Friday, July 24, 2009

Mourning Glory

Just mention the word "opera" and you'll know immediately how someone feels about it. A wrinkle of the nose and a rolling of the eyes means "let the fat lady sing without me," or a brightening of the eyes means "did I just find an opera soul mate? Let's talk cabalettas and bel cantos."

During the 1930s, opera on film was in vogue. The coming of the sound era in the late 1920s gave birth to the movie musical, and opera was one subgenre that both the studios and audiences embraced. It was during this time that Maurice Chevalier was brought to Hollywood and became a star at Paramount in a series of operettas and light musicals.

Then the great MGM producer Irving Thalberg signed Chevalier to the studio and decided to remake "The Merry Widow," which is based upon Franz Lehar's operetta. Oddly enough, the material was made as a silent film, which was weird enough, and then add in the freak factor of the notorious Erich von Stroheim, bad-boy director, who gave the prince a foot fetish and wanted to depict the depravity of European society. It was an early MGM film released in 1925, and it did well at the box office despite von Stroheim's clashes with everyone involved. (It would be his last film directed at MGM.)

The 1934 version is anything but depraved. Directed by the marvelous Ernst Lubitsch, the film stars Jeanette MacDonald as the title character and Chevalier as Count Danilo, who live in the small kingdom of Marshovia. The widow, the richest woman in the land and whose taxes keep the kingdom afloat, decides that she's mourned enough and leaves on an extended vacation to Paris, only to be wooed by men from around the globe. The king of Marshovia sends the dashing Danilo to Paris to marry her and, more importantly, keep her money firmly in the kingdom.

If you saw my post on "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," you read a little about Thalberg and his career. If "Barretts" was his first triumph after returning from illness, "Widow" was his second. But remember that MGM was the number one studio in Hollywood during this time, and both its films and stars had a rich, sumptuous look that surpassed all others. When you watch "Widow," you can see where the money was spent -- every frame is lavish and gorgeous (thank you to Cedric Gibbons, the MGM art department and Adrian's gowns). If it comes off this way today, you can only imagine how audiences during the Depression reacted to it.

Thankfully, the film excels in all other areas. In directing, Lubitsch brings his famed "touch." I've read varying descriptions of "the Lubitsch touch," and frankly I find it hard to pinpoint, much less describe. You get a feel for it after watching several of his films. He is able to keep a film from becoming mired in subplot or drama. He knows how to keep the wit and comedy light and airy without losing any potency in the story. The sex is there but not overt, and MacDonald said Lubitsch could suggest more with a closed door than showing exactly what's happening.

One of my favorite scenes is a combination of Lubitsch's ability to tell the story and the amazing art direction. At the beginning, when the widow returns to her bedroom for the evening, the black of her mourning attire contrast with the white of the room, and Lubitsch amusingly shows closets neatly arranged with all black accessories, including her dog. A series of entries in a lavishly designed journal follow. And then, when she decides enough is enough, the black is replaced -- even the dog changes colors. These wonderful wordless montages perfectly capture the Widow's changing moods in an amusing way that uses imagery to full advantage.

Chevalier was thrilled to be working at MGM, but he was less than thrilled to be working with MacDonald. The had made several films together at Paramount, including "Love Parade," "One Hour with You" and the wonderful "Love Me Tonight." He wanted opera star Grace Moore for "Widow," but Thalberg and Lubitsch refused. Moore had a weight problem, and her previous MGM contract had a weight clause that she violated. Thalberg and Lubitsch agreed on the strong-willed MacDonald, even though there was no love loss between the two stars. Still, their chemistry works.

Chevalier was a decent actor but an even better film personality. He brought a rogue-ish charm to his films, with a constant twinkle in his eyes toward the women. Danilo is a perfect fit for that persona, as all the women swoon whenever Danilo appears.

Ironically enough, after being passed over for this film, Moore landed the starring role in Columbia's opera hit "One Night of Love," and Thalberg proposed starring Chevalier and Moore together -- but with Moore receiving top billing. Chevalier balked, asked to be released from his MGM contract, and he returned to Europe until after World War II.
MacDonald went on to become a popular star for MGM. Film fans today most likely associate her with Nelson Eddy, with whom she first made "Naughty Marietta," released in 1935. This was followed by a series of films, including "Rose Marie," "Maytime" and "Rosalie." They were "America's Sweethearts" or "the Singing Sweethearts," the number one film duo of the late 1930s (eclipsing the popularity of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who still were a top draw). Unfortunately, their films weren't as rich as "The Merry Widow" or as energetic as the Astaire and Rogers musicals, and today's audiences equate MacDonald and Eddy with "Indian Love Call," a song mocked and parodied all these years later. It didn't help that Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, wanted to keep MacDonald's image squeaky-clean, so the films have a forced innocence that doesn't hold up well today.

And when the MacDonald-Eddy partnership ended in the early 1940s, the opera film vogue died, too. That's not to say opera and operettas never made it onto film again. But opera has never enjoyed a period on film again as robust as the 1930s. It's a real shame that "One Night of Love," the Moore film for Columbia, was hailed as such a great film when it's not nearly as good as "The Merry Widow." Even the Academy nominated "One Night of Love" for best picture and Moore for best actress when "Widow" and "MacDonald" are better.

But that's just me. Besides, "Widow" also represents the best of what MGM could offer during this era, and perhaps there was a feeling that the other studios deserved recognition for a job well done. And, if you watch "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" and "The Merry Widow" back-to-back, you can see the genius of Thalberg: two different types of movies, each with a seamless storytelling style that was one of his trademarks.

One final note: I'm not an opera lover, but "Widow" charmed me from beginning to end. So grab some popcorm and let the arias begin.

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