Saturday, 4 April 2015

Pre-Code Blogathon: "Merrily We Go To Hell" (1932)

Directed by: Dorothy Arzner

Writing Credits:
Cleo Lucas (novel)
Edwin Justus Mayer (screenplay)

Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March, Adrianne Allen, Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher, George Irving, Esther Howard.

Released by: Paramount

"Gentlemen, I give you the holy state of matrimony, modern style: single lives, twin beds and triple bromides in the morning"

During the glorious studio years of Hollywood, there was only one major female director; Dorothy Arzner. Her career began in 1919, where she was hired as a typist at the Famous Players-Lasky studios (later Paramount). From typing, she graduated to script-writing and editing, before directing her first feature film in 1927 (the silent drama Fashions for Women). Unfortunately, most of the prominent female silent film director's lost their place in the industry once talking pictures were introduced. Arzner is the notable exception. Her directing career began only seven months before the release of The Jazz Singer- the film that would change the cinematic landscape forever. As a result, Arzner directed only three silent films before making a successful transition to "talkies", the only female director to do so. 

During her first years directing at Paramount, Arzner was fortunate enough to work with the iconic screen siren, Clara Bow, on two occasions. Most notably, Arzner directed Bow in her first talking picture, The Wild Party (1929). Seeing that her star was visibly agitated by the technical changes the "talkies" invokedArzner decided to put a microphone on the end of a fishing pole, allowing Bow to move freely throughout the set, without limitations. This makeshift device was the first incarnation of the boom microphone. While Arzner didn't patent her device, she is credited as the inventor of, what we refer to today simply as, the 'boom mic'.

Dorothy Arzner and Clara Bow in on the set of The Wild Party (1929).

After more than two decades (and 10 feature films), Arzner decided to leave Paramount in 1932 and, for the remainder of her career in Hollywood, worked as a freelance director. Judith Mayne, author of Directed by Dorothy Arzner, noted of her decision to leave that, despite giving her a contract extension in 1931, Paramount demanded Arzner take a pay cut the following year (a pay cut that was mandatory for all Paramount staff). Also contributing to her decision to leave was the departure of production head B.P. Schulburg, who had been responsible for Arzner's first contract at the studio. 

In the years that followed, her career was nowhere near as successful or prosperous as it had been at Paramount in the 1930's. However, this period provided Arzner with creative independence and, as a result, she was afforded the opportunity of working with some of the most talented actresses of the time; Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball. While no definitive reason has been given for her eventual retirement from filmmaking in 1943, there were several contributing factors which lead to her departure from Hollywood. After last minute script changes altered her original vision for the 1937 film The Bride Wore Red, Arzner became increasingly selective about which projects she tackled, which lead to Louis B. Mayer labeling her as "too difficult" (the ultimate death-nail for a career in Hollywood). It was three years before Arzner would step behind the camera again. RKO began production on Dance, Girl, Dance in 1940 with Director Roy Del Ruth at the helm. After two weeks, Ruth walked off the picture, citing creative differences, and RKO hired Dorothy Arzner as his replacement. The film, starring Maureen O'Hara, Lucille Ball and Louis Hayward, was a critical and commercial failure (though it is fondly remembered today, especially by feminist film critics). 

Her next (and ultimately last) film came three years later- Columbia's First Comes Courage (1943). Despite receiving full directorial credit for the film, Arzner pulled out half-way through production due to a bout of pleurisy, and First Comes Courage was completed by Charles Vidor (who would go on to direct such classics as Cover Girl (1944), Gilda (1946), Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and The Swan (1956). Through the course of her career, Arzner directed only 17 feature films and, while none of them reached the financial success of Gone with the Wind (1939) or the critical success of Citizen Kane (1941), her considerable contribution to filmmaking cannot be denied. In an industry dominated by men, Arzner's intelligence (she was studying Medicine at University before she came to Hollywood) and business savvy allowed her to prosper. When she got behind the camera, her work represented the changing values of society, especially in regards to the representation of women on-screen.

