Merrily We Go to Hell is the second feature from pioneering director Dorothy Arzner to come out from Criterion in the past year. Arzner was the only woman who directed films during the heyday of classic Hollywood, with Ida Lupino finally directing a film in 1949. She started out in the silent era, which actually had a slew of women directors. However, with the increasing commercialisation of Hollywood films and the advent of sound, they were soon generally limited to other roles, such as screenwriter, editor or costume designer, etc.
This film in particular is a pre-code version of what I guess you would call a “dramedy” today. It’s not quite a screwball comedy, but it’s not unfunny, and it has a more dramatic arc. Sylvia Sidney plays Joan Prentice, an heiress, who meets Jerry Corbett (Fredric March), a Chicago reporter, playwright and serious alcoholic. It plays very much like a proto-Days of Wine and Roses or Lost Weekend, where this couple obviously love each other but his alcoholism may bring them both down. Joan is idealistic and hopeful, and Jerry is acynical lost soul.
It’s unmistakably pre-code, not just with the alcoholism but with essentially depicting a open marriage: Joan proclaims she will have a “modern marriage” and she will also have affairs. Cary Grant appears in one of his earliest roles, a tiny part where he plays the man she starts an affair with, and you can tell he already has the trademark movie-star charm that he retained till his dying day. It may be formally quite conventional, which is probably why Arzner was able to succeed in the industry at the time, but Sylvia Sidney has the much meatier role as this headstrong independent woman, although March is excellent as well.
Merrily We Go to Hell may feel slightly rushed at points and has a happy/sad ending that feels a little tacked on—but it’s a movie, after all. It’s a film that’s both of its short pre-code period, but also ahead of its time: you can certainly see parallels with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Arzner herself was very ahead of her time, because she an openly butch lesbian in Hollywood in the ’30s who lived with her long-time companion, Marion Morgan, from 1930 till her death in 1971. Hopefully this won’t be the last Arzner film Criterion releases, because The Wild Party desperately needs a re-release. That was both Clara Bow’s first talkie and also the film where Azrner essentially invented the boom mic!
Criterion’s disc includes the documentary Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women, a documentary made soon after Arzner’s death. It’s a mixture of German narration, clips from her films and a few interviews with people close to Arzner. It’s a rough around the edges, but a valuable document. Cari Beauchamp supplies a video essay about Merrily We Go to Hell and Arzner’s work at large. The essay in the booklet is by film scholar Judith Mayne.