilo's romantic image. The set pieces had to appear in the film.

"The Merry Widow waltz" was not a problem: it is heard throughout the production and, as mentioned above, Sonya sings a few verses. Nor is "Tonight Will Teach Me To Forget" which is used to great effect to demonstrate Sonya's loneliness as a widow. 2

However the "Vilia" aria could never be integrated with the action. It has a beautiful melody, but the ridiculous words even sound out of place in the original operetta. If "Vilia" was to appear in the film, it had to be in the opening sequence; it would make even less sense once the love story got going.

The original words of the operetta are completely unsuitable.

Vilia, oh, Vilia, my nymph of delight,
haunting the woodland, enchanting the night.
Vilia, oh, Vilia, be tender and true,
Love me, and I'll die for you!

The words used in the film are not much better, however Lubitsch did an excellent job of disguising the aria's banality. We are unable to pay attention to the words as we are mesmerised by the succession of brilliant images appearing on the screen. We are also diverted by the humour. Sonya is enraptured when she thinks she hears Danilo singing, unaware it is really his orderly.

Vilia, oh, Vilia, don't leave me alone.
Love calls to love,
and my heart is your own.

Vilia, oh, Vilia, I've waited so long,
Lonely with only a song.

One wonders what the audience made of this unexplained reference to Vilia, who is never mentioned again.

To summarize, if it were not for the presence of the "Vilia" aria, the proportion of music sung in the first section, and the approach taken to its use, would be reasonably similar to that in the bulk of the film. But the second section jars.

Essentially all that we need to be told in the second section is that Sonya is now in Paris where she is surrounded by men hoping to marry her for her wealth, that the King fears that if her money is withdrawn from Marshovia the Kingdom will go bankrupt, and that he dispatches Danilo to Paris to court her, marry her, and bring her back.

It could be done in any number of ways, but here I believe Lubitsch nods. What we see is quite funny and some of Lubitsch's sly visual tricks are first rate, but it's in the wrong film. A three or four minute scene would have been acceptable, but this lasts eleven minutes, without a snatch of song or a trace of romantic ambience to harmonise it with the rest of the film. One is forced to wonder whether Lubitsch shot this episode before he hit his stride.


Lubitsch was musical. He studied the cello as a child and was a competent amateur pianist 4, so one should not be surprised that Lubitsch could put his stamp on the score. And he does. Selections are made, words are changed, and - crucially - additions are made.

The Merry Widow was originally an operetta, and consists of love songs, military-style ensembles, ballroom music, etc. But it is clear that Lubitsch does not intended to let the ambience of the film be dictated to by the operatic nature of the score. He retains the great numbers, using new lyrics by Lorenz Hart where necessary to suit the contemporary audience, but adding original music where he feels it necessary. He also draws on his love of Hungarian music. This appears when the Gypsy-style band is playing in the tavern, and also in the opening scene at the Embassy Ball.

At the ball, attention is drawn to the exotic nature of Marshovia by the Hungarian music and the dancers who are providing the entertainment. Girls wearing military uniforms with Hussar-style hats and skin-tight trousers make acrobatic leaps as they criss-cross the floor. But is Lubitsch also giving rein to his penchant for innuendo? The girls look remarkably androgynous, and it is not clear if the exclamations with which the girls punctuate their dancing are supposed to be utterances in a foreign language, or whether, as my ears tell me, they are calling out "Hit me!" as in some sado-masochistic ritual. Lubitsch, of course, does not linger! The scene ends far too swiftly for us to ever make a valid decision.

Lubitsch's use of music demonstrates his superb skills and is a big advance on the musicals of the time, and in fact has never been surpassed. Both the original music and that culled from the original score is put to exemplary effect. A brilliant touch - a true 'Lubitsch touch' - is the use of "The Merry Widow Waltz" as the catalyst that unleashes Sonya and Danilo's emotions whenever they hear it. And not only those of Sanya and Danilo, it unleashes our own. Go on! we want to shout. You know you are made for each other!


All timings are aproximate and depends on the version screened
See the discussion in The Merry Widow - the Lubitch Touch
From the English version of the original stage production with vocal score by Christopher Hassail.
Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Scott Eyman, New York, 1993, p. 25.