Unlike her more progressive male counterparts (George Cukor, Howard Hawks, George Stevens and Leo McCarey are just a few director's who averted gender stereotypes and consistently presented women in an equal- and sometimes superior- light to their male co-stars), Arzner didn't just present her female characters as "strong", "self-assured" and "independent". There's nothing wrong with a strong, independent woman- but Arzner didn't allow those qualities to define the female gender. She played with the expectations of a "modern woman" (which was re-enforced during the pre-code era) and showed audiences that a true modern woman is an individual and- you guessed it- every individual is different. Most importantly, through her filmmaking, she demonstrated that vulnerability isn't always a weakness. You can be strong, but also vulnerable where matters of the heart are concerned- and that's not a bad thing. Which brings us to Merrily We Go To Hell....

"The only thing worse than a drunkard is a reformed drunkard"

While this is a film review, in my opinion, it is impossible to discuss Merrily We Go To Hell without first discussing it's director, Dorothy Arzner. The experience of watching this film is undoubtedly enhanced by the knowledge that a woman was sitting behind the camera lens, directing every scene. On the surface, this is a typical pre-code drama about sexual promiscuity and alcoholism. While uncommon after 1934, this particular subject matter was readily tackled in the early 1930's and, in my opinion, the Edwin Justus Mayer screenplay does nothing to set it apart from such era-defining films as The Divorcee (1930), Red-Headed Woman (1932) and, what many believe to be the pre-eminent example of a pre-code film, Baby Face (1933). What makes Merrily We Go to Hell memorable is it's unmistakable feminine aesthetic, influenced (of course) by Arzner's direction. 

Look, I'll admit it- Dorothy Arzner was not the greatest filmmaker of all-time, nor was she even the best filmmaker of her era. Of her 17 films, only a handful are fondly remembered today (with the 1940 film Dance, Girl, Dance standing above the rest). She was never nominated for an Oscar and her films never won Best Picture (nor were they even nominated). However, her films are unmistakably unique and deserve considerable commentary, regardless of her gender. Arzner never considered herself a feminist- yet there is something unmistakably feminine about her films. I think David Thomson's (rather blunt) summation in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film expresses her influence much better than I ever could;

"She was not a great filmmaker, and her pioneering should not inflate her reputation. But she turned out some fascinating pictures and clearly was able to pursue a personal, if undoctrinaire, interest in the issue of 'women's identity'".

There is no doubt that Merrily We Go To Hell is a better film under her direction, whether indirectly or directly. Her sensitivity and discretion in dealing with the film's "pre-code" material is evident throughout. There is no sexually explicit material, nor is there any nudity. Arzner never panders to the expectations of her audience (who were, it's fair to say, largely female since Merrily We Go To Hell was essentially classified as a "woman's film"), always putting the characters and their motivations front and center. The performances by Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March are exceptional and, under Arzner's direction, they save this film from certain mediocrity. 

Merrily We Go to Hell follows alcoholic writer Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) and his relationship with socialite Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney). They meet at a party and, despite Jerry's inebriated condition, Joan falls madly in love with him and the pair are shortly thereafter married. Despite promising to remain sober once they are married, Jerry finds his way back to the bottle when ex-girlfriend (and "the one that got away"), Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen), comes back into his life. Distraught by Jerry's obvious feelings for another women, Joan decides that the pair should experiment with a "modern marriage"; indulging in both sex and alcohol, without worrying about each others' feelings.

The plot is very risque, even for a pre-code film. While the film never directly shows the act, sex is alluded to on several occasions. One prominent example is during a crowded party scene, when Joan emerges from a guest bedroom, casually fixing her make-up, with a handsome actor in tow (played by a man who knew a thing or two about being a handsome actor; Cary Grant). Despite the salacious subject material, Merrily We Go to Hell never feels as though it's being risque just for the sake of being risque. From the very beginning, Joan's promiscuity is not recognized as an unleashing of her repressed sexuality, but rather as a desperate (and somewhat misguided) attempt to save her marriage. The performance by Sylvia Sidney, as she struggles with her new life as a "modern married woman", is absolutely heart-wrenching. She plays every scene to perfection, maximizing the brutal impact of Jerry's indifference to her suffering.

