Lubitsch’s Opens New Vistas for Film Musicals

Ernst Lubitsch brought visual and verbal wit, European sophistication, dance, and song together into a fully integrated musical myth that popularized cinematic operetta.

Summary of Event

Early film musical directors were troubled by the role of song and dance: They wondered how to explain a performer’s decision to stop the action, turn to the audience, and begin to sing within the context of a story. Efforts to justify production numbers explain why many early musicals were set in theaters or nightclubs, where music was the logical outgrowth of the setting. On stage, operetta came closer than any other form to fully integrating music, dance, plot, and character development into a coherent whole. That integration was most successful in Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, which opened on Broadway in 1927. [kw]Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow Opens New Vistas for Film Musicals (1934)[Lubitschs The Merry Widow Opens New Vistas for Film Musicals (1934)]
[kw]Merry Widow Opens New Vistas for Film Musicals, Lubitsch’s The (1934)
[kw]Film Musicals, Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow Opens New Vistas for (1934)
[kw]Musicals, Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow Opens New Vistas for Film (1934)
Merry Widow, The (film)
Motion pictures;The Merry Widow[Merry Widow]
Musical motion pictures;The Merry Widow[Merry Widow]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Ernst Lubitsch[Lubitsch]
[g]United States;1934: Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow Opens New Vistas for Film Musicals[08500]
[c]Motion pictures;1934: Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow Opens New Vistas for Film Musicals[08500]
Lubitsch, Ernst
MacDonald, Jeanette
Chevalier, Maurice
Horton, Edward Everett

In Germany, Ernst Lubitsch, once a comic and a student of famed director Max Reinhardt, had become a director himself. His first success in this area was Schuhpalast Pinkus (Shoe Salon Pinkus), a silent musical released in 1916. (Silent films were not, to their audiences, silent; they were always accompanied by music, and in urban centers, the films might be accompanied by full orchestras.) After Lubitsch’s arrival in the United States, he made Rosita (1923), which featured Mary Pickford as a street singer; So This Is Paris (1926), with an extravagant production number; The Student Prince (1927), which drew from the Sigmund Romberg operetta; and Love Parade (1929), with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier.

The Merry Widow had been filmed before. In fact, Lubitsch’s film was overshadowed, at the time, by the 1925 silent version, which starred screen idol John Gilbert and popular actress Mae Murray; the director of the earlier version was Erich von Stroheim. Lubitsch, however, brought a new perspective to the film, as well as new and witty songs by Richard Rodgers Rodgers, Richard and Lorenz Hart Hart, Lorenz and by Gus Kahn. Kahn, Gus The major characters, Sonia and Danilo, are treated both tenderly and poignantly. Comedy derives partly from his vanity and her pride but primarily from the pair’s struggles to resist the social order and the necessary cycles of marriage—and, by implication, reproduction—to which they must ultimately yield.

The film is based on an operetta by Franz Lehár Lehár, Franz that was first staged in Vienna in 1905. The plot is simple. Sonia, wealthy and widowed, is lonely and bored. Captain Danilo, a happy womanizer, is eager to meet the heavily veiled widow, but he has been spoiled by the bored women of Maxim’s bordello in Paris, the equally bored peasant women of Marshovia, and the even more bored Queen Dolores (first played by the famous actress Una Merkel) of that country. When he meets Sonia, his remarks are directly sexual. She is attracted, but her pride causes her to rebuff him. She flees to Paris. Danilo’s government sends him after her to marry her and keep her wealth in the country. He wins her at an embassy party, but she learns he is courting her under orders. Now truly in love, Danilo refuses to defend himself. He is arrested and returned to Marshovia to be tried for treason. She appears at his trial and visits him in jail. There, the king and ambassador lock them in until they agree to be married by a priest the king has conveniently provided.

Lubitsch added contrast to the story. Chevalier’s untrained, French-cabaret voice represents the forces of passion and freedom; MacDonald’s trained, operatic soprano is the voice of love and marriage. At Maxim’s, where Sonia follows Danilo, the audience first sees a cancan, an exhibitionist dance in which women display themselves to male viewers. That dance gives way to an awkward hopping dance that Chevalier performs with a crowd of women, not with a single partner. The scene switches to the embassy, where a disciplined folk dance balances the cancan of the earlier scene. Then the waltz begins. In contrast to Danilo’s hopping dance at the club, the circles of the waltz are disciplined. They represent the eternal cycles of mating, childbirth, and death, a notion given particular poignancy by a single shot of viewers—older people, whose time of youth and joy is ended—on a balcony. They are observers, as Sonia and Danilo must someday be. Below, the lovers dance alone, merge into the crowd, dance alone, and are surrounded by dancers again, in a scene that symbolizes the difficulty they are having accepting their destiny. When Sonia rejects Danilo, however, and he is arrested, she begins a hysterical parody of the waltz; in its disorder, it is comparable to Danilo’s earlier hopping dance.

