Old movies: revisiting Merrily We Go To Hell

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In our old movies column, Sarah looks at Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go To Hell, and why is very much deserves watching.

Spoilers lie ahead for Merrily We Go To Hell.

A few weeks ago in this column, I spoke about one of my idols – Dorothy Arzner. This queer filmmaker was the only female director working in the Pre-Code era. She invented the boom mic, and she helped launch the careers of stars such as Katherine Hepburn, Fredric March, and helped Clara Bow transition into talkies.

Basically, Dorothy Arzner is iconic, and her work is incredible, producing hits such as Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), The Wild Party (1929,) and my particular favourite, Honor Among Lovers (1931).

Arzner really captured the Pre-Code filmmaking sentiment in her early 1930s work, especially when it came to breathing life into her female leads. Each heroine is written and directed with complexities and emotions, from a scorned mistress to a bereaved mother. They are three-dimensional characters with heart and soul. Most of Arzner’s films are also scathing indictments of the patriarchal culture rife throughout history. These films twisted the narrative and put feminist structures into the story.

Released on the UK Criterion collection this week is one of Arzner’s most famous work is Merrily We Go to Hell (1932).  You can find details on the disc here.

A film in which the title alone riled up censors who refused to publish it in newspapers, Merrily We Go to Hell is a brilliant drama-comedy about a modern marriage gone awry. Based on play I Jerry Take Thee Joan by Cleo Lucas, this story revolves around a drunken journalist and an heiress who meet at a party and fall in love, against her father’s best wishes. It seems that Jerry is reluctant to give up his philandering ways and turns back to drink and his ex-girlfriend Claire. However, Joan is unimpressed and announces that due to Jerry’s infidelity, she too will conduct an illicit affair. Can the pair’s marriage survive?

Merrily We Go to Hell has two fantastic leads in Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney. Together, they pull many punches together. There’s incredible chemistry together instantly fuels a sparring match of words and wit. Though initial reviews were perplexed by March’s casting, the actor is stunning. There is a fluid way he movies across the screen which aids the jolly, jostling, and jeering Jerry in his downfall.

Upon their first meeting, a slurring Fredric March flirts and teases Sylvia Sidney’s naïve heiress, who’s smitten with his charm and words. Moments later, he completely forgets who she is. It’s a moment that mars the marriage from the beginning. Whilst Sidney doesn’t play Joan in a silly, hapless way, the charismatic actor portrays her with understanding and forgiveness, already highlighting her strong headedness that will later come to play in the film.

Arzner’s best trick here is to not only throw a spear into the heart of traditional marriage and monogamy but also to prod and poke at the men who proclaim free love only for their own affairs. Joan is here to challenge Jerry’s bamboozling and bibulous behaviour by mirroring it. As soon as she swans in attached to the elbow of a younger, hotter man (Cary Grant, no less,) Jerry is faced with two things: how absolutely abhorrent he has been to her throughout the film, and how much he actually loves her.

Merrily We Go to Hell isn’t a simple black and white picture, and it certainly gets more complex towards the end.  Joan doesn’t leave him, but she manages to cut him down to size. She bravely puts her heart on the line at the beginning, and that pound of flesh on the line will be respected. Sidney plays Joan with loveliness and innocence but also with a broiling intellect that boils over the more slighted she is by her husband.

Beyond the creative and complex way this is written, Merrily We Go to Hell is also beautifully directed. Smooth transitions, glitzy costumes and great party set-pieces add a gorgeous backdrop to the droll words and rampant raging relationship at the centre. One such beautiful shot sees Joan dancing with an old flame at her engagement party whilst Jerry runs late, and she catches her disapproving father in the mirror. These inventive shots really add depth to the era, comparatively to films which feel flat and showcase Arnzer’s inspired filmmaking.

Merrily We Go to Hell is definitely one of the most triumphant Pre-Code movies. It captures the freedom and intelligence of Joan as she skewers Jerry’s ego and cuts him down to size (with the help of Grant, but truly it is Joan’s words that hurt Jerry the most). It features brilliant side characters, on-going jokes, and great costumes.

Sharp, scathing, and scintillating, Merrily We Go to Hell is a must when slipping into Pre-Code movies or trying to understand why Arzner is one of the best directors of all time.

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