The Merry Widow (1934)
Examples of the 'Lubitsch touch'
 
The term the 'Lubitsch touch' is a product of marketing hype. The public were sold on the idea that Lubitsch was an artist, a master magician who could create marvels purely by his intuitive talent. In this it is misleading, but it is still a convenient term to use to embrace the techniques Lubitsch used which make his films distinctive from those of other directors.

The first thing to note is that the 'Lubitsch touch' is the result of hard work - every detail of every scene is examined to see how it could be improved to maximise the audience's involvement. At heart Lubitsch was a showman, and he used his talents to draw and retain audience interest in his films. Unlike, say, Erich Von Stroheim, he was not an artist with a particular view of the world he wished to put across, but a craftsman with his eyes on his career and his place in the hierarchy of peer approval. To put it in musical terms, Lubitsch was a Mozart, not a Beethoven.

The Merry Widow is full of examples of the 'Lubitsch touch'. The most obvious example are 'door jokes' - even somebody who had never heard of this Lubitsch phenomena could hardly miss noticing them.

All jokes have a format which tells us when to laugh. If we do not understand the format we are lost. For example certain formats have spread thoughout the world - we all recognize the format of the one-liner - but hardly anyone outside the UK would get the point of the English 'shaggy-dog story'.

Lubitsch's 'door jokes' meet this criteria. In the The Merry Widow they consist of simple visual humour where everybody from Beijing to Boston can get the point. The following are typical examples.

King Achmed (George Barbier) has left the royal bedchamber and is on his way out of the palace when he realizes he has forgotten his sword. He re-enters the bedchamber and the door closes behind him. The camera remains fixed on the door, and we hold our breath as we wonder what will emerge. We expect it to involve Count Danilo who we know he has entered the bedchamber for an assignation with Queen Dolores (Una Merkel). But no, out comes the King again, this time clutching a sword. It is only when he is half-way down the corridor that he realizes it is the wrong sword, and that someone else must be present in the royal bedchamber.

Ambassador Poppoff (Edward Everett Horton), charges Danilo's orderly (Sterling Holloway) with finding Count Danilo, and hands him a notebook containing addresses where the Count may be found. As we know Danilo is at Maxim's, we assume these to be similar establishments of dubious morality. Lubisch hammers home the point. "Don't you lose those adddresses!" the Ambassador snaps at the orderly as he storms out of the room. The door bangs behind him, but everybody in the cinema knows the door is going to open again. And it does. In storms the ambassador, seizes the notebook, tears out a page which he retains, hands back the notebook and storms out again. Anybody who doesn't get the joke must be a very sad person indeed.

At Maxim's the orderly is having difficulty getting the drunken Count Danilo to put on his uniform. He opens the door where Marcelle (Minna Gombell) and a bevy of Maxim girls are clustered. "He won't let me put on his uniform!" excalims the orderly. The girls exchange glances, and then disappear inside to help. The door closes. And then, as we knew it would, it opens again. Marcelle scurries out and the door closes. Then it opens again and the orderly pokes his head out and beckons urgently. We are not quite sure what he wants, but the point is made when Marcelle returns with even more Maxim girls and disappear inside.

A little later when Danilo is suitably clothed, an open carriage draws up at the embassy, full to overflowing with Danilo and Maxim girls. The girls manhandle the drunken Danilo into the embassy and the door closes behind them. We wait. Then the door opens and the same girls come out, this time manhandling another drunken individual who they are going to take back to Maxim's.

On paper they sound nothing, but then these are visual jokes. As the saying goes, you have to be there.

Apart from 'door jokes', other visual humour lards The Merry Widow, frequently being somewhat risqué.

When the King isn't watching, Danilo removes a chain from his wrist, hands it to Queen Dolores who hastily refastens it around her ankle.

The manacles which bind Manilo's hands as he is led into the courtroom are enscribed 'Dolores to Danilo'.

Sometimes the visual humour is so understated that you are only aware of it if you are extremely alert.

The Queen, whose first words we hear form a highly charged question to the King - "Are you going to be out all night, Darling?" - is seen sitting in an enormous bed. On the wall behind the bed is an equally enormous image of a ram's head with prominent, curling horns.

