Classic Corner: Merrily We Go to Hell

Nothing kills the allure of an open marriage like your wife rolling into the club at one in the morning with Cary Grant. But I suppose some lessons have to be learned the hard way. Perpetually soused newspaper-man-turned-blockbuster-playwright Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) takes longer than most to get things though his gin-soaked head; too long, as it happens, in this 1932 drama from director Dorothy Arzner. Leading the audience on with sozzled pratfalls and the kind of cheerful decadence at which early Hollywood excelled –at least until Catholic censors and the Hays Code crashed the party— Merrily We Go to Hell is a sneaky, suckerpunch of a movie. You coast along on the picture’s airy, irreverent pleasures until the bottom drops out of this doomed romance between an alcoholic destined to disappoint and a woman trying too hard to make the best of things. 

Played by an incandescent Sylvia Sidney, Joan Prentice is a naive young heiress who finds herself instantly smitten with our shitfaced star. She’s at a high society party where she’d hoped to rub elbows with the city’s cultured intelligentsia, only to discover that they’re all too drunk to carry on a conversation. (Prohibition was still the law of the land. You can tell because almost everyone in the movie is an alcoholic.) Out on the balcony for air, Joan meets March’s courtly, blotto Jerry – a would-be man of letters who can’t stop slurring about how “swell” he thinks she is. The film takes its title from a toast Jerry offers every time he raises yet another glass, acknowledging his inevitable damnation, but happily so. Somehow, she’s charmed.

We are too, in spite of ourselves. Jerry’s a charming guy. He can be pretty sloppy but when he gets it together, he’s together enough that you can understand why the right woman would think she can fix him. Joan certainly seems like the right woman. Sidney glows with girlish infatuation, covering for his constant screwups under the weary eye of her unimpressed, millionaire father (George Irving) who has seen far too many guys like Jerry in his time. But every attempt to split them up only brings the couple closer together. We’re also rooting for these two kids to make it work, even when Jerry’s too drunk to attend their engagement party, or when he loses the wedding ring before the ceremony and has to substitute a corkscrew.

Success has a way of exacerbating such things, which is what happens when a play our new husband penned becomes the toast of Broadway. The cast is headed by his ex-girlfriend (Adrianne Allen), Jerry’s other Achilles’ Heel and perhaps even more poisonous than alcohol. (His best friend sizes her up by saying, “What this country needs is fewer blondes.”) Claire didn’t think much of Jerry back when he was a broke reporter, but now that he’s the talk of the town she can’t seem to keep her hands off him. Joan has little patience for all these messy parties and infidelities, but what’s a girl to do? She declares that they’re a modern couple who make their own rules, telling Jerry she’d “rather go merrily to Hell with you than alone.”

It’s heartbreaking to watch the forced conviviality with which both parties play along with the arrangement – especially Sidney’s Joan, feigning a chic amorality that’s obviously eating her up inside. She’s especially unconvincing when citing her recipe for a successful modern marriage: “Single lives, twin beds and triple bromides in the morning.” She might be able to fool these stumbling partygoers, but Arzner’s camera lingers long enough on Sidney’s sad eyes for us to see right through her.

Meanwhile, Jerry may seem like he’s living a male fantasy – staying married to the woman you love while sleeping with the ex you never got over – but watch his reaction when his wife walks in with Cary Grant on her arm. (In only his third credited screen appearance, it takes a single scene for the ninth-billed, future Hollywood legend to become a formidable foil.) Jerry’s more of a helpless, pathetic drunk than a mean or violent one, but there’s still a strong sense of March doing a riff on his performance in the previous year’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This time, however, the story is scarier and sadder because it’s closer to real life. 

Released two years before Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship guidelines would render this story unfilmable for the next few decades, Merrily We Go to Hell has a bracingly grown-up sophistication that’s still missing from most movies made 90 years later. One need only look around at the infantilization of our current culture to wonder how things might have worked out had the censors never gotten their way. Would this be a healthier world if subjects like sex and substance abuse were allowed to be addressed openly in entertainment for adults? Or were they right that the movies would have merrily gone to hell?

“Merrily We Go to Hell” is now streaming on the Criterion Collection.

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