The camera glides across the Chicago skyline, glistening lights twinkling in the darkness, before the camera glides down to a roof-top party and comes to rest at the lonely table of Jerry (Fredric Marsh), a drunken reporter and aspiring playwright who is hiding behind a wall of empty whiskey bottles. After spying the delightful Joan (Sylvia Sidney) the two hit it off and fall in love. Jerry thinks Joan is “swell”, even if he can’t quite recognise her face after several drinks, and Joan finds Jerry sweet and charming, even if he can’t quite recognise her face after several drinks.
Jerry and Joan decide to marry although Joan’s wealthy, yet sensitive, father is concerned about both Jerry’s lack of income (like most reporters, he doesn’t earn much) and alcohol consumption (like most reporters, he’s a drunk). Joan’s father relents but tells his daughter that she must never be a doormat for her husband.
When Jerry finally has one of his plays commissioned, and especially when the leading lady turns out to be Jerry’s ex-lover (and reason for his drinking), Joan is, inevitably, pushed aside. The only solution is for her to leave her husband. Yet maybe there is another solution? After all, Joan was told to never be a doormat so what would happen if she embraced that, fully, and stood up for herself in this marriage? What would happen if Joan and Jerry accepted their flaws and had a “modern marriage” where anything goes? Sure, Joan’s grandmother would be shocked at Joan and Jerry sleeping around, taking lovers and partying but this is the 1930’s and monogamy is so old fashioned, don’t you think?
And so Joan and Jerry attempt to have their cake and eat it by swinging, yet is this what both parties truly want or is this still Joan being a doormat, just simply now one that’s twisted itself up beyond recognition to accommodate her husband’s selfishness?
Watch ‘Merrily We Got to Hell’ and find out!
Addiction, alcoholism, infidelity, betrayal, polyamory, sexual fluidity and debauchery mean that Dorothy Arzner’s ‘Merrily We Go to Hell’ (1932) is “modern” feeling enough as it is, although what really gives this movie its power, its shock, is how Arzner handles this material and she does so with incredible skill, intelligence and brutal emotional honesty. Nothing here is black or white and everyone has depth, even if Arzner never lets anyone off the hook.
Take Jerry, for example. He’s a massive red flag and the type of man every woman should avoid or, more often than not, has actually dated. Jerry has delusions of grandeur (he’s the grown man who still wants to be a famous rock star or whatever — you know the type), is solipsistic, selfish, weak, insecure and emotionally constipated. In short, he’s a typical guy, the type of desperate male often portrayed as flawed but cute by male writers and directors (‘High Fidelity’?) but women know should be avoided like the plague or, at least, be forced to undergo some form of maturation process before even going out on a first date with.
Fortunately Arzner never turns Jerry, or anyone for that matter, into a monster. Indeed, we’re often on his side, our hearts breaking when we see him manipulated back into his old habits. At one point he gives up drinking (yay!) only for his ex, who knows exactly what she’s doing, to ask him to hold her drink and as soon as the glass is in his hands we know his fate is sealed, and not just in terms of his drinking (argh!).
What also keeps ‘Merrily We Got to Hell’ bubbling along is the comedy which is frequently hilarious, especially in its depiction of love, sex and marriage. When Jerry finally has his play put on we see the title for the first time, blazing in flashing lights above the theatre, and I almost spat my drink out when I saw it was titled “When Women Say ‘No’ — A Satirical Comedy by Gerald Corbett”. This film contains a lot of sublimely executed humour; the search round the speakeasies of Chicago for a baritone is a perfect example.
This is down to Arzner’s direction which is energetic, stylish and focused on human psychology like a highly trained sniper. One minute there’ll be a sweeping crane shot of technical ingenuity that would make William Wellman green with envy, the next the camera is almost surreptitiously peering round the corner of a door at a party and observing a room full of people cavort, flirt, kiss with an easy naturalism, leaving them alone to do their thing. The feel is so modern, so caught on the fly, that if I had to draw a comparison then I’d be reached for someone like Cassavetes. Just look at how she orchestrates the extras and actors and the background to see how she brings life to all this, a panning shot of men and women sprawled out at a nightclub after too much hedonism being another great example.
The ending is a kick to the guts, practically coming out of nowhere, yet it doesn’t feel unearned, cheap or tacked-on as we experience a shattering shock the way Jerry does. This shock leads to something quite remarkable — we see a transformation taking place as Jerry and Joan become two real people before our very eyes. It’s devastating, heart-breaking but also a moment of true, and mature, love.
‘Merrily We Got to Hell’ is really quite something else. It bristles and throbs with life and has real psychological depth. You feel you are watching real people dealing with real problems in a real and believable way and are highly entertained whilst doing so. The set and costume design are gorgeous and there’s an early role for Cary Grant (we recognise that voice before we even see him) that’s fun to see.
This is a fantastic film and one that demonstrates not just how much Hollywood lost by the introduction of the Hays Code but also how much could have been gained by having more female directors making movies because from this evidence alone not only could Dorothy Arzner compete with the guys in terms of technical expertise but blows them out of the water when it comes to tackling affairs of the heart and loins. Just watch it and you’ll see what I mean.