Director: Dorothy Arzner
Starring: Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March
In the early days of Hollywood there was a relatively short period of time when there weren’t guidelines for the films being made. This is known as the Pre-Code era of Hollywood. Back then films would show promiscuity, violence, homosexuality and infidelity without censorship. This didn’t change until a group petitioned and campaigned for morally decent films, which re-enforced traditional values, causing the Motion Picture Production Code. It was introduced in 1930 but wasn’t enforced until July 1st, 1934. Merrily We Go to Hell, a romantic comedy directed by Dorothy Arzner is a pre-Code film, it tells a story full of alcoholism, adultery and a very sober view on marriage.
Dorothy Arzner (Who directed many films in the early era of Hollywood, including The Wild Party and Dance, Girl, Dance) is an important figure during the silent era and early sound era of Hollywood. She was the first woman to direct a sound film, and the first woman to join the Director’s Guild of America. On top of that, she had a great understanding of film and how to produce a film, getting the best out of her actors. She started her career as an editor of silent films, before moving onto direct. Her films are full of strong female characters that subvert expectations, and she is an early example of a feminist filmmaker. Later in her life, she would also work at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. While working there she ended up teaching Francis Ford Coppola, who would go on to champion her films and her role in his development as a filmmaker.
Merrily We Go to Hell is the story Jerry Corbett (Fredric March, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Best Years of Our Lives) an alcoholic journalist who wants to write plays. At a party, where he is sitting outside, away from the main room, he meets Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney, who had a long career from the silent era to Mars Attacks! In 1996, being nominated for an Oscar for Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams in 1973). Joan is the heiress to a large company. She falls for Jerry and against her father’s wishes they marry. Life starts off well, but with the success of Jerry’s play comes the resurgence of alcohol and their happy lives quickly unravel.
For a film that is almost 90 years old, it still works. The themes are still relevant, most of the jokes still laugh and the heart-breaking story still feels fresh. Arzner’s wonderful direction also brings out two great performances from the leads with great chemistry and a fantastic modern feel to the whole film.
The film is clearly a progressive film for it’s time, and because of that it still feels modern now. Joan is a very strong female character and it makes the film stand out, even when you compare it to films from almost a century later. This is the groundwork for a lot of rom-coms that would come later. The story may feel familiar and the plot points are obvious, coming at it from so long after the film was released, and that’s just a testament to how influential Arzner and her films have been.
The recent Criterion Collection release is also worth the price-tag. It comes with a booklet essay that details in depth analysis on the film and a visual essay on the disc, about Arzner, the history of the film and it’s place among early Hollywood. For anyone interested in the history of film and cinema, this is a must.
The comedy is still funny, and the tragedy is still emotional. If you can get over the black and white, and some dated references, then there is a lot to love about Merrily We Go to Hell. It still feels relevant and will whisk you away into a fanciful world, in a way that only Hollywood can.