Pre-Code March in Merrily We Go to Hell
By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry
Merrily We Go to Hell opens with a deceptively jovial score – if your eyes were closed, you’d bet money that you were about to take in a zany Marx Brothers feature or, at the very least, a film containing an overabundance of carnival scenes. But although this film contains the word “merrily” in the title, and while has its share of lightweight, comedic touches, there’s really nothing merry about it.
A first-rate pre-Code offering released by Paramount in 1932, Merrily We Go to Hell was loosely based on a novel by Cleo Lucas, I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan – the financially struggling studio changed the name in the hopes of attracting more moviegoers (although at least one newspaper refused to print the film’s title in its ads).
In a nutshell, Merrily stars Fredric March as Chicago newspaper columnist and aspiring playwright Jerry Corbett, and Sylvia Sidney as canned goods heiress Joan Prentice. After an imaginative “meet-cute,” Jerry woos Joan, who agrees to marry the fun-loving writer despite his obvious penchant for drink, and although he herself warns, “Any girl would be a fool to marry a man like me.” (It’s Jerry’s favorite drinking toast, incidentally, that provides the film’s title.) Jerry even tells Joan, early on, that he prefers the company of men to that of women: “I figured out a long time ago that a punch in the nose heals much quicker than a broken heart.”
Once married, Jerry manages to stay sober while struggling to fulfill his dream to become a playwright, but he dives headfirst back into the bottle again when his play is finally produced, and when his old flame, Claire (Adrianne Allen), is cast in the starring role, the film leaves all semblance of comedy behind. The remainder of this 83-minute feature packs in adultery, open marriage, and family tragedy before winding up in a somber but satisfying clinch at the end.
Fredric March’s Jerry is the heart and soul of the movie – his face is the first we see when the film opens, on the patio at a cocktail party, crouched behind a table filled with liquor bottles, flicking bottle tops in the direction of the partygoers inside. “Silly people,” he slurs, chuckling to himself. “I don’t like that fellow with the little mustache.” Political correctness aside, Jerry actually makes a rather charming drunk (at first), unsteadily maneuvering his way around the patio, warbling a little ditty about gingerbread and crème de menthe, and vowing to stop drinking “next Tuesday afternoon at three o’clock sharp.” It’s no wonder Joan falls for him, hard. His antics are less amusing, though, when they include showing up at his engagement party clad in tuxedo and top hat – and passed out in the back seat of his best buddy’s car, and placing a corkscrew bottle opener on Joan’s hand at their wedding because he has misplaced the ring.
March offers a fascinating portrait of a man battling to overcome his demons – not only against alcohol, but against the lingering lure of his first love. His inner weakness is nearly his undoing, which is demonstrated most compellingly when, on the opening night of his play, he announces his intentions to go to Claire unless his wife prevents him. “If you love me, you’ll lock that door so I can’t get out,” he says, pitifully unable to stop himself. March infuses this scene with pathos and heartbreaking frailty, invoking our sympathy even as he leaps headlong into an affair. We are captivated even more by March’s superb performance toward the film’s end, as he fights to regain Joan’s love, never giving up, even in the face of obstinate opposition from Joan’s well-meaning father (George Irving).
The film features in a small role, a young Cary Grant, as an actor with whom Joan unhappily engages in a dalliance of her own, and Esther Howard, looking blonde and sophisticated (and nothing at all like the dame with a “face like a bucket of mud” that she portrayed in the 1944 film noir Murder, My Sweet). Merrily also co-stars Skeets Gallagher, in one of his patented best pal roles, offering such bon mots as “What this world needs is more blondes like that and more men like me,” and “What this country needs is less ventilation and more smoke.”
Merrily was directed by Dorothy Arzner, the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America, who is credited with fostering March’s rise to fame, having also helmed him in three previous films, The Wild Party (1929), Sarah and Son (1930), and Honor Among Lovers (1931). Upon the film’s release, March was praised in The New York Times for his “excellent” acting and in Variety for his “light and graceful” performance.
(One more interesting note – March’s co-star Sylvia Sidney, who also appeared with the actor in 1934’s Good Dame, once remarked that March had “the reputation of being a ladies’ man. But he never laid a hand on me, never made a pass at me! Freddie was happily married. He’d tease me by saying, ‘Look at those boobs!’ or ‘Look at that toosh!’ But it was all in fun.”)
Merrily We Go to Hell is one of six pictures included in Universal’s Pre-Code Hollywood Collection. The set also includes such gems as The Cheat (1931) and Hot Saturday (1932), but for my money, the set is worth looking into for March’s performance in Merrily alone. Check it out.
You only owe it to yourself.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the blog Shadows and Satin, which is lovingly devoted to her two cinematic passions, the pre-Code and film noir eras. Karen is also the author of Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, and editor of the bi-monthly, hard copy film noir newsletter (now also available in electronic form!), The Dark Pages.