I think what makes Sidney's performance so powerful and strong is that, ultimately, she isn't afraid to look vulnerable. Joan loves Jerry and all of her actions throughout the film are a direct result of that love. She orchestrates their. essentially, open marriage in order to regain Jerry's affections, manipulating his philandering and alcoholism in a misguided attempt to make him jealous. As a result, Joan suffers unimaginable pain- and yet she proceeds because she recognizes that it's the only way to save her crumbling marriage. Joan abandons her principles and succumbs to a life of sexual promiscuity- all in the name of love. This powerful, strong, intelligent and vulnerable female characterization is a direct result of Arzner's influence.There is a reason formidable actresses (such as Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford) wanted to work with her. Arzner subverted the filmic expectations of female characterizations and allowed her women to be living, breathing, realistic human beings. Arzner may not have been a great director, but the way women are consistently represented in her films deserves commendation and respect.

I think this film's portrayal of alcoholism also needs to be commended. Thanks to Fredric March's gripping portrayal, the character of Jerry never feels fake, stereotypical or overplayed. He is a man struggling with addiction and Merrily We Go to Hell never sensationalizes that fact. Jerry is exposed for all his flaws and weaknesses and, as the film progresses, the audience gets to see him recognize his failings as both a husband and a man (and, ultimately, improve upon himself). While this film is predominately about Joan's love, strength and perseverance, Jerry's constant attempts at redemption and recovery are just as captivating (again, in large part due to March's wonderful performance). 

Fredric March thrived during the pre-code era because of his considerable versatility and range as an actor. Because of his intense, dark eyes and chiseled facial features, he was a convincing and likable leading man- even when his character was a downright heel! He could be an alcoholic, a womanizer and even a murderer, and yet the audience could (and would) still root for his redemption (see his Oscar-winning performance in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)). In Merrily We Go to Hell, Jerry constantly treats Joan with utter disdain and contempt- and yet the audience still wants to see them end up together (I know I did!). It's what made Fredric March such a valuable commodity in Hollywood, especially during the pre-code era (when screenplays and characterizations were much more explicit). No matter how flawed or how seemingly irredeemable he was, Fredric March could always win over his audience (especially in the early 1930's, when he was at the peak of his talent and beauty).

Buoyed by the sensitive, unmistakably feminine direction of Dorothy Arzner, this film shines as a captivating example of what the pre-code era could (and frequently did) produce. While I wouldn't say it was a great film, it is an enjoyable film with realistic and relatable characters (despite the more than 80 years since it's release) and I could definitely see myself returning to Merrily We Go To Hell for repeat viewings in the future.

My Rating

More Screencaps

The post is part of Pre-Code Blogathon hosted by and Shadows and Satin;

Resources: Directed by Dorothy Arzner by Judith Mayne (1994), Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century, Volume 5 by Susan Ware (2004), Feminist Film Studies by Karen Hollinger (2012), Women Directors and Their Films by Mary G. Hurd (2007), Feminism and Film Theory by Constance Penley (2013), The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson (2004), Dangerous Men: Pre-Code and the Birth of the Modern Man by Mick LaSalle (2014).


  1. I greatly enjoyed this first-rate post -- the information on Dorothy Arzner was new to me and much appreciated, as were your insights on the film. And I'm in total agreement with your assessments of the characters played by Sidney and March. Thanks so much for this contribution to the blogathon!

    1. No, thank you so much for hosting such a fun event! I absolutely loved being a part of it and I'm so glad you enjoyed my contribution :)

  2. Thank you for sharing your research on director Dorothy Arzner, about whom I knew nothing! I'm keen to learn more about her, now that I've read your excellent post.

    P.S. I had to do a double-take when I saw the title to your post/this film. I was a little surprised at the cheeky title.

    1. Thank you so much, I'm so glad you enjoyed my post. I didn't know anything about her until I watched this film- she was a fascinating individual and a rarity in the film industry at the time. Thanks again :)

  3. I've been doing a lot of Arzner research so it was great to read your take on this film - which I haven't seen yet. Agree that she wasn't the best filmmaker - and a lot of her respect and accolades have been earned retrospectively - but she certainly was in a unique position to depict women on screen in a totally different way. I can see why actresses of the day were queueing up to work with her.

    1. Exactly, I completely agree with you on Arzner. Have you read Judith Mayne's biography on Arzner? I think she paints her as a much better filmmaker than she was- however, her work does deserve considerable merit. Considering the utter lack of female director's of the time, her films are fascinating (if only for her depiction of the female identity). Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment :)

  4. Hi. I'm a classic film blogger and quite often host blogathons. I'm holding another one next year and would like to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details

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