Jun 17, 2021
By Stephen Danay
The year is 2021 and representation in cinema is still a battle being fought. Over the past decade, Hollywood has come to understand that diversity can be commodified as easily as any other demographic or product. Look no further than IP-driven franchises to see assembly line blockbusters touted as positive representation because they’re directed by women or POC. 1930s Hollywood was no less an assembly line than it is today, but lower monetary stakes and the moral/cultural flexibility offered by the pre-Code era allowed for complex, personal stories to be told.
Of course, the majority of directors and writers working in Hollywood at the time were white men, making Dorothy Arzner – a queer woman – a notable exception to the rules of the time. She got her start as an editor at Paramount in the early 1920s before graduating to directing features later in the decade. 1932’s Merrily We Go to Hell was her eleventh feature and it shows; the film is tightly constructed while still maintaining an emotional naturalism of what modern viewers might describe as a “hangout movie”.
Merrily We Go to Hell shares a set-up similar to the screwball films that would come to define Hollywood comedy by the end of the 1930s; we meet Fredric March’s Jerry Corbet as he’s cheerfully getting tanked by himself on the rooftop patio of a Chicago party. A newspaper reporter who dreams of being a playwright, Jerry’s skills as a raconteur attract the attention of Sylvia Sydney’s Joan Prentice, the sweet, charming heiress to a canned food magnate. Their meet cute is breezy and natural, with Arzner upending the future trope of the woman being the screwy one; Jerry is a tipsy chatterbox full of goofy jokes and flowery turns of phrase. But the end of the opening scene foreshadows the bittersweet story to come; after being briefly separated at the party, Joan reemerges on the patio to say goodnight to Jerry. Arzner cuts to the POV of a fully soused Jerry who can only make out a blur in the shape of a woman. The sadness on Sylvia’s face as he slurs “Who are you?”, is heartbreaking.
The rest of the first act provides a predictable but entertaining set up: Jerry and Joan reconnect and begin dating, despite her father’s disapproval. Madly in love, Jerry agrees to give up drinking after he arrives to their engagement party embarrassingly drunk. Sylvia agrees to disinherit herself from her father’s wealth in order to marry Jerry, convinced that they will be happy as an average, middle-class couple. She is briefly correct, as Jerry manages to stay on the wagon long enough to write a hit Broadway play. Unfortunately, the stress of success and the casting of his ex-girlfriend in the lead role leads both Jerry and Joan back down the road to alcoholism.
The pre-Code era coincided with the tail-end of Prohibition, so drunkenness was not an uncommon sight in films of the 1930s. But while many films used it as an excuse for cheap laughs or tiresome moralizing, Arzner takes a more honest and grounded view of addiction. She smartly makes the early scenes of Jerry carousing with his drinking buddies – an easy-going platonic couple played by Skeets Gallagher and Esther Howard – genuinely entertaining and fun. One extended scene has them tramping from bar to bar looking for a baritone to facilitate their drunken sing-a-longs. They look like people you’d want to party with, which makes Jerry’s inability to kick the sauce all the more difficult than it would if he were just a miserable drunk.
Similarly, while Jerry’s alcoholism is driven by his class insecurity, Joan is driven to same by her jealousy over Jerry’s lingering feelings for his ex-girlfirend-cum-leading lady Claire. This jealousy kicks off a subplot addressing the second taboo concern of the film, namely open relationships. Fed up with Jerry’s affair with Claire, Joan informs him that they will be having an open marriage that will allow her to similarly indulge. In what is possibly the most stone-cold move in the history of polyamory, she arrives at a party on the arm of Cary Grant, in one of his earliest supporting roles. Amidst all of this emotional pain, Arnzer does her best to reinforce the idea that these are, at bottom, just two people doing the best they can while wrestling with all the ways they’ve disappointed themselves and the ones they love. Even Jerry, who March plays as a selfish dick for much of the film, ultimately comes off as a man overwhelmed by both his successes and his failures. Sydney, who can wear heart-breaking sadness on her face like few other actresses can, seems attuned to the moral framework of the film itself; “I don’t want anyone to be sorry” she tells Jerry at one point.
Decades ahead of its time and emotionally attuned to its characters and themes, Merrily We Go to Hell is a classic of unvarnished pre-Code morality and a welcome edition to the Criterion Collection. Their new Blu-ray edition of the film includes a feature length documentary on Arzner as well as a video essay by film historian Cari Beauchamp.