Both visual and verbal wit suggest that social order is necessary but not flawless. Much of the film’s considerable comedy comes at the government’s expense. In the opening credits, a magnifying glass appears over a map of central Europe so that the audience can find tiny Marshovia. The Marshovian government, however, takes itself very seriously. King Achmed communicates clichés and trivia to Ambassador Popoff in an elaborate secret code. He tolerates his queen’s adultery because he possesses a politician’s desire to avoid scandal. Yet livestock must be removed from a Marshovian courtroom before Danilo can be tried for treason; significantly, a goat is led out as Danilo enters.

Set design and costume are important to the film’s mythic dimension. Exterior shots of Sonia’s castle are unrealistically presented in ways that suggest German expressionist theater. Hers is a fairy-tale castle in which a widow is imprisoned by convention. As the film develops, black comes to represent confinement, and white is a symbol of freedom: Alone in her castle, Sonia wears a widow’s mourning clothes, and the audience sees a closet of mourning gowns, mourning veils, and mourning corsets; even her dog is black. When she resolves to leave for Paris, everything (even the dog) turns white. In the cancan at Maxim’s, the girls’ costumes are white edged in black; at the embassy the waltzers at first wear black and white.


Lubitsch popularized operetta on film, but for Lubitsch himself, The Merry Widow was an ending, not a beginning. He made more than forty films in Hollywood, but no other musicals. His later credits include Ninotchka (1939), with Greta Garbo; The Shop Around the Corner (1940), with Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart; To Be or Not to Be (1942), with Carole Lombard and Jack Benny; Heaven Can Wait (1943), with Gene Tierney; and Cluny Brown (1946), with Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones. The film also was an ending for Chevalier. After appearing in Folies Bergère (1935), he returned to Europe and made no more Hollywood films until Gigi (1958).

The “Lubitsch touch,” as the director’s influence came to be known, was affected by increasing censorship. Following a decade of Hollywood scandals, the institution of the Catholic Church’s League of Decency in 1933 caused Hollywood to enforce the production rules known as the Hays Code, Hays Code
Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 which prohibited the type of wit that had informed The Merry Widow. Danilo’s casual promiscuity would become unacceptable; clearly, in the film, when he marries Sonia, he gives up a life that has given him great pleasure. This is sacrifice, not repentance. The obvious sexual reference of the trial scene—when the entrance of Danilo, now romantically in love, is associated with the exit of the goat, a traditional symbol of lechery—would also be unacceptable, as would the blatant sexuality of the queen and the obvious prostitutes at Maxim’s. Specific kinds of stage business would not be seen again for two decades. For example, there is considerable symbolic byplay involving a comparison of swords and swordbelts in the scene in which the king learns of his wife’s adultery with Danilo. When Danilo thinks the king is gone, he suggestively sheaths his sword before entering the queen’s bedroom. The king, however, returns after forgetting his sword and belt. He accidentally picks up the now-abandoned sword and belt of Danilo, which obviously belong to a younger, trimmer, and—by implication—more virile man. This broadly sexual use of visual humor would go underground until such films as the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), which were released after censorship had ended.

It is possible, too, that with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini on the march in Europe, neither the public nor studio heads, many of them Jewish, were as amused as they had once been by the self-important doings of heads of small European nations. Certainly, Lubitsch was harshly criticized for his treatment of European politics in his later To Be or Not to Be. The Merry Widow, however, heavily depends on such topical humor. For example, when Sonia leaves Marshovia, the threat to the economy is so great that the king hears of impending revolution. The shepherds, he is told, are threatening to organize into a Black Sheep movement. The king is later relieved to hear that the leaders are merely “Left Bank intellectual” shepherds and, consequently, not a force to be feared. Such humor savors more of the Weimar Republic than of the United States of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Lubitsch’s use of operetta was influential, although it was changed in ways that offered revealing insights into popular culture in the 1930’s. With the Depression’s heightening impact and the increasing threat of war in Europe, the public demanded simpler emotions and more stereotyped characters than were to be found in Lubitsch musicals. Audiences clearly rejected Lubitsch’s characters’ complex ambivalence about their proper roles. Chevalier’s European sophistication was thus replaced by Nelson Eddy’s Eddy, Nelson boyish earnestness. Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald were rivaled only by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire as the most popular couple in film history.

