The Merry Widow

USA 1925. Dir Erich von Stroheim.

With Mae Murray, John Gilbert
Costumes by Adrian, costume supervision by Richard Day and Erich von Stroheim; set decoration Cedric Gibbons and Richard Day

With her career extinguished by the arrival of sound, Mae Murray’s sensuous charms remain linked with the silent era. Following the stereotype, MGM cast the former Ziegfeld girl as a shimmering follies dancer who performs her routines in provokingly ‘abbreviated costumes’. But the film takes the routine glamorisation of the actress to another level. Given that von Stroheim openly scorned high-maintenance stars and Murray in particular, it is likely that the indulgence in close-ups of her face bathed in a golden aura of back-lighting is down to cameraman Oliver Marsh who, being one of four cinematographers on the set, reportedly worked as much under Murray’s direction as under von Stroheim’s. The director’s own agenda was to use an adaptation of Franz Lehar’s famous operetta to comment on the decadence of European aristocracy by explicitly foregrounding themes of sexual lust, voyeuristic pleasure and fetishism – much of which got lost in the editing room. The Merry Widow shows Murray in some dazzling costumed entrées. The satin-velvet dress held on a diamond necklace and complete with birds-of-paradise headpiece worn in the triumphal Waltz scene was designed by the young Adrian who got his first big break in Hollywood partly thanks to Murray. The film was originally shot with Technicolor sequences.