Merrily We Go to Hell July 12, 2021
1 Hr., 18 Mins.
rue to its title, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) is a movie in which heavenly goodness is in short supply. Things won’t stop speeding downward into despair; even the tacked-on-feeling happy ending has a sourness to it. (In the book it’s based on, the female lead dies at the end; the movie offers her an alternative outcome I can’t say is that much better.) But at its best, the film’s pessimism is invigorating. Merrily We Go to Hell is a
romantic movie that often perceptively rears its head at ideas of love being dependably redemptive. It covers the courtship, then marriage, of Joan (Sylvia Sidney), a naïve rich girl, and Jerry (Fredric March), an alcoholic reporter and aspiring playwright. The early, happy days of this Chicago couple are quickly eclipsed by a storminess that only gets more tempestuous. Jerry’s dependence
on the bottle, which Joan thinks is manageable at first, eventually overtakes almost everything. (Jerry blacks out before Joan will have even had a chance to make a toast at their engagement party.) When he and Joan are married despite the latter’s own worries and the loudly voiced concerns of her father (George Irving), who at one point even offers Jerry $50,000 to stay away from his daughter, nothing improves. The sight of wedding bells — the first thing we see after Joan spends a good portion of one evening crying behind the wheel of her car because of Jerry — hits us like warning sirens.
Although one of Jerry’s plays is fortunately optioned months into the marriage and becomes a big hit, his alcoholism worsens despite some periods of sobriety. And his apparently still-strong fixation on his ex, an actress (Adrianne Allen) who coincidentally gets cast as his play’s lead, evolves into an affair. Joan doesn’t so much forgive her husband as compromise. If she’s going to be treated so cavalierly, she will resultantly treat this marriage like a “modern” one where both spouses can play fast and loose with monogamy. The last stretch of the movie scans a little unnaturally like a soap opera — there’s too much plot crammed into a small space of time. It hurtles between shocking developments and tragedies that don’t especially feel earned. Still, you appreciate Merrily We Go to Hell's gutsiness even when it doesn't totally work dramatically — it has conviction.
Merrily We Go to Hell is a film you tend to admire more than outright enjoy, feel deserves all of its emotional beats. (Less than 80 minutes isn’t enough, I don’t think, to make a marriage’s disintegration feel organic on screen.) But overarchingly the film is a sharp critique of how, in marriage, women are more often expected to shoulder the burden of their spouse’s shortcomings, and what can happen the more pain is accrued. Merrily We Go to Hell sticks out, I think memorably, in an era where romance in movies was almost uniformly typified as curative — love as salvation. Joan cannot “save” Jerry, as much as she believes she can. (Sidney, superb in the movie, plays this realization understatedly, and she never lets her personhood get completely squashed by her situation.) Although some smoke has cleared in the movie’s last few moments, what precedes it is so damaging that Merrily We Go to Hell, if anything, feels a bit like an anti-love story, where any sort of heaven feels like it could devolve into hellishness at any moment. Joan points out, mid-movie, that Jerry has never actually told her that he loved her. By the time he does, it’s like he’s using store-bought tape to put back together a broken vase.
This sort of pessimism recurred throughout the trailblazing career of Merrily We Go to Hell’s director, Dorothy Arzner. In Craig’s Wife, from 1937, a marriage is jeopardized by how dangerously the title character has internalized the societal expectation of keeping an in-shape household. And in Arzner’s most famous movie, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), a talented female dancer’s skill is not enough to propel her to superstardom. Art and commerce have a finicky partnership, particularly when you're a woman living under a patriarchy. Arzner regularly poked holes at notions of certain characteristics of the American dream being straightforward, liberating, or ameliorative. She was fascinated by what happened, especially to women of the era, after what in a different movie might be positioned as a happy ending.
Merrily We Go to Hell was the last movie Arzner made on a contractual basis with Paramount. From then on until she retired from moviemaking in 1943, she worked as a freelancer with increasingly diminishing success. It’s disappointing that Arzner — who was both one of the few women and openly gay filmmakers able to forge a pretty prolific career in Hollywood at that time — didn’t make more movies. Her anomalously pragmatic way of seeing remains striking — like a shock awake. B+