Criterion Review: MERRILY WE GO TO HELL

Dorothy Arzner’s tenth film is a romantic pre-code drama about love and open marriage

In director Dorothy Arzner’s last film at Paramount, Merrily We Go to Hell, pretty heiress Joan (Sylvia Sidney) falls for heavy-drinking reporter Jerry (Fredric March). She’s besotted with him, and he likes her well enough, often telling her, “You’re swell.” So they marry, and her dad warns her not to be a “doormat.” After Joan finds out Jerry is again involved with a past girlfriend, she tells him it’s fine, as long as he’s okay with her hooking up with other men.

The script is heavy-handed with the melodrama, and the storytelling is a tad clunky, but there are still merits to this film from 1932. Sidney practically glows in her costumes–her slinky gowns were a standout for this viewer–and her eyes radiate emotion, be it sadness, realization, or adoration for her husband. I wanted more from her point-of-view; Merrily We Go to Hell spends a large amount of time with Jerry’s side of the story.

March’s performance is fine here, but it’s nothing like his powerful work in later film, The Best Years of Our Lives, where his character also has alcoholic tendencies. He’s dashing and charming enough that Joan’s infatuation is understandable, but Jerry is not quite compelling enough to keep this viewer’s attention for long. I was happy to learn that March made a few movies under Arzner — that seems especially noteworthy for the period.

In Cari Beauchamp’s video essay which accompanies the Criterion Blu-ray release of Merrily We Go to Hell, we learn that this was one of the movies that led to the eventual enforcement of the Hays Code. Of course, the open marriage angle is going to be disruptive, particularly when it’s the character of the wife who suggests it. And we are shown Joan flirting and enjoying herself with other fellows — a dapper young Cary Grant among them. It may lack the fire and wit of her Dance, Girl, Dance, but Merrily We Go to Hell is nonetheless a notable work from Dorothy Arzner and Paramount.

The Criterion BluRay package for Merrily We Go to Hell includes:

  • a newly restored 4K digital transfer
  • the above-mentioned video essay from film historian Cari Beauchamp, which delves into Arzner’s biography and how she worked her way up to film directing her first film in 1927 and gives more background on this, her 10th film
  • Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women, a German documentary from 1983, which has filmmaker Katja Raganelli visiting Arzner’s past estate and interviewing friends, neighbors, and others she worked with
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