TBT: The Merry Widow (1934)


It took me two tries to watch The Merry Widow, the Jeanette MacDonald/Maurice Chevalier pre-code adaptation of the famous operetta. It started off just so damn twee and I realized I wasn’t in the mood, so I put it away and went back a few weeks later. I admit that I needed to knit to be able to focus, mostly because the musical numbers were so saccharine, but Adrian‘s costumes were as stunning as I’d hoped — and once the movie gets going, there’s some quite entertaining visuals and dialogue.

The Merry Widow started life as an stage operetta in 1905, and has been incredibly successful ever since. It’s been filmed multiple times, including a silent version in 1925 and again in 1952 starring Lana Turner. And if you’ve heard of the “Merry Widow hat,” those ginormous Edwardian hats, now you know where the reference comes from — a 1907 stage production in London. I, of course, have never seen any of these adaptations, so I went in to the plot blind…

Jeanette MacDonald is Madame Sonia, a rich widow in the fictional country of Marshovia, somewhere in the Hungary region. It’s 1885 and in Marshovia, widows have to go around veiled and having absolutely no fun. Enter Captain Danilo (Chevalier), the Rhett Butler of Marshovia, who wants to try to woo her. She’s having none of it and refuses to lift her veil, he stomps off.

The Merry Widow (1934)

In the film, Sonia’s hat has a veil that comes down to about her nose. This dress is ALLLL fabulous black netting.

Sonia lives in an art deco paradise, but she’s bummed — probably because her hair, which is passably 1880s, suddenly goes all 1930s.

The Merry Widow (1934)

Maybe it’s the shell bed?

EVERYTHING is black, including her veils, shoes, and corsets:

The Merry Widow (1934)

Even her PUPPERINO is black:

The Merry Widow (1934)


Sonia decides she’s bored to tears and she’s heading to Europe. Suddenly her wardrobe transforms into light colors, and so does her dog!

The Merry Widow (1934)


She heads to Paris, and Marshovia goes into an uproar, because they’re worried she’ll remarry and then Marshovia will be destitute. The king orders Danilo to go to Paris to woo her.

Both Danilo and Sonia head to Maxime’s, a literal brothel, no ifs/ands/buts about it. Danilo goes because he’s a cad, Sonia, I was kind of unclear about.

The Merry Widow (1934)

There’s some fabulous costume/choreography moments, like this epic cancan.

Allll the Maxime’s girls are dying to see Danilo again:

The Merry Widow (1934)

Sonia is mistaken for a prostitute by the madam and by Danilo, who is excited to see someone new. Sonia has recognized Danilo from him trying to seduce her in Marshovia, and she basically decides to screw with him; Danilo doesn’t recognize her, because she never lifted her veil. The madam sends Sonia off with Danilo, and there’s some great flirting; he then lures her upstairs to a “private dining room” by stealing her shoe.

The Merry Widow (1934)

The madam’s dress has these great stars on a sheer foundation as the shoulder straps. Sonia is ALL SPARKLES with that wrap.

In the “private dining room,” complete with couch/bed, Sonia starts to feel shmoopy towards Danilo, while he tries to seduce her. She comes to her senses, realizing that he’s a ladies’ man who can’t commit to anyone, and ditches out. I am spending the entire scene with my mouth open because SHE IS BASICALLY CONTEMPLATING SHAGGING HIM RIGHT THEN AND THERE.

The Merry Widow (1934)

Under the sparkly wrap, more sparkles!!

The Merry Widow (1934)

I found this on Pinterest labeled as being from the film and in the collection of Western Costume, but I can’t find any further attribution. But, theoretically, here’s the real deal? It certainly looks right!

Danilo Thinks About What He’s Done (note, they never actually do that) and realizes too late that he’s in love (that was quick) with “Fifi.” He gets drunk, and then has to be hauled in to the embassy ball the next night in order to woo Sonia.

Sonia’s ensemble is AMAZEBALLS:

The Merry Widow (1934)


The Merry Widow (1934)


Danilo manages to convince Sonia that he actually loves her, and the two dance in yet another beautifully choreographed scene:

The Merry Widow (1934)

But Sonia overhears Danilo talking to the ambassador about how he has been ordered to woo her, and her heart is broken. She takes off, Danilo is court-martialed back in Marshovia, and Sonia goes to visit him wearing this ruffly number:

The Merry Widow (1934)

How does it all end? Well you gotta watch the movie to find out!


Have you ever seen that many ruffles in your life?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

12 Responses

  1. MoHub

    The movie plays fast and loose with the plot of the original operetta, right down to renaming Hannah as Sonia and cutting out huge swaths of the story. Take a look at the Wikipedia entry to get a better idea of the story, which is even juicier than that of the film.

  2. picasso Manu

    I may not have seen that many ruffles in my life (not all at once, anyway), but I can’t say I regret it… And I just made myself a Merry Widow hat! Did you know that at the time, those giganormous confection (mine is about 1 meter in diameter, LOL) influenced the shape of automobiles?

  3. Andrew.

    The depiction of Maxim’s as a brothel is not too far off. The 19th C. definition of a French restaurant usually meant that the ground floor was respectable. (You could take your wife). The second floor would have small, intimate dining rooms that featured a chase lounge, a lockable door, and a buzzer to summon the waiter. (You could bring someone else’s wife). And the third floor on up would be an outright brothel. This was true in San Francisco as well. The Poodle Dog, (Poulet d’Or), was probably the most famous. After the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, seismic retrofitting was being done on Jack’s, a French restaurant on Sacramento Street dating back to 1863. In the basement construction workers discovered stacks of old mattresses.

  4. M.E. Lawrence

    “How does it all end?”

    He’s shot by a firing squad while J-Mac, drenched in black satin ruffles, trills from a balcony?

  5. Jill Cochran

    Turner Classic Movies is showing a tribute to Adrian’s films on Friday, September 14, 2018, during the daylight hours. Most of the films are contemporary (1930s), but the late afternoon has The Great Ziegfeld (1936) covering the 1890s to the 1930s, and The Women (1939), with its all female cast and mid-movie fashion show. Adrian had to design 200 gowns for The Women!