"Merrily We Go to Hell," a 1932 Paramount production starring Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney, is one of 6 movies featured in the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection released earlier this month by Universal.
Nothing I love more than a good pre-code movie, except a whole box set of them, and bonus for me, I'd never seen any of the 6 films prior to purchase. "Merrily We Go to Hell" was my second venture inside this box, and so far, well, I'm not so merry. I'd started out with "Search for Beauty" (1934), coming to the conclusion that my choice had given this set a pretty good hole to dig out of right from the starting gate. Well, "Merrily We Go to Hell" doesn't dig it any deeper, but at the same time it doesn't do much in the other direction either.
Directed by Dorothy Arzner, "Merrily We Go to Hell" is best described as ordinary for the first 60 of its 84 minute run time. The only thing lifting it during that hour are the performances of March and Sidney, and certainly if you're a fan of either than you really must see it.
March's Jerry is drunk in the opening scene when he meets Sidney's Joan, whose sympathetic glances convey right from the start that she's going to do her best to reform this poor soul. It's love at first sight for Joan, though honestly I don't know why. While charming, Jerry is obviously tanked and much more likely to be stepped over at a party than propped up.
Now keep in mind that Joan is not only young and gorgeous, but that her father is incredibly wealthy, and perhaps you'll understand why I missed what caused her complete subservience to Jerry and his demons. He's late for their first date immediately souring his position with Joan's father. After their engagement he's not only late for their Announcement Party, but he's so incredibly drunk that his pal, Buck (Skeets Gallagher), can't rouse him from the car. At the wedding he searches for the ring, then awkwardly handles it until it is safely on Joan's hand--in one of the more clever moments of the film, as they exit from the Church Joan opens her hand to reveal a corkscrew in her palm, the ringed portion at the top slipped over her finger.
But Joan takes it all in stride. She gets Jerry onto the wagon once and for all and the now sober journalist applies himself to his writing and manages to get his first play accepted for production. The hitch, starring in the play is Jerry's ex, Claire (Adrianne Allen), who left him broken-hearted and presumably is the one who put the bottle in his hand. Within moments of their professional meeting Jerry, after just telling the producer that he was clean, takes Claire's drink from her hands and goes to work on it. Across the room Joan reintroduces those sad eyes from the opening scene.
So where's the sin, the sex, the little forbidden touch from 1932 which put "Merrily We Go to Hell" into this box set? At the one hour mark I'm wondering this myself. After all, I didn't like "Search for Beauty," but I certainly couldn't deny its debauchery. That flick reeked of sex, it's problem was that it wallowed in it, playing it up to the point where the sin became the only worthwhile part of the picture. "Merrily We Go to Hell" is a bit more subtle.
On back of the box set the synopsis for "Merrily We Go to Hell" reads "An abusive alcoholic reunites with a woman from his past and drives his wife to drastic measures." I've gotten you up to the drastic measures. Right when I was on the cusp of completely giving up on Joan as a pathetic enabler, she casts aside her grandmother's ways and decides to take the trip to hell along with Jerry. More accurately, separately from him. In her own words to about a half dozen male admirers, including a young Cary Grant appearing here in a very small role:
Gentleman, I give you the holy state of matrimony, modern style: single lives, twin beds, and triple bromides in the morning.
Joan embarks on her liberation, though while she plays you can tell there's something holding her back from going all the way. Even at a party with separate companions, Joan's eyes drift to Jerry, and while you're pretty sure of it from the start there's no doubt at this point that the couple will wind up reunited. Of course, things have to get worse before they get better again, and "Merrily We Go to Hell" goes beyond traumatic to tragic by the time we reach the end credits.
Based on the Cleo Lucas play "I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan," and adapted for the screen by Edwin Justus Mayer, "Merrily We Go to Hell" was directed by Dorothy Arzner, who the packaging claims elevates the film through her symapathtic treatement of both main characters. It's my opinion she went a bit easy on Jerry and let Joan suffer in silence for too long, her only reward throughout being Jerry's constant reminder that she was "swell."
As mentioned, both stars are excellent, and really so too are the rest of the cast led by Gallagher as Jerry's pal at the paper, Buck. Esther Howard is good as Jerry and Buck's drinking companion, Vi, though she develops into a bit of a nuisance as Joan's guidance on relationships. I didn't think much of Adrianne Allen as the other woman, Claire, but I don't think I was supposed too. George Irving was very good as Joan's protective father. Way down on the cast list you'll find character actor Robert Greig who probably has the funniest moment in the film as the sought-after baritone. Cary Grant is only around for a few minutes, but this is his first year in Hollywood and he's not anyone to be concerned with yet.
Worth watching once, yes, the last 20-25 minutes were very good and left me wondering what would come next. A second time, I doubt it.
Fredric March is pictured at the top right of the page as card #19 from the 1933 United Kingdom Tobacco Company series of Cinema Stars tobacco cards. Sylvia Sidney is pictured on the left of the page on card #4 from the 1935 Carreras Famous Film Stars set. Both tobacco card issues originated from Great Britain.
Below March is shown on a 1934 Dixie Premium Photo. The popular Dixie Premiums were collected upon redemption of 12 Dixie Ice Cream Lids, making them much rarer than the lids themselves as well as more attractive and easier to display. The 1934 black & white premiums measured 9" X 12" and were composed of two separate sheets.