Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go to Hell offers a clear-eyed view of Hollywood’s ideas about marriage in the pre-code era.
The Production: 3.5/5
A pre-code melodrama that provided equal opportunities for sinning for both sexes, Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go to Hell shows “modern” movie marriage in ways that wouldn’t be allowed on the screen less than two years later and features charismatic performances from its two leading players that would be bellwethers of finer things to come from both of them. In its free-flowing drinking and multiple sexual escapades, the film may show its age, but it’s still an enjoyable entertainment with glimpses of some stars to be also in the mix.
Newspaper reporter and fledgling playwright Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) has definite problems with alcohol, drinking himself into a stupor almost nightly to forget the girl that got away, flighty Broadway actress Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen). One night at another drunken party he meets Chicago heiress Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) who has not allowed her father’s (George Irving) millions to spoil her or make her personally irresponsible. Jerry sees salvation for him in the grounded Joan and after an up-and-down courtship, they marry. Wishing Jerry to be all the wonderful things she thinks he is, Joan oversees his staying on the wagon so he can finish his play When Women Say No, but when it’s finally finished and picked up by a New York producer, who is cast in the female lead but Claire Hempstead, the girl Jerry has never gotten over. Continually crossing paths, the two former lovers are once again drawn to one another which initially crushes Joan but then makes her resolute to live a more modern lifestyle herself with affairs with other men and buoyed by plenty of alcohol.
Screenwriter Justus Mayer has based the screenplay on Cleo Lucas’ story I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan. The story divides the screen time pretty much equally between the two protagonists, Jerry seeming to dominate the first half of the film and Joan taking over at the halfway point when she finally comes to the breaking point. But clearly, director Dorothy Arzner chooses her side quite deliberately: Jerry’s a thoughtless, selfish, sometimes oafish character (she seems to relish his off-balanced mishandling of walking on polished floors even when sober) who must constantly be rescued from his own vices and bad decisions (he even loses the wedding ring but has the presence of mind to substitute a corkscrew during the wedding – talk about symbolism) by the grounded, loving Joan. Even Joan’s walk on the wild side comes up short showing regret just as often as she tosses her head back feigning laughter, a good girl through and through. Arzner does take her time with that elaborate wedding sequence and also shows off with aplomb the regal costume designs which dot the movie. But she pulls no punches in showing the debauchery of the drunken revels where Jerry often finds himself (this was made the year before Prohibition was repealed, but you’d never know it from how freely liquor is available to one and all), and if she can’t do much with the abrupt, somewhat sappy ending, she doesn’t drown it in bathos either.
Having worked thrice before with Dorothy Arzner before Merrily We Go to Hell, Fredric March delivers a consistently secure and knowing performance: Jerry is a jerk, and while March doesn’t attempt to hide his foolhardiness, he also allows him some charm from time to time. Sylvia Sidney’s Joan might impress one early-on as too good to be true, but she lets down her hair later on and provides a thoroughly rounded characterization and definitely earns the audience’s sympathy throughout. George Irving’s loving millionaire father never gives in to ultimatums even when he knows his daughter is making a mistake, a rare kind of rich character in this kind of melodrama. Skeets Gallagher steals his scenes as Jerry’s faithful drinking companion Buck; he gets many of the movie’s wittiest lines and never allows his drunkenness to make his character unattractive. Esther Howard is his female equivalent as Jerry’s female friend Vi though there is more to her character that never gets explored. Adrianne Allen gets the femme fatale role and does right by it, a self-interested glamour girl who doesn’t care whom she hurts in order for her needs to be met. Yep, you’ll see Cary Grant and Kent Taylor in small roles making the most of early career opportunities.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Apart from occasional black levels which seem a little on the timid side and some hairs which haven’t been digitally removed, the image is quite lush and very typical of Paramount cinematography of the early 1930s (cinematography by David Abel). Grayscale is mostly consistent, and the grain pattern present seems appropriate and quite film-like. The movie has been divided into 9 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is very age-appropriate. Dialogue has been well recorded and has been mixed with music and sound effects very professionally. There is some attenuated hiss which can be heard in some quieter passages mid-film, but otherwise, there are no audio anomalies to distract from the listening experience.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Video Essay (26:33, HD): film historian Cari Beauchamp offers a mini-biography of director Dorothy Arzner and her work in films before focusing on Merrily We Go to Hell.
Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women (46:54, HD): a 1983 German documentary by Katja Raganelli and Konrad Wickler which offers views of Dorothy’s California homes and an interview with silent star Esther Ralston who reminisces about good and bad times working with the director.
Enclosed Pamphlet: contains a cast and crew list, brief information on the video and audio transfers, and a detailed essay by historian Judith Mayne on Dorothy Arzner’s career and an analysis of the film.
Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go to Hell offers a clear-eyed view of Hollywood’s ideas about marriage in the pre-code era. Criterion’s new Blu-ray presents the film in a beautiful new transfer with a few tasty supplements which focus on its undervalued female director during Hollywood’s early sound years.
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