site mapuser comments and help pages
The Merry Widow (1934)
The love story
 
Usually the love affair in The Merry Widow is taken to be the standard Hollywood love story - an ABC. A for the initial Attraction, B for Breakdown (misunderstandings, etc.), and C for the eventual Conciliation and the final soppy Clinch.

It has also been presented as a study in gender differentiation - men look for sex and women look for love.

But Lubitsch's conception of the love affair is far more sophisticated than either of the above.

Both Madame Sonya (Jeanette MacDonald) and Count Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) are driven by sexual desire. This is the way it happens in life. Love may come later, but the initial frisson of attraction is always sexual. Lubitsch shows great awareness of human emotions, and even in a musical confection such as The Merry Widow, he ensures the story is grounded in psychological truths.

The first few scenes are worth examining in some detail because they set the tone of the whole film.

We are in the small fictitious Kingdom of Marshovia. Count Danilo, the local masher, is full of himself and keen to make another conquest. He accosts the widow Madam Sonya on her veranda, ostensibly to deliver an anonymous letter stating how much Count Danilo wants to meet her. But of course he has written the letter himself, and with a complete lack of modesty, has described himself as "terrific". Sonya reads the letter, understandably somewhat confused.

"Count Danilo? Terrific?"
Danilo preens himself
"That's what people say!"

Sonya is still confused. She has clearly never received such a direct proposition before.

"I don't understand. What do you want?"
"An answer. Yes, or... when!"

There is no mistaking that Danilo means a sexual assignation. Sonya is affronted and her manner stiffens.

"If you don't leave immediately I shall report you to the King!"
"Oh, please! Please let me stay only a litle while - and you may recommend me to the Queen!"

Danilo's sexual intention is quite brazen. But he attempts to plead his case, stating how he has longed to see what she looks like under her veil, and urges Sonya to remove it.

But Sonya will have none of it. She is no longer confused and is now beginning to control the conversation. And she has no trouble putting Danilo down.

Sonya draws herself up, looking dignified.
"Unfortunately I am in Marshovia, and I am a widow."
"Why don't you throw away this old custom of ours?"
"And take off my veil?"
"Yes!"
"I'd do it in a minute if there were any reason for it, or.. or the slightest temptation. But there isn't."
  Danilo shuffles uncomfortably. He can't believe he is being rejected.
"Maybe you can't see me very well?"
"Oh, yes. In fact too well. I admit you are very funny, but not terrific."
  Sonya drives home the point, using a cliche of the time.
"Not even colossal!"

From this point on Sonya will dominate the film. She will get the better of Danilo every time they meet.

All the major scenes revolve around Sonya. Danilo appears without her when the plot demands it, but Lubitsch always falls back on humour to develop Danilo's scenes. We never get an in-depth analysis of Danilo's emotions such as we get with Sonya.

In an earlier scene, Lubitsch had already portayed her as a lonely person. She had heard music coming from the tavern, but her presence is inhibiting to the people in the tavern and the music stops. She walks sadly away, alone. And when we next see her she is still alone, now sitting on her verandah.

Danilo's intrusion into her lonely world acts like a catalyst. She may rebuff him, but inwardly she is smitten. She is perfectly aware that Danilo is a vain, shallow, pretentious individual - but that counts for nothing when the hormones start acting up.

Unfortunately this is the one place the film fails. The character of Danilo calls for someone like the young Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, someone who can leap over garden walls with aplomb and make every woman's heart leap. A romantic gallant in a rakish uniform who convinces us that Sonya could fall for him.

But Maurice Chevalier was then in his forties, and the toy-soldier uniform he has to wear does his stocky figure no favours. Also for someone who earned his living as a song-and-dance man, Chevalier has always looked awkward, and here is no exception. In the dance scenes he never stands upright, but leans forward as if he has a bad back. When he climbs the garden wall his hands scrabble around for a grip, and when he leaves the veranda and starts to climb down the wall again, the presence of the ladder is more than just a joke - Chevalier looks as if he needs it.

However he is not totally miscast. Chevalier and MacDonald go together with the rightness of Chinese sweet and sour, his popular singing voice exactly right to complement her more classic delivery. He is also superb in the Parisian scenes where he is in his element, and of course he was a big box-office draw.

Interestingly, when he was asked to play the lead he baulked at the idea of once again being teamed with MacDonald. Fortunately Lubitsch - who disliked Chevalier intensely - never let him have his way. We cannot imagine The Merry Widow without Jeanette MacDonald, but we can easily imagine another actor playing Danilo.

