In her 21-year career, director Dorothy Arzner directed 16 films, with three others uncredited, and one in which she served as a sequence director. In the history of filmmaking, a career like Arzner’s is largely forgotten between the capitalist and sexist views which pervade the industry and those who lead the discussion on cinema history. There’s a reason the general populace doesn’t know who Allice Guy-Blaché is despite her significant contributions to cinema in the form of advanced directorial techniques, running a studio, and direction (to name a small few). With remastering and restoring older films driven by public interest, it’s fantastic when films are given attention simply for their historical significance, like with Arzner’s 1932 adaptation Merrily We Go To Hell. Though the film itself was controversial in terms of reception, the timing of its release was incredible, landing toward the end of prohibition but just before the enacting of the Motion Picture Production Code, known commonly as the Hays Code. Arriving from Criterion, Arzner’s Merrily We Go To Hell hits shelves with a new 4K digital transfer, uncompressed audio, and two extended special features to explore the film and the director herself.
Adapted from the 1931 story I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan from author Cleo Lucas, Merrily We Go To Hell follows serial drunk Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) and debutante Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) as they board a rollercoaster of a romance. He’s a failed playwright-turned-reporter and she’s the heir of the Prentice Estate, yet there’s something immediate in their connection that pulls them together. However, something else pulls at Jerry: his long-lost love Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen) and the drink. With mutual infidelity the chosen remedy, Mr. and Mrs. Corbett quickly learn what they’re willing to lose and, perhaps, regain, for love.
The premise for Merrily is an interesting one, especially through the lens of history. Film, like any other art form, is influenced by the events surrounding its formation. This is why the notion of removing politics from art is the most ridiculous thing, because politics inform life and life informs art. In the case of Merrily, take notice of the premise as it relates to Jerry. He’s an alcoholic, though more aptly described as a dipsomaniac, given his intense need to consume alcohol, even to the point of taking it from others. Having a lead character with a foible is fine, but why alcohol and why is there a desire to drink so strong? Consider that Prohibition in the United States lasted from January 1920 – December 1933, with the novel published in January 1931 and the film released in June 1932. Prohibition didn’t make alcohol go away by deeming it illegal, it birthed speakeasies and NASCAR (by way of moonshine). The need, nay, the desire to drink remained and, for some, that became a mighty pull and this is presented in Merrily. This is discussed briefly by film historian Cari Beauchamp in the video essay included as one of two supplemental features on the disc where Beauchamp points out the significant amount of alcohol featured in the film in defiance of Prohibition, which the country was slowly coming out of at the time. Interestingly, the drinking isn’t treated with shame or punishment nor is it celebrated or excused. Keep in mind that this is before the implementation of the Hayes Code (a self-enforced form of censorship by the Motion Picture Industry which, years after it stopped in 1954, still has ripples being felt today). Film before then took a very different approach to storytelling, often being a bit more realistic in depictions of life and love. For instance, interracial or homosexual love became forbidden, as did making fun of religion, and trafficking drugs. The Hayes Code put moral implications on depictions of material that weren’t always there before. In the case of Merrily, this meant that the film could feature prominently grown adults drinking copious amounts of alcohol without the alcohol itself being viewed as the anchor for marital strife.
