We conclude today’s melodramatic embrace by taking a look at another Pre-Code film. Released in 1932, Merrily We Go To Hell takes a look at one of the institutions that the Production Code was meant to save: marriage. It also takes a look at alcoholism, overprotective fathers, and what goes on backstage during a Broadway production. In many ways, this movie is a comedy but, at heart, it’s a melodrama through and through.
Everyone should have a catchphrase. Myself, for example, I tend to say “Stay Supple” a lot. It drives some people crazy but I like the way it sounds and I also happen to think that it’s a pretty good expression of how I view life. Alcoholic newspaper reporter Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) has a catch phrase of his own. Every time he takes a drink, he toasts with, “Merrily, we go to Hell.” Jerry has been haunted ever since he was dumped by his beautiful girlfriend, actress Claire Hempstead (Adrienne Ames), and he now spends all of his time drinking and dreaming of being a playwright.
However, things start to look up for Jerry when, at one of those decadent rooftop parties that always seem to show up in pre-Code films, he meets an innocent young heiress named Joan (Sylvia Sidney). Jerry and Joan fall in love and, despite the reservations of Joan’s disapproving father (George Irving), they marry. With Joan’s help, Jerry stops drinking and writes his play. It’s called “When Women Say No” and despite the creepy and misogynistic title, it becomes a huge success. Oh, did I say despite? I meant to say because of.
(For those you sitting at home, I am currently dramatically rolling my eyes and shaking my head.)
However, there’s a problem. Guess who is cast as the play’s leading lady? That’s right — Claire! Jerry may love Joan but he’s obsessed with Claire. Having again fallen under her spell, Jerry is soon drinking again and neglecting his wife. However — and this is what distinguishes Merrily We Go To Hell from even most films made today — Joan doesn’t just silently accept Jerry’s infidelity or sit around obsessing on how she can get her husband back. Instead, she decides that if he can do it, she can do it. And who can blame her when Charlie Baxter is around? Not only is Charlie suave and handsome but he’s played by none other than Cary Grant!
Merrily we go to Hell indeed!
Merrily We Go To Hell is available as a part of the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection and I think it makes for a good double feature with The Cheat. (The people who put together the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection obviously agreed with me because they put both films on the same disc.) While Merrily We Go To Hell is, at heart, a very serious movie, it begins with a deceptively light touch. Fredric March was such a charming actor and seems to be having so much fun playing Jerry as a charming and well-meaning fuckup, that you actually are surprised when the film reveals just how desperate a character he really is. This is the epitome of the type of film that makes you laugh at the start just so it can make you cry at the end.
Incidentally, Merrily We Go To Hell was directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the only female directors to work in Hollywood during the studio era. As a director, she understands that, at heart, Merrily We Go To Hell is Joan’s story. Whereas a male director would probably have focused almost exclusively on Jerry and used Joan as a mere plot device, Arzner is more interested in exploring why Joan marries Jerry in the first place and how she deals with the inevitable discovery that there’s actually less to Jerry than first met the eye. It’s that perspective that ultimately elevates Merrily We Go To Hell above the level of being a mere domestic dramedy and makes it worth watching 82 years after it was first released.