But leaving the issue of casting aside - and suspending our disbelief - which is no great efort - Sonya is now even more miserable. The dashing Danilo has gone, and she is back to her lonely life. There then follows one of the most elegant scenes ever filmed.

Sonya is in bed. A vision in a black negligee in a gleaming white set. There is nothing to distract the eye from her loveliness, her superbly-filmed skin contrasting with the crisp black lace of the negligee - presumably starched, because real lace never looked as crisp as that. Certainly a scene exemplifying the 'Lubitsch touch'.

Sonya makes one last effort to rekindle the potential affair with Danilo, but that is dashed when she enquires about his address and all her maids recite it right down to the apartment number. But what else could she expect from such a person? Disconsolate she turns to her diary.

The pages flick over and we are party to her boredom. There have been no entries since she was widowed the previous year. Suddenly, inspired, she takes the diary over to her desk and begins to write. And as she writes she sings, but not the sort of singing we would expect from Jeanette MacDonald, who was a classically-trained soprano famed for her renditions of the lighter classics.

The song "Tonight Will Teach Me To Forget" was part of the original 1905 stage production of The Merry Widow ("Sieh dort den kleinen Pavillion"). But here it is given new words by Gus Kahn. It could have been sung straight, but Lubitsch seizes the moment to add a touch of contemporary sophistication. MacDonald sings as we have never heard her before, a very European rendition, the words enunciated in the singspiel manner normally associated with Continental performers in smart cafés.

She sings it with panache. The long notes at the end of alternate lines contrasting with the brief uplifts on such words as 'day', and especially 'regret'.

I thought that this day would be the day
when my heart would find romance - romance again
I thought that this day would be the day
and my heart would learn to dance - dance again
It was all just a fleeting dream,
men are not - not what they seem,
and this beautiful day
only taught me to regret,
but tonight will it teach me to forget?


The song tells us everything we need to know about Sonya's state of mind at that time.

*

The next stage in the love story takes place in Paris. Meeting Danilo has changed Sonya and awakened her joy for living. She has thrown off her widow's weeds and is having a great time in Paris being entertained by men-about-town who are all keen to marry her for her wealth.

Sonya is the wealthiest woman in Europe and the Kingdom of Marshovia relied on her taxes, but now she has withdrawn her fortune, the Kingdom is close to bankruptcy. Fearing that she might marry a non-Marshovian and never return to Marshovia, the King dispatches Danilo to Paris where he is supposed to court her and bring her back to Marshovia as his wife.

When Sonya finds out Danilo is in Paris, her feelings for him are rekindled. Overhearing him saying he is going to Maxims, she follows him there, and they meet once again. A silly plot, but Lubitsch takes us through it painlessly.

Danilo hasn't changed. He doesn't recognise her as either the Madame Sonya he tried to seduce in Marshovia, or the woman he has come to Paris to entrap into marriage. As she is an unaccompanied woman in Maxims, Danilo assumes she must be one of the Maxim 'girls', and immediately starts to treat her as such.

Sonya, Marcelle (Mina Gombelle), and Danilo are at the entrance to Maxim's. Marcelle and Danilo are in raptures remembering what they did the previous year, and Marcelle removes a garter from her thigh.
"Pretty, isn't it? He gave it to me."
Sonya examines the garter bemusedly. On it is embroidered the sexually provocative words 'Many Happy Returns'.
Suddenly, much to Sonya's annoyance, Danilo pinches her cheek. He takes her by the chin and regards her face as if she is a slave at a marketplace.
"Not bad!"
Then he turns to Marcelle.
"Who is she?"
"She's new here. What's your name, Dearie?"
Sonya is flustered, but decides to play along. She tries to look coquettish.
"Fifi!"
Danilo looks pleased. "Well, Fifi!"
Sonya turns to Marcelle.
"Who is he?" she demands just as Danilo had done.
"Don't you know me?"
"No."
Danilo automatically assumes that everybody recognizes him.
"She doesn't know me!" he says to Marcelle. They both laugh at how anybody could be so naive.
"You don't know him?" asks Marcelle.
"No."
"It's Danilo!" Marcelle exclaims.
Sonya pretends to look puzzled.
"Danilo? Danilo?"
She suddenly points at her wrist.
"Wait a minute, aren't you the man who gave me this bracelet?"
Danilo's mood is changing, becoming moody because Sonya is not stroking his ego like the other Maxim girls do.
"Listen, if I ever gave you a bracelet, you'd remember it!"
Marcelle takes back the garter Sonya is still holding.
"And besides, he doesn't give any bracelets."
She leaves, swinging the garter, every inch the old trooper who has seen it all.
Danilo looks quite put out. Things are not going the way they should.
"Shall we sit down?" he asks ungraciously.
Sonya strings him along. She casts her eyes around Maxim's.
"Well, there's not much going on here tonight... No Americans," she says, picking up a phrase used earlier by Marcelle.
She brightens and looks at Danilo.
"Are you a banker?"
Danilo shakes his head irritably.
"No."
"Oh." Sonya looks disappointed. "I was just in the mood for a banker."
Then she turns to Danilo solicitously.
"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
"It's alright!"
"You understand, don't you?"
Danilo looks completely out of his depth.
"Sure. Sure..."
Suddenly Sonya seizes Danilo's face and examines it the way Danilo examined hers.
"Not bad!"
She gestures and starts off inside.
"Come on!"
Danilo follows. He doesn't seem to know what else to do.

