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The Merry Widow

The Merry Widow(1952)

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teaser The Merry Widow (1952)

The 1952 film version of The Merry Widow starring Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas, was nominated for Oscars for Best Costume Design (by Helen Rose and Gile Steele) and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration by a team of designers led by Cedric Gibbons. In The New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther described this treatment of the much-filmed Victor Leon operetta as "the most colorful and exquisite it has ever had. . . The brilliance in Technicolor of the palaces, grand hotels and a replica of Maxim's in Paris that craftsmen at Metro have contrived is something to take your breath away, and the richness of the costumes and the staging of the dance and choral groups will deal the knockout blow."

In a Directors Guild of America Oral History interview, director Curtis Bernhardt remarked that he "had in the lead an actress who couldn't sing, Miss Lana Turner," adding that he "went for the beauty of the period -- that's all I could do." His interviewer, Mary Kiersch, responded: "There are moments where the combination of the brilliant color and the music is absolutely overwhelming. I'm thinking especially of the entrance of all the women at Maxim's as they slide down the banister and the screen is filled with the billows of their multicolored petticoats." To be fair to Turner, whose one vocal selection is dubbed by Trudy Erwin, she did receive some favorable notices for her "poise, assurance and great beauty," as well as her authoritative use of the elaborate turn-of-the-century costumes.

Previous film incarnations of The Merry Widow include a 1912 silent two-reeler with Alma Rubens and Wallace Reid; a 1925 full-length silent film with Mae Murray and John Gilbert; and a highly celebrated 1934 version directed by Ernst Lubitsch with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. Bernhardt, a great admirer of Lubitsch, found the 1934 version, which was shot in black and white, a particularly daunting act to follow: "It had wit and charm and ideas. But you cannot copy Lubitsch, it's pointless." So Bernhardt, given the advantage of color and the lavish resources of MGM under the supervision of producer Joe Pasternak, "relied very much" on cinematographer Robert Surtees and the splendid sets to give his film distinction. "Part of the movie was shot on the MGM backlot, but all of it was shot at the studio," Bernhardt recalled. "That gives it such a fairy-tale quality."

The Merry Widow marked a particularly turbulent period in the life of the always-tempestuous Turner, who had attempted suicide by slashing her wrist with a razor a few days before filming began. She wrote in her autobiography that, to hide her wound, "all during the picture I wore long gloves or a very wide bracelet, or I carried a fur piece on my wrist." Turner and Lamas fell in love during the making of the film, and their onscreen chemistry was so palpable that MGM lined up another costarring vehicle for the duo. Before filming on that one began, however, the pair had a violent fight and went their separate ways - Turner into a marriage with Lex Barker and Lamas into one with Arlene Dahl, Barker's ex-wife! So MGM cast another Latin lover, Ricardo Montalban, opposite Turner in Latin Lovers (1953).

Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Screenplay: Sonya Levien and William Ludwig, from the operetta by Victor Leon and Leo Stein
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Franz Lehar, from the operetta
Costume Design: Helen Rose, Gile Steele
Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Principal Cast: Lana Turner (Crystal Radek), Fernando Lamas (Count Danilo), Una Merkel (Kitty Riley), Richard Haydn (Baron Popoff), Thomas Gomez (King of Marshovia), Marcel Dalio (Police Sergeant), King Donovan (Nitki), Gwen Verdon (Specialty dancer).
C-106m. Closed captioning.

by Roger Fristoe

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