Monday, January 9, 2023

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Merrily We Go to Hell is a 1932 Paramount pre-code movie directed by Dorothy Arzner. It’s a romantic melodrama with some humour and while it does address a serious issue (alcoholism) it does so in a characteristically pre-code way.

Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) is a newspaper columnist. He’s fairly successful despite his prodigious intake of liquor. He dreams of being a real writer. He wants to write plays. What with writing his columns and drinking he has trouble finding the time to settle down to serious writing.

One night at a party Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) catches his eye. He takes a liking to her. She likes him as well. He’s amusing and charming, even though he’s very drunk.

They meet again and things start getting fairly serious between them. They decide that getting married would be a fine thing to do.

Joan is the heiress to a vast food-canning fortune. Her father doesn’t approve of the match. He assumes that Jerry is just after Joan’s money. He figures that if he offers Jerry a lot of money to call the wedding off Jerry will jump at the offer. Jerry refuses the money. Mr Prentice decides that maybe Jerry really does love his daughter. He’s still not happy about the marriage but he gives them his blessing.

After the marriage Jerry seems to be a reformed character. He stops drinking. He finishes his play.

Instead of the acclaim that he hoped for all the play gets him is a pile of rejection notices. And then finally it gets accepted. It’s going to be produced. Jerry looks like being a success, and his marriage looks like being a success as well.

There’s one fly in the ointment. The star of the play will be Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen). Claire is the woman who broke Jerry’s heart a couple of years earlier. In fact she’s one of the main reasons he took refuge in the bottle.

Maybe it will be OK. Maybe Jerry is over Claire. But as soon as he meets her again he knows that he isn’t over her.

Jerry knows what the answer to his problem is. He crawls back inside the bottle.

Jerry’s instinctive response to any kind of setback or any kind of pressure is to get drunk. The idea of facing up to problems or trying to solve them doesn’t seem to occur to him. He’s a nice enough and he can be very charming and he means well but he’s never met a problem he hasn’t wanted to run away from.

Jerry is clearly obsessed with Claire all over again. Joan comes up with a solution, and it’s a very pre-code solution - an open marriage. Jerry can fool around with Claire as long as Joan gets to fool around with other men. Their lives become one long round of parties, night-clubs, booze and sex. Joan is a modern girl. She can handle an arrangement like this. At least she thinks she can. Of course there are some melodramatic twists still to come.

I’ve never been much of a fan of Fredric March but he’s pretty good in this film. He resists the temptation to overact and he captures both Jerry’s charm and his weakness extremely well.

Sylvia Sidney is excellent. She also resists any temptation to overact. She’s likeable and charming and convincing as a young woman facing the realisation that her marriage is about to crash and burn.

I liked Skeets Gallagher as Jerry’s loyal pal Buck. He could have been made a mere comic relief character but fortunately that temptation is avoided.

Look out for Cary Grant in a bit part.

There are those who assume that Dorothy Arzner was the first successful woman director in Hollywood but in fact that honour belongs to Lois Weber who had a notable career as a director between 1911 and 1934.

The self-appointed moral policemen at the time who were outraged by pre-code movies and who eventually forced rigid censorship upon the movies had no doubts in their minds that these movies were a deliberate attempt to undermine traditional morality. In fact that was never really true. Most pre-code movies come down on the side of traditional morality. Mostly they come down on the side of marriage. If they were advocating anything it was a more flexible and forgiving and humane version of traditional morality. Maybe people who break the social rules don’t have to suffer savage punishments. But that in itself horrified the moral policemen who had no interest in a more flexible, forgiving, humane version of traditional morality. Moral policemen enjoy punishing people.

When you actually watch a movie like Merrily We Go to Hell you have to wonder how on earth anyone could interpret it as undermining marriage and the family.

This movie is one of the six included in the Universal Backlot Pre-Code Collection DVD boxed set, a set that is well worth purchasing.

Merrily We Go to Hell has lots of pre-code naughtiness but like a lot of pre-code movies it mixes licentiousness with a grown-up awareness that sex and fun have emotional implications. It also mixes pre-code flexible morality with traditional melodrama. It’s a pretty good little movie and it’s recommended.

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