This is an excellent piece of writing. When Sonya first entered Maxime's she was out of her depth. Waiters were ordering her around, and both Danilo and Marcelle had assumed she was a professional, laughing at her because she seems such a naive professional. But now it is Sonya who has the upper hand.

Danilo has also been brought down a peg. The Maxim girls may be all over him, but they know he is not one of the big spenders.

Lubitsch may even be having a dig at Chevalier here. Chevalier was notoriously mean, and every time he couldn't avoid picking up the tab for lunch, Lubitsch - ever the joker - would send him a signed photograph to show his gratitude. Chevalier was not amused. 1

When they are seated, she manages to annoy Danilo even more by flirting at other men with her eyes. But although he is annoyed, he finds her freshness intriguing and starts playing her at her own game. Sonya refuses to go to a private dining room - she knows well enough what that entails - but Danilo steals her shoe, and starts up the staircase, laughing. Sonya limps after him. All very unlikely on paper, but Lubitsch waves his magic wand and disbelief is suspended.

We are now at the crux scene. The sexual nature of the encounter is made explicit. As we enter a day bed is centre stage. The waiter closes the door with no expression on his face. To him, what goes on in the private dining rooms is an everyday ocurrence.

Danilo is now acting the gentleman. He puts on her shoe and they drink champagne. They kiss and as Sonya turns away we can see the expression on her face. This is what she wanted, but she is beginning to feel confused and out of her depth. We can also see Danilo's expression. He looks knowing, even slightly contemptous. They all succumb in the end.

Danilo starts to turn down the lights. But as he pours more champagne, suddenly the lights brighten again. Sonya is standing looking at a painting of Napoleon.
"Great man!" says Sonya. "His only mistake was he attacked too early."
She looks at Danilo pointedly.
"That's how he lost Waterloo."

Once again Sonya has put him in his place. Danilo is furious. He storms out saying that she can have Napoleon. She can have him all night! Outside he sits down on a seat overlooking the dance floor, staring moodily into space. Macelle appears.

"Anything wrong?"
"Bah! She's impossible! I take her upstairs, and just when I'm about to be nice to her, she starts to talk about another man."
Marcelle is vexed that a Maxim girl could act so unprofessionally. She strides over to the private dining room and pokes her head inside.
"Shame on you!"
Understandably Sonya is taken aback.
Marcelle then goes back to Danilo.
"Why! The girl has no etiquette!"
She attempts to take his arm.
"Come on!," she says firmly, intending to make amends to Danilo with her own company.
But Danilo doesn't move.
A look of dawning comprehension passes over Marcelle's face. She lets go of Danilo's arm and backs quietly away. This is deep water and she doesn't want to get involved.

With this simple little scene Lubitsch achieves the near impossible. If Danilo had said that he had fallen in love with Sonya, we would never have believed him. The change in his character would be too great. But seeing it through the eyes of a third person makes it believable. Marcelle knows Danilo has fallen in love with Sonya, and so does everybody in the cinema - the only person who doesn't know it is Danilo. He just feels irritated and confused.

Danilo goes back inside. Sonya smiles assuming that he has come back to make it up, but he sits down at the table and sullenly starts drinking his champagne.
Music can be heard: the lush strains of "The Merry Widow Waltz". (Originally "Bei jedem Walzerschritt", AKA "Love Unspoken".)
"Would you like to dance?"
Danilo shakes his head, still annoyed.
"No."
The music seems to engulf the room. Sonya picks up the hem of her dress and starts to dance by herself, circling the table in a slow waltz. Danolo watches her, and slowly his face lights up. He stands up and seizes her arm and then they are dancing together.

