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The Decade After The Decade Before: Merrily We Go to Hell

Merrily We Go to Hell, Dir. Dorothy Arzner, Universal Studios: Pre-Code Hollywood Collection

One of the most famous misnomers in American cultural history, “pre-code” has the same romantic character as pre-dawn. When sound revolutionized the film industry in 1929, the pro-censorship forces that had been working ad-hoc on state-by-state bases recognized that their jobs were about to get much harder. Conversely, once filmmakers began integrating conversations into their plotlines, it became even more awkward and expensive to appease these local censors by recutting films to fit local mores. In 1930, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association standardized what would and would not be allowed on screen. But it wasn’t until 1934 that a full-time censor was hired to prevent the production of scripts that did not adhere to the code’s guidelines. Immediately prior, the film industry carried on like a lame duck administration, trying to make a dramatic impact before their power was abruptly cut off. It was these incurably-secular, socially-liberal, sexually-libertarian pictures made between 1929 and 1934 that, in fact, created the long-lived stereotype of Hollywood values. The censors were so outraged by the films of the early 1930s that they banned the revival of most of them. Only today are we able to enjoy these films.

Sylvia Sidney's face © Paramount Pictures.
Sylvia Sidney's face © Paramount Pictures.

Recent box sets of not-seen-in-decades pre-code films are enriching our perspective of both the lurid and sensitive aspects of early Depression filmmaking. The Forbidden Hollywood DVD series from Universal (which acquired Paramount Pictures’ back catalog) has just released its most unexpectedly wonderful offering.

Merrily We Go to Hell should have been a starmaking turn for Sylvia Sidney (Ladies of the Big House, Mars Attacks!), but the film sat in the vaults since its release in 1932 and she became a lesser known cult icon. Only now available, it remains singular for its bleary-eyed hauntingness. This portrayal of alcoholic co-dependency stars Sidney as Joan, a moderately sheltered beauty who falls irrevocably for Jerry, a hard-drinking writer (weren’t they all?) played with no grandstanding by Frederic March (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde/Design for Living). Neither Sidney nor March are household names any longer, but they had faces. My God, did they have faces. Sidney, a full figured beauty by the boyish standards popular in the jazz age, possessed a perfectly-complected, heart-shaped marvel of a face, that when innocent looked exactly like a kewpie doll, and when hardened, took on the appearance of someone who had just witnessed a drive-by shooting. She emoted every injury and cruelty with grace, and the perfection of that thing atop her neck makes it near-torture to watch her dishonored and disgraced. March himself, though a type of handsome waning in popularity even in 1932, gives the viewer the feeling that he was always on the verge of inventing method acting.

About halfway through the film, Cary Grant, in one of his first screen appearances, romances Sidney. Now in an open marriage, she's intrigued by his advances—but her head still turns when March walks into the room with his own girlfriend. That’s how handsome March looks. And that’s how cold this film can be. Seeing her husband on a date in the same Harlem speakeasy, Sidney quips: “Modern marriage. Single lives, double beds, and triple bromides in the morning.” It’s a humorless joke in a deeply dark film.

Directed by Dorothy Arzner, who remains the most accomplished female director in Hollywood history, the film would be controversial were it released today, if it could even gain distribution. Its unlikely Arzner herself would be able to make much of a go in modern film, though admittedly, she was an unusual success story even in Hollywood before verticalization. An open lesbian, Arzner was the first editor credited by name, the first woman to direct a sound picture, and the only female director to make the transition from silent to talking pictures. Her biography serves to underscore the significance of Merrily We Go to Hell. One of her earliest talkies, Merrily elucidates the themes she would become most known for—the subtleties of power, the defiance required to get ahead.

Arzner was an unsurpassed caster. She turned Clara Bow into a legitimate actress and Frederic March into a star. Here, Arzner elicits an unnerving moment from Mildred Boyd, the subtle and magnificent African-American actress who could subvert the standard house-maid roles she was forced into like none other. Stock stereotypes like the black help do pop up in Merrily, as do the occasional racial potshot. Arzner rushes through these moments with a frenzied speed, like the disclaimers at the end of a radio advertisement, and the point is clear: you shouldn’t like this any more than I do. Though the script seems dated, the touching performances make the story timeless.