When we first see Madame Sonya (Jeanette MacDonald) in her apartments, they are furnished and decorated competely in white. Is that object against the wall simply an enormous stove with a helmet-shaped lid? Or is it a giant phallus? But then it's gone, out of sight and forgotten.

But this visual humour is only partly there to keep us amused. It's main purpose is to keep us watching the film, and to keep us alert. Lubitsch also uses other means to ensure we don't nod off.

When Madame Sonya (Jeanette MacDonald) sings the Vilia aria, she breaks off in the middle of a note. We wonder. Was she supposed to do that? Or did she run out of breath? But then she continues and within a few bars has sung a much longer note. But we hardly have time to form a decision about what happened before the action has moved on. The incident has served its purpose by keeping us alert and engaged.

Lubitsch also uses the spoken word to achieve the same effect. Frequently this approaches the vulgar, which is something Lubitsch was accused of by his detractors. But it's really just showmanship. Lubitsch knows his audience. If the jokes didn't make us laugh they wouldn't be there.

On Madame Sonya's balcony, Count Danilo is trying to persuade Sonya to remove her widow's weeds, explaining that he has fed her dog with the best imported salami just to get a glimpse of her.
"And what do I see? Your lovely little hands, your dainty little feet, and yet the most beautiful thing -"
"Stop it!" she interrupts imperiously.
For an instant we wonder exactly what part of her anatomy Danilo had in mind, but then relax as Danilo goes on:
"Your eyes - are they blue? Or brown?"

At Maxim's where the drunken Danilo is moaning about the girl he has lost:
"She'll come back," one of the girls consoles him.
"She won't come back!" exclaims Mitzi. "She's a lady!"
"Aw..." Frou-frou drawls cynically. "I knew a lady who came back twice."
Again we wonder. Was that a dirty joke? But Lubitsch doesn't linger and the action moves on.

Of course not all humour is merely there to keep us awake. Genuine humour is one of the mainstays of the The Merry Widow and is always presented unambiguously and up front.

Ambassador Popoff receives a coded telegram from the King. He and his assistant, Zizipoff (Herman Bing), hurry to decipher it.
"What is the first word, your excellency?"
"Darling," answers the Ambassador, rather pleased at what he expects to be decoded as a compliment.
"Darling..." repeats Zizipoff as he thumbs through the code book.
He finds the entry and reads it aloud.
"I consider you the greatest idiot in the diplomatic service."
He looks awkwardly at the ambassador.
"What is the next word, you excellency?"
The ambassador scrutinizes the telegram despondently.
"Lilac time..."
"Li-i-i-lac time..." intones Zizzipoff apprehensively, in that uniquely Herman Bing voice

Without consulting Danilo or Sonya, the Ambassador has announced their betrothal to the gathering at the Embassy ball. Danilo is furious, and berates the Ambassador.
"Your excellency! How dare you make such an announcement! How dare you!"
"Do you know to whom you are speaking?" demands the outraged ambassador.
"To the biggest idiot!" replies Danilo furiously.
The ambassador is taken aback. He draws in his breath.
"Oh... You read the telegram!"

However sometimes it seems that Lubitsch is almost too clever, and there occasions when not even the most alert audience is able to spot the joke. There is such a joke in the scene where the Ambassador bursts into Danilo's hotel room to demand from the orderly where Count Danilo has got to. But it is over so quickly that it is easy to overlook.

For a fraction of a second before the Ambassador enters, the orderly is alone in the room. He is looking at what appears to be pieces of card, turning one sideways and smiling, but as the door opens he hurriedly pushes them out of sight. There is nothing to tell us what they are, but we know all the same. It is Paris, and in Paris they sell postcards. "Much naughtier than most cards," as Maurice Chevalier sang in Love Me Tonight.

It is precisely the sort of thing a young orderly without the money to taste the delights of Maxim's would have bought. Only a detail perhaps, but a precise well-observed detail. And even the unseen details add that special something to a production that we know as the 'Lubitsch touch'.

One could go. The Merry Widow is a cornucopia of instances of the Lubitsch touch. One could quote the first shot where a magnifying glass has to be used to see where Marshovia is on the map. Or the last shot where the witty dialogue surpasses the usual romantic ending. But at bottom all the instances have the same purpose. They keep our minds alert, focussed on the screen. Lubitsch was a showman and he knew how to keep us watching.