This is the key scene in the movie and Lubitsch plays if for all it is worth. Danilo and Sonya whirl romantically around the room, a visual expression of romantic love, but Lubitsch also adds a sexual frisson. For a few moments they stop whirling, and Danilo leads Sonya in straight steps across the room. Sonya is leaning back, vulnerable, while Danilo appears almost predatory as leans towards her, his eyes fixed on her face. Lubitsch is reminding us that there is no such thing as romantic love without the sexual imperative.

Of course one thing leads to another, and they are soon on the couch. Sonya is in emotional turmoil. She wants what is happening but at the same time she is frightened. This is not the way she imagined it would be and she seeks reassurance.

"Danilo," she asks hesitantly. "Do you love me?"
"Certainly! Why not?"
"Oh, you don't understand! I mean... do you love me?"
Danilo is too insensitive to understand that her concern is real. He makes a joke of it. "Forever!"
A pause. Then Sonya asks: "How long's forever with you?"
Danilo straightens up and looks at her. "What a funny question!"
"Has no one ever asked you that before?"
Danilo laughs. "Not at Maxim's!"
"You like Maxim girls best, don't you?"
"Of course I do! Where in all the world can you find girls so charming, do beautiful, who can dance like you girls, who can smile like you. You're wonderful!"
He starts to pontificate.
"And let me tell you one thing, Fifi. Stay just what you are. Have you ever met a society woman?"
"Never... You don't like ladies?"
"Yes, I like them. They are nice. But they take life too seriously. They can't enjoy themselves without bothering about tomorrow."
"You mean... they're hard to get rid of."
"Right! And the silly questions they ask!" He mimics. "Do you love me? - And then you have to lie! - Yes, certainly, of course - And then they ask you again. Do you really love me?"
Danilo shakes his head in amusement, repeating the words, but then the significance of what he has said sinks in. Those were the questions Sonya asked him.
Danilo stands up.
"Well... May I ask who you are?"
"Just one of those women who ask silly questions.

Sonya is now in control of herself once more, and as usual shows she understands the situation better than Danilo. There is still a possibility that she will succumb and Danilo still presses, even more entranced with her than before. But he is saying all the wrong things. Sonya becomes sarcastic.

"You great lover!"
Danilo misunderstands and takes it as a compliment.
"Please..."
But Sonya is no longer under his spell.
"You don't even know what love is!"

We are reminded that Sonya has been married before, and is much more emotionally experienced than Danilo. She understands that there is more to a relationship than sexual attraction. 2

Later when they meet at the Embassy ball, she is remarkably clear about the sexual desire that drew her to Maxim's.

Danilo has referred to Sonya as Fifi.
"Fifi is no more," Sonya replies coolly. "You killed her. After she left you last night, she came home and commited suicide. She jumped into a cold bath - and you'd be surprised, Captain, what cold water can do."

Lubitsch's female leads are always clear-sighted characters and Sonya is no exception.

A little later, in the garden at the Embassy, Danilo is declaring his love for Sonya.
"I love you! And only you, darling! Please believe me!"
"Danilo..."
"Ask me anything you want!"
"All my silly questions?"
"Yes, about tomorrow, about all the days after tomorrow. Ask me anything, everything. But please, believe me."
"I do believe you. Because..." She hesitates for an instant. "I wan't to believe you."

From then on the plot twists and turns. We know that they will get together eventually. Whatever their problems, they always turn to each other when the hear the sounds of "The Merry Widow Waltz", reminding them - and us - of the encounter at Maxim's. This is the music played at the climax of the original stage production, but Lubitsch cannot let his version of The Merry Widow end on such a sentimental note. Although he uses the music, he adds an extra level of sophistication.

Danilo and Sonya have been trapped in the Danilo's prison cell by the King, eager to get them together again. The strains of "The Merry Widow Waltz" are heard and eventually - and inevitably - Sonya is in Danilo's arms.
The peephole on the cell door opens, and a clergyman's head appears.
"Count Danilo, do you take - ?"
There is no need to finish the sentence.
"Of course!" says Danilo.
"Certainly!" says Sonya.

Sonia is still the same strong personality. As she says the final words her head is held high, every bit Danilo's equal in the compact.


NOTES

1     
Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Scott Eyman, New York, 1993, p. 219
2     
For an alternative view see The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch, Leland A. Poague, 1978, New Jersey. He rather oddly assumes that it is Danilo who is the one speaking the truth and that "Sonia projects her own fear of involvement on to Danilo and refuses to accept dancing as sufficient proof of emotional sincerity." Poague throughout seems to see Sonya as an example of a neurotic female.