Last night, TCM exposed countless millions to Erich von Stroheim’s 1925 classic, “The Merry Widow,” starring John Gilbert, Mae Murray and Roy D’Arcy. Gilbert plays Prince Danilo in a strange European country called Monteblanco, where his cousin, Crown Prince Mirko preens and struts about with a constant smirk. Mirko plays all the right notes of old nobility but Danilo spends his time chasing women. They both, however, frequent brothels and treat their servants like dirt.
When an American dance troupe arrives with Sally O’Hara (Murray), she dazzles both Danilo and Mirko. They vie for her attention, but it’s no contest as Gilbert and his matinee idol looks wins the day. King Nikita of Montebello forbids their marriage and O’Hara marries the richest man in the kingdom, who drops dead on her wedding night. So, the suddenly rich widow runs off to have fun in Paris. Both Danilo and Mirko resolve to track her down, which makes what started out as a broad comedy into a serious drama.
We expect a dancer such as Sally O’Hara to be athletic, but it seems odd that she becomes such a competent horse woman during a pivotal scene in Paris where Danilo shows up drunk on the horse-riding grounds. Danilo and Mirko dress in Habsburg finery for the entire picture, but O’Hara goes through a few strange costume changes, including wearing a frumpy checkered dress at Danilo’s apartment.
I marveled at D’Arcy’s ability to maintain his smirk throughout the picture. Since The Merry Widow is a silent picture, he did not need to hold his smug grin while also delivering dialogue. However, he steals the movie with his conceited attitude, right down to the almost robotic gait he affects throughout. I call it silent film acting at its best.