Eddy had a trained operatic voice and had sung with the Philadelphia Civic Opera. Without acting ability, he simply portrayed manly courage, protectiveness toward women, and American virtue. Even in films such as the disastrous I Married an Angel (1942), I Married an Angel (film) which concluded the Eddy-MacDonald series and in which Eddy is described as a womanizer, he obviously viewed women with great alarm. Unlike Chevalier’s Danilo, Eddy greeted his rescue by a virtuous woman with absolute relief. MacDonald played innocent girls, not experienced women, until, in I Married an Angel, the camera shows her forty-one years in her chin line and eyes—even as she simpers like a teenager in a film caught between pure sentimentalism and self-parody. The MacDonald-Eddy partnership began in 1935 with Naughty Marietta and continued through Rose Marie (1940), Bitter Sweet (1940), and The Chocolate Soldier (1942), among others. In these films, worldliness and social satire were replaced with sentimentality.

Lubitsch’s synthesis of fairy-tale musical and myth would not reappear for a long time. A number of films in the folk-musical tradition subordinated romance and melodrama to mythic structure; these began with King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929) and continued through the filmings of Show Boat (1936 and 1951), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and such later musicals as Carousel (1956) and Oklahoma! (1955). Audiences were not prepared to accept the more sophisticated Lubitsch myths until after World War II, when Lubitsch’s aware, experienced, and committment-phobic couple appeared in South Pacific (1958). A similar story is told in Gigi, in which Chevalier also reappears, and Lubitsch’s mythic kingdom is alive, but sentimentalized, in the 1967 Camelot. These films shared something of Lubitsch’s archetypes, but audiences never again saw his ideas portrayed with such dazzling effect and such wit as in The Merry Widow. Merry Widow, The (film)
Motion pictures;The Merry Widow[Merry Widow]
Musical motion pictures;The Merry Widow[Merry Widow]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Ernst Lubitsch[Lubitsch]

Further Reading

  • Altman, Rick. The American Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. The reader put off by academic jargon should avoid the theoretical chapters here, but the chapter “The Fairy Tale Musical” contains an excellent analysis of Lubitsch, and “The Folk Musical” introduces the use of mythic elements.
  • Eisner, Lotte H. “Lubitsch and the Costume Film.” In The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969. Eisner is annoyingly condescending to Lubitsch as a lower-middle-class Jew, but Eisner’s work, first published in France in 1952, recognizes expressionistic and mythic elements overlooked by most critics.
  • Kislan, Richard. The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater. Rev. ed. New York: Applause Books, 1995. Textbook for a general course in musical theater includes a brief but thorough history and a study of the various crafts and artists in the musical theater. Includes excellent photographs.
  • Knapp, Raymond. The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. History of the genre focuses on how themes in American musical theater productions relate to how Americans view themselves. Includes useful appendixes, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Manvell, Roger, and Heinrich Fraenkel. The German Cinema. New York: Praeger, 1972. The first two chapters provide a solid overview of the German film from 1895 to the 1920’s, when Lubitsch was learning acting and directing. The authors emphasize spectacular films, such as Lubitsch’s Madame Dubarry (1929), and the influence on Lubitsch’s later, more intimate work of such directors as Mauritz Stiller.
  • Poague, Leland. The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1978. Deals somewhat superficially with Lubitsch’s American work but provides good synopses of these films, although Poague’s conclusions about Lubitsch’s dawning self-awareness are dubious. Contains a valuable filmography of Lubitsch’s American films and a useful, if brief, bibliographical note.
  • Pratt, George C. “Foreign Invasion (II) Ernst Lubitsch.” In Spellbound in Darkness: A History of the Silent Film. Rev. ed. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973. Less a history than a filmography, but contains valuable extracts from hard-to-find feature articles and reviews, the latter only concerning Lubitsch’s American silents. Only one illustration.
  • Sennett, Ted. “The First Sounds of Music.” In Hollywood Musicals. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985. This lavishly illustrated coffee-table volume contains an intelligent, if superficial, overview of Lubitsch’s work and a brief bibliography.
  • Weinberg, Herman G. The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study. 3d ed. New York: Dover, 1977. Otherwise excellent book on Lubitsch’s total career is marred by the author’s coy prose style, by some thirty-five pages of tributes from contemporaries given without the documentation that would allow readers to consult the sources, and by a bibliography arranged, inexplicably, in chronological rather than alphabetical order.

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