Talking about being ahead of its time, consider the love story as depicted in the film. Joan instantly makes it clear that she’s been reading about Jerry before their meeting, implying a certain level of education and awareness; while Jerry is introduced as a drunkard who’s barely a reporter. The expectation is he’s only interested in her due to the large amount of money she’s set to inherit and they deal with that quickly. Would you give up your partner for $30K matched to inflation? (That’s just under $1 million, as of this writing.) Instead, the drama comes from the fact that Jerry wants to love Joan completely but he’s so hung up on his loss of success as a playwright and his lost love that when he gets success again and his ex stars in the show, the two fall back into each other. The expectation here is that Joan will throw him out, yell up a storm, run back to her father, all the typical story beats we see today. What does Joan do? She proclaims that they’ll have a “modern marriage” where she can have boyfriends if he’ll have his girlfriend. It’s not until a health crisis suddenly arises where the fun for Joan ends and Jerry gets his own kick in the rear. Neither of them are treated as victims by the narrative, each making active choices to stay in a toxic relationship in which neither is harmed nor insulted by the other. It’s their unwillingness to let each other go from the start of the relationship that’s toxic, making the ultimate conclusion of the film strange instead of hopeful. Leading up to that moment, however, is fascinating through a historic lens. Take the first real date that Jerry and Joan go on, for instance. He arrives way too late at her place, earns her forgiveness, then he asks if she wants to go for a drive. He candidly states that he can call a taxi and she offers up her car. The next scene is introduced by way of a loud noise, which the camera pulls back to reveal is nothing more than the car horn being pressed by Jerry’s arm as he holds Joan in an intimate embrace. Scenes like this, especially on a “first date” would be considered inappropriate by the Hayes Code. The Hayes Code was abandoned in 1954 and yet 2018’s Blockers is considered revolutionary for its depiction of positive feminine sexuality. Do the math. The Hayes Code sent cinema backward, not forward.
As a piece of art, Merrily being watched and discussed is valuable to better understand the filmmaking industry as it exists today. So many think that Hollywood is the birthplace of American cinema, when it was — no bullshit — Flushing, New York, before shifting to New Jersey. Merrily may have been shot in Hollywood, but it still creates an opportunity to look at where cinema was in its early days compared to now, how the events of history shifted the content of narratives, and how false morality continues to foist an outdated perspective of sexuality even today. If there were films being made about same-sex or interracial couples before the Hayes Code, that means there was a demand for them, which implies a different level of acceptance or understanding than now. That’s worth investigating and is why preserving stories like Merrily matters. Personally, I didn’t care for the film much because there’s not enough reason for this couple to be together and the ending is so rushed as to give audiences whiplash. I’m not alone as Beauchamp spends some time discussing the initially critical response to the film. But while the film itself may not be, in my view, worth a second visit, it’s worth keeping around so that we can watch and then discuss it. That’s what makes this film, and others, valuable. Especially when considering that Arzner herself was not only one of the few working female directors at the time, but also an out lesbian. Why isn’t her name as well-known as others?
For those interested in learning more about Arzner, Criterion offers only two supplemental features on this release. The first is a 26-minute video essay by Beauchamp that explores not just the film’s history via cast and crew stories, but centers it around Arzner. If you picked up the 2020 release of Dance, Girl, Dance, Beauchamp’s video essay is a nice accompaniment to critic B. Ruby Rich’s video on Arzner included with that release. As for the second piece, the nearly 47-minute documentary 1983 Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women from documentarians Katja Raganelli and Konrad Wickler examines the life of Arzner from a more anthropological perspective. They visit her home, other places she lived, and examine her legacy. While these two pieces may not seem like much from the outside, when you put them with the aforementioned video from Rich and the interview with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, a student of Arzner’s, from the Dance, Girl, Dance release, a complete picture of who Arzner was as a person is formed. Like with other Criterion releases, this one also includes a fascinating essay from film scholar Judith Mayne, a specialist in feminine cinema and who has published works on Arzner.
In terms of the transfer itself, the 4K restoration was made using a 35 mm composite duplicate negative at Roundabout Entertainment in Burbank, California. The team removed manually as many imperfections as possible using MTI Film’s DRS and Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used to clean up visual noise. The audio is the original monaural soundtrack remastered from a 35 mm optical track. There is no mention of who oversaw or approved the audio/video restoration.
With a rather nice home release like Merrily We Go To Hell, it’s important to note that while the film as a whole didn’t work for this reviewer, that doesn’t mean it didn’t include fine performances from the cast and the expected strong direction from Arzner. It’s just that the narrative, as presented, asks too much of the audience with too little to support it. Given the 83-minute runtime, the first notion might be to add content, but that’s not the issue. The issue is what the narrative offers within the runtime. By simply tweaking a few things here and there, the audience might care a bit more about these two seemingly star-crossed lovers than we do.
Merrily We Go To Hell 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 (46:54)
- New video essay by film historian Cari Beauchamp (26:34)
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by film scholar Judith Mayne
- New cover by Sonia Kretschmar
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection beginning May 11th, 2021.