erik lundegaard


Wednesday December 07, 2022

Movie Review: Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)


Did Sylvia Sidney always look at her leading man with such love in her eyes? Was that her schtick? I’m going off a small sample size: “City Streets” (1931) with Gary Cooper, and here with Frederic March.

Coop makes sense. He was the biggest romantic star of his day. Not that Freddy is tough to look at, either, but it’s not the same. Plus their characters don’t exactly meet cute.

Jerry Corbett, a cynical Chicago reporter, is hanging out on the balcony of a swanky party because he’s drunk, a misanthrope, and nursing a broken heart—a blonde named Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen). Joan Prentice, heiress to a tin-can fortune, shows up to prevent being pawed at, and for some reason she’s immediately taken with this sot. She turns that heart-shaped face and gee-whiz peepers his way and loves everything that slurs out of his mouth. And she nurses this relationship past her disapproving papa (George Irving) all the way to the altar. 

And then she’s shocked, shocked to discover that her husband is a drunken sot.

Open marriage
Addiction movies are rarely captivating. The addict gets better, then not. Maybe he hits bottom. In the final reel, if he survives, it’s almost always implied that he’s better for good now, when we all know there is no “for good.” But final reels are final reels. 

Once Jerry and Joan marry, he gives up the reporting game for playwrighting but he’s not exactly disciplined. We see him whining at the kitchen table, wondering if the two pages he’s written that day are enough. Amused, she tells him to keep going. And then his play gets rejected by everybody. For a second I was intrigued. Is he talentless, too? Where are they going with this failure?

To success, sadly. Someone finally agrees to produce his play, everyone loves it, and guess who becomes his leading lady? Ol’ Claire Hempstead. Throughout, Jerry has been off-and-on-again drunk, but Claire is bad news both ways: he falls for both her and drink again. At one point, drunk, he even calls Joan “Claire.” Eventually Joan can’t take it anymore and rather than reform him she reverts to him: She begins to drink and fool around herself.

That’s the modern shocker—and intrigue—of this precode film: It’s about an open marriage! In 1932! At one point she declares: “Gentlemen, I give you the holy state of matrimony, modern style: single lives, twin beds and triple bromides in the morning!” Among her paramours is Charley Baxter, played by a young Cary Grant, which is about as good a fallback position as you can get.

That said, their open marriage is hardly sexy. She only does it because he keeps betraying her, and because she’s tired of waiting for him to say “I love you” instead of his catchphrase: “I think you’re swell.” Plus the open marriage leads to another awful Hollywood trope: The leading man realizing he was with the right woman all along. He dismisses ol’ Claire, gets his old job back, and cleans up his act. But is it too late? Joan won't answer his calls. Then he hears she's giving birth to a baby—his—and rushes to the hospital, only to find the baby died after two hours. Because of her drinking? Because of the stress? None of that is examined. Instead, she’s in her hospital room, asking for Jerry, but her father is outside her hospital room blocking Jerry, telling him, “She doesn’t want to see you.” Jerry sneaks in anyway, discovers she has been asking for him, and she loves him. And he finally declares he loves her, too.

And that’s our happy ending. Except for the stillborn baby, already forgotten.

Ne’er do well
Modern critics also pay attention to “Merrily” because its director is Dorothy Arzner, one of the few women who regularly directed studio features during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

So any of them anything? Here’s plot snippets via IMDb:

  • A young American girl falls in love with a handsome nobleman…
  • A couple leaves their small-town life to go to New York in an effort to make it on Broadway…
  • A woman’s marriage is threatened when she discovers her husband's longstanding affair.
  • A ne'er-do-well husband disappears with their son…
  • A man left by his wife gets drunk and marries a chorus girl.
  • A businessman is in love with his secretary but she deserts him for another man. When she realizes her mistake…
  • A domineering woman marries a wealthy man for his money…

Mostly melodrama, none of it memorable. “Merrily” is her third highest-rated, 6.9, and it ain’t much. Good title, though.

Posted at 07:39 AM on Wednesday December 07, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s