It doesn’t take long for Sidney to learn that March is a bad bet, a charming but recidivist drinker and philanderer. Refusing to take responsibility for his actions, he begs, “If you love me you’ll lock that door so I can’t get out.” But a self-loathing retort comes out of Sidney’s baby face: “I’m no jailer.”

Rather than leave him outright, Sidney suggests they both take lovers. Her grandmother would find her insane, she says. But in this brief moment in Hollywood history, marriage was up for revision. Design for Living became one of the most clever and adult films of the pre-code age by espousing the three-person couple, but today it’s almost impossible to talk about such arrangements without moralizing. Other films championed everything from orgies to the abandonment of marriage altogether. Though Merrily We Go to Hell comes down hard against open marriage, it rejects it because even in twos, people destroy each other way too easily. In Arzner’s eyes, inventing ever more creative sexual partnerships only creates ever more novel cruelties.

The marriage finally breaks when Sidney must watch March heavy petting with his generally reserved mistress—the typecast succubus Adrienne Allen—at the urging of their houseguests. All of the guests are bitter drunks themselves—by 1932 the gild had gone off the lily of the roaring 20s, and few still mistook revelry for happiness. Sidney watches, cheered on by the crowd, but her eyes indict the audience. Are you happy now? Is this what you paid to see? The early 1930s were marked by this frenzied sort of hedonistic one-upmanship, a levee against the Great Depression, but the cost was rarely spoken of. Here, it’s plainly stated: loving someone can cheapen you.

Merrily We Go to Hell is thoroughly a Depression-era film, set in a brutally modern world. Women are at risk of rape during the opening credits, and even Sidney’s father, the most patrician of archetypes, proves shock-proof. Though he hates March from their first introduction, his most strongly worded admonishment to his daughter is: don’t waste your time on men who don’t respect you. He’s a permissive incarnation of a shockingly permissive moment, the entirely mythical father to whom a daughter can—as they say—say anything.

Most shocking is the moment the lovers meet. Barely able to stand, March sees Sidney on a balcony at a party and offers her a cocktail. She turns it down, he turns away. He drinks another shot, then looks back to her: “Did that make you feel better?” she asks. It’s the perfect co-dependent introduction. Fear flashes in a close-up on Sidney’s eyes as March fills a glass, but her face softens when he smiles at her. Behind him she sees the rest of the raucous gathering; it’s hard to pick out the alcoholics in a room full of drunks.

March’s drunkenness gets played hard for cheap laughs. People talk in inane (possibly already outdated) slang, and repeat themselves at every opportunity. It’s never funny, though it’s hard to say if it was supposed to be. March touches on every screen convention of the alcoholic. There are long montages of benevolent bartenders, and a cavalry of friends who abandon him to his dingy room. When March doesn’t show up to his own engagement party, Sidney is so fraught that she leaves the party herself. They drive off into the darkness.

The visual language is arresting, but clinical. The script is, as well. Much of it is drivel, tasteless comedy which we can only suppose was what the audiences were assumed to want in 1932—just like today. But when the dramatic points hit, they come in speeches that are literary and guileless. When she flees her engagement party, a friend tells Sidney that she’ll make up an excuse for the couple. Sidney asks, “Why would I care about them [her friends] now?” It’s the eternal question of the abused wife. The wedding itself is a scene from a horror film.

Sidney’s claw-like fingernails hold her wobbly betrothed tightly, and having forgotten the ring, March slips a churchkey around her finger. She marries his addiction, literally. Though not a discreet metaphor, it’s near impossibly painful to watch. Her hands twitch. Along with her astounding face, Sylvia Sidney had Oscar-worthy hands.

By the end, Sidney has become a drunk herself, and both claim to have reformed. After almost nine months of estrangement, March finds her in a hospital bed. Her drinking has killed her unborn baby. She mutters March’s name in the murky room. When he walks in, he eerily lights up the room. “My baby, my baby,” she exclaims, not in mourning for the loss of their child, but in joy at their reunion. It’s incalculably cold and true: Sidney could not care less about anyone else, even her own dead child, as long as she has her addicted lover. Were there an epilogue, they’d celebrate in a bar, no doubt.  


Sarahjane Blum

The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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