Originally undertaken in 1925 with a remake in 1934, this was the third and final adaptation of the Franz Lehar operetta. By far the most expensive and opulent of the trio, The Merry Widow replaces the likes of Mae Murray and Maurice Chevalier with clotheshorse Lana Turner and bohunk Fernando Lamas in the hopes that lightening will strike thrice. As my first experience with the operetta at all, this version of The Merry Widow looks utterly exquisite, but the acting leaves a lot to be desired. This isn’t an adaptation of an operetta than it is a Lana Turner movie with a classy pedigree.
The small European kingdom of Marshovia needs some capital, fast. The last Marshovian of status has recently died, leaving his fortune to his American wife, the widow Radek (Turner). Hoping she’ll invest the money back into the country, the Marshovian heads of state invite the widow Radek to their country in the hopes of marrying her off to the King’s nephew, Count Danilo (Lamas).
I had nothing to compare this iteration of The Merry Widow to, having not watched the previous version – the 1934 interpretation is directed by Ernst Lubitsch. By 1952 MGM was competing with the growing television trend, so their films were becoming more lavish and operatic, so it stands to reason that this is their most sumptuous film.
This is the perfect vehicle for Lana Turner, a woman whose name is nearly synonymous with glamour. Crystal Radek doesn’t exactly have a personality to speak of. She’s a newly wealthy widow who doesn’t want someone to marry her for her money, so she enlists the help of her maid (Una Merkel) to impersonate her. The Princess and the Pauper plot is fun while it lasts, but Merkel gets left in the dust, mostly reiterating to Crystal about all the suitors pursuing her. Wasting Una Merkel is nothing short of a crime. Turner wasn’t much an actress from the films I’ve seen, more of a fashion plate, and the film doesn’t deviate from that perception, swathing Turner in gorgeous gowns and negligees. Over-30 by the time she made this, Turner, whether through her own vanity or that of the studio, has a habit of showing the audience how attractive she still is – remember, in Hollywood over-30 makes you a grandmother – by having her wear “merry widow” undergarments. The camera comes off as lecherous, at times, with close-ups of Turner in her lingerie, even using it to move from scene-to-scene.
For a financially strapped country, Marshovia doesn’t look it. In fact, it looks like a beautifully manicured set on the MGM backlot. There’s little definition to the country, with a bizarre blend of Nordic and Latin influences all of which sits in the shadow of a mountain and a weird rock tunnel. Only three Marshovians are mentioned as living in America, two are poor and Radek has died. Instead of finding a way of convincing Crystal to invest in her husband’s homeland, the monarchy believes it’ll be easier to keep Crystal permanently shackled by marrying a Marshovian. In the light of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the rapid rise of Communism, you’re left wondering if the film isn’t presenting some type of commentary. Denilo and Radek are star-crossed lovers destined to be together, but it’s hard not finding the country’s issues and interest in Crystal to be suspect.
Based on my research, much of the real operetta was changed for this production. Turner’s voice, whether dubbed or not, is reedy and drowned out completely by Fernando Lamas’ booming bass. Turner and Lamas were heavily in lust during production and it shows. Fernando Lamas could have chemistry with a garden hose, and here he’s just as primped and glossed as Turner, dressed in t-shirts apparently left over from his adolescence. Lamas’ Denilo refuses to marry Crystal – “I won’t woo” – but it’s a foregone conclusion that these two will end up together, not because the romance demands it, but because these two are genetically perfect. It doesn’t help matters that there’s little in the way of set-up. Crystal casts off her “merry widow” persona, acting as a showgirl named Fifi – because that’s believable – to attract Denilo’s attention.
Cinema, by its very nature, demands a level of disbelief, but The Merry Widow is just too artificial. You never believe Crystal is anything more than a wealthy woman and that Denilo is a handsome playboy. Because these characters and the actors’ personas are nearly identical, this makes the artificiality stand out all the more – there’s no separating reality from fantasy. We’re watching these actors play out their lives, unconvincingly at that. Despite the harsh critique, The Merry Widow looks exquisite and that alone commands the audience’s attention, making up for the deficient actors. Lamas and Turner are fine, even if they’re essentially playing themselves.
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