Merrily We Go To Hell (1932)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1932. . Screenplay by , based on the story I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan by . Cinematography by . Music by , . Film Editing by .

Pre-code sophistication of the finest order, a film often cited for its dangerously immoral plotting which now just feels refreshingly honest.  A delightful Sylvia Sidney meets handsome newspaper columnist Fredric March at a party and they hit it off, she thinks he’s drunk because he’s having a good time and not because, as she later finds out, he has issues with the bottle.  He’s intimidated by the discovery that she’s the daughter of a wealthy tycoon, but gives up drinking for the sake of their future as they ignore her family’s objections and get married.  Their nuptials mean he can stop pounding the pavement as a reporter and stick to what he really loves, writing plays, but success on the stage brings him back to the drink and sees him openly cavorting with the actress who broke his heart before he and Sidney ever even met.  Sidney, realizing that she can’t force someone to be worthy of her, allows him to degrade himself and abandon her, amusing herself for a little while with young and handsome Cary Grant (in his third film); when March realizes the error of his ways, she refuses to give him a chance for forgiveness.  Another example of the intelligence with which Dorothy Arzner directed her films, this is a touching melodrama made very compelling by the wit and sophistication of the screenplay and performances.  I very much doubt a film would include a scene where a married man full-on kisses a woman in front of his wife a few years later with the Production Code in full effect; Arzner doesn’t avoid sympathizing with the pain it causes her leading lady, but the ease with which a divorce is allowed to linger in the air would not be permitted in the future, and the hint of a suggestion of menage-a-trois-ing does give the film a whiff of erotic taboo.  The focus, though, is on rooting for the relationship at the heart of the story, and giving such a real sense of people’s emotional attachments (and devastations) makes the familiar frame of Hollywood contrivance (*spoiler alert* happy ending) feel like a reward instead of any kind of narrative pandering.

The Criterion Collection:  #1076

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