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  Merrily We Go to Hell Don't Marry Drunk
Year: 1932
Director: Dorothy Arzner
Stars: Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March, Adrianne Allen, Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher, George Irving, Esther Howard, Florence Britton, Charles Coleman, Cary Grant, Kent Taylor, Dennis O’Keefe, Theresa Harris
Genre: Comedy, Drama, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) is a newspaperman who, like many of his ilk, likes a jar or three to get him through the day - and the night. When he attends a friend's party one evening, he is getting himself pleasantly sozzled on the apartment's balcony when he notices he is not alone, as there is a pretty girl there too. She is Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney), and they strike up a conversation, she amused by his good humour and candour that he is inebriated. Eventually, after a kiss that surprises them both, she is called away, but she does leave Jerry her number... at the mansion of her coffee baron father where she stays.

There were plenty of women directing films in the early silent era, and even more writing them, but for some reason as the studio system in Hollywood especially began to establish itself, movie direction turned into a boys' club come the mid-nineteen-twenties and would stay that way for decades. Some would say it largely still is, despite more female voices making themselves heard, but in the main sticking to the indie circuits rather than the mainstream, though the tide began to turn in the twenty-first century. However, one pioneer who many look to as proof a woman can operate successfully in the system would be Dorothy Arzner.

Her real cult movie would be her last, the musical drama Dance, Girl Dance, after which she moved onto other concerns, but if there was a second place film she made that generated interest now, it would be Merrily We Go to Hell, a melodramatic vehicle for the early thirties queen of the weepies, Sylvia Sidney. Blessed with sensitive features that made her a natural for tragic roles, at times to her chagrin, she resembled a star of almost a century later, Amanda Seyfried (she looked more like Sidney than Marion Davies, for example), but audiences liked to watch her suffer, never happier when Sylvia was in tears. Such is the strangeness of stardom.

This was a Pre-Code effort, therefore snuck in before the Hays Code put their foot down on subjects such as open marriages as featured here, and they certainly would not have allowed that title (in Britain the word Hell was deleted outright!). In the plot, this comes about when Jerry and Joan have married, against her father's wishes since he can tell it doesn't matter how much his daughter loves the writer, he is a lush and probably irredeemable. He may be correct about that, but this dawning realisation arrives after half an hour of romantic comedy that creeps in the awful warning about alcoholism as it progresses. But it was as much wrapped up in the potentially doomed love story as it was an addiction yarn.

It resembled something like the later Days of Wine and Roses, and even in a funny kind of way those eighties road to ruin dramas like Bright Lights, Big City or Less Than Zero, maybe not accomplished as artworks, but summing up the way in which a certain class of young American liked to see themselves for their era. Sidney and March enjoyed good chemistry, and interesting in light of March's performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the year before to compare the two, since they both employed deteriorating personalities; also, they were both daring Pre-Code items, this pushing the envelope through its depiction on Jerry and Joan seeing other people with their own agreement while still wedded. While there was nothing explicit, we could tell all those wild parties included more than just drinking, though Arzner directed throughout with a great sympathy for the central couple, leading up to a strange, intimate, open ending triggered by tragedy that may see things work out, or may not.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with these special features:

New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women, a 1983 documentary by Katja Raganelli and Konrad Wickler
New video essay by film historian Cari Beauchamp
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by film scholar Judith Mayne

New cover by Sonia